December 24 Christmas Eve, How beautiful...

How beautiful…

Isaiah 52:7-10

Back in the day, lots of churches had living nativity scenes for Christmas Eve – commonly in the form of children arranged at the front of the sanctuary, dressed up in robes and angel wings from the costume room – but many churches went bigger and bolder than that. Living nativity was something for outside the church, with children and grownups both, and real live animals – a couple of sheep would do nicely, and a donkey if possible.

 Those scenes were supposed to convey the historically accurate holiness of that sacred night all those many years ago. Those scenes were meant help us to imagine what we wish it had been like: The adults standing around calmly and patiently, the animals quietly gathered as well, the baby Jesus sleeping peacefully, not fussy at all (you know the line from Away in a Manger: “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”) Mostly, those were scenes meant to symbolize the peaceful beauty of the holy family.

Was it really that way there in Bethlehem? Were the new parents satisfied with stable accommodations? Were the shepherds and their sheep welcome visitors? Did the wise men show up just then? Was the baby Jesus peaceful – or was he cold and colicky? Just how beautiful was the scene?

We had a living nativity the first year I was at my previous church, so that’s twenty-three years ago now. I can’t remember a thing about it except that someone played a practical joke on me and called me at the church the day of and told me that the church had ordered fifty bales of hay for that evening, cash on delivery -- Did I have the money? The person who did it had a good laugh about my panic, and even though I’m sure the nativity tableau must have been beautiful that night, its wiped out from my memory by the anxiety that was visited upon me.

Of course, at Christmas it is not unusual for the best of plans to take a sharp turn in the direction of the unexpected. On Christmas Eve I always sit on the edge of my seat until every candle is put out after the final verse is sung. It’s beautiful when the whole sanctuary is awash in candlelight, but it feels a bit risky at the same time. That’s a lot of flickering flames. What if something goes wrong? I have to ask myself: Does everything have to be peaceful and perfect for it to be beautiful? 

In the first page editorial of the most recent edition of the Christian Century magazine, Peter Marty tells his own story of a church’s outdoor nativity scene. He writes:

“In the front yard of the Kansas City church I served, we used to set up a huge life-size creche every December. The plywood-and-timber structure was heavy and cumbersome, and the creche always gave us fits. If there wasn’t a spotty electrical connection involving light over the manger, there were external forces at play. One year a pickup truck veered off the road and took out two (of the fiberglass) magi…Mary and Joseph were out frankincense and myrrh that Christmas.”

Then he goes on to say that the real problem, year after year, was the theft of the baby Jesus – almost like it was a sport of some kind. So it was, says Marty, that he would make frequent “bed-checks” (as he called them) to check and see whether the infant Jesus doll was still there. One morning, in 1992, he was making such a check and found not only Jesus still there, but a small gift beside him. 

Marty writes, “The handwritten label taped to the wrapping paper read, “Happy Brithday Jesus.” Birthday was misspelled. Was this a booby trap? A makeshift bomb? A candid-camera prank? Or a real gift? After deliberating on whether removing it from the manger constituted a sacrilege, I brought the package in from the cold. An office colleague and I faced the next moral quandary: Should we unwrap this present? Curiosity decided for us.”

“An old Shake ‘n Bake pork seasoning box was beneath the red paper. Inside the box were 33 cents and a piece of notebook paper with the words: Dear Jesus, Happy Brithday. Here’s some small change for you to feed someone who is hungry. I give myself to be kind to others as you were kind to other people on earth. Love, Maria”

“I knew right away who Maria was (writes Marty). She lived on our campus in the house we owned and operated for persons living with chronic mental illness. A tender soul…Maria was plagued by a collision of voices inside her head constantly…(but) she had a big heart she shared with a few whom she trusted. She seemed to know that love was the only thing she had to give away and she knew that that love came from the Lord.” 

And then he concludes with this: “For 25 years now, I’ve kept that box and note.... It sits in my desk drawer as a sacred relic of sorts, something I’m unwilling to part with. It may have been intended for Jesus, but it keeps on giving a beautiful reminder to me: love is the best thing I have to give away…” (Christian Century, December 20, 2017, p.3)

I read that and you know, I imagine, what word caught my eye: beautiful. For 25 years now, I’ve kept that box and note… It sits in my desk drawer as a sacred relic of sorts, something I’m unwilling to part with. It may have been intended for Jesus, but it keeps on giving a beautiful reminder to me: love is the best thing I have to give away…

It’s a word that Isaiah uses too in his prophesy: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” How beautiful.

Yes, how beautiful are the symbols and the scenes that commemorate this night, but even more, how beautiful are the gifts given from generous hearts, how beautiful are the efforts at forgiveness and reconciliation, how beautiful are the pledges and promises like Maria’s, made to the infant Savior: I give myself to be kind to others as you were kind to other people on earth.

Look: find something beautiful this night – look for something beautiful, see it and give thanks for it. It could be the beauty of the special symbols and actions we share in this service this night but it could be something else as well. Find something beautiful this night: the hope of peace, the kindness of a stranger, the wonder of a child, a silent prayer for the healing of the world.

It might be where you expect it – in the stable, in the manger – or it might be where you were least likely to look. But find it, because this is the night when beauty is born again, when the message of peace and salvation is sweetly offered into our lives, when all is calm and all is bright, when love’s pure light radiant, beams from the face of Christ.

Thanks be to God for all that is precious and holy and beautiful this night.

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

December 24, 2017 -- evening