Jesus was born long ago and Jesus is born today. This is a mystery and tonight we enter this mystery. We are this mystery. I discovered Sarah Bessey when a friend posted her reflection, “Why Everything You Know About the Nativity Is Probably Wrong.” On her website, Bessey describes herself as “Writer, sometimes preacher, recovering know-it-all.” In her post she describes the birth of her own son, Joseph, saying:
His was an unintended, unattended birth in our building’s parkade. My labour went faster than we had expected and so I delivered him next to our Chevy Trailblazer. . . . We wrapped him up in clean paint cloths from my husband’s trunk while we waited for the arrival of the ambulance.
Bessey says that she had always imagined the birth of Jesus to have happened in a similar space, both physically and emotionally—in a smelly, cold barn, to young, lonely, overwhelmed parents full of fear and grief. “This year,” she muses, “I have been so fortunate to learn that I was wrong.” Reading a book about Middle Eastern culture, by scholar Kenneth E. Bailey, she realized she had completely misunderstood the nativity. “For starters,” she writes,
Jesus wasn’t born in a barn, folks. Middle Eastern homes of that time did not have the stable for the animals separate from the home at all. Instead, the home was usually made of two rooms: one for the family and the animals and another one at the back or on the roof for the guests. . . . So the story is actually one of hospitality—the home where Mary and Joseph stayed was not a guest room but an actual family room.
Further, Bessey argues, we have read this story as one of isolation when it is really about community. Mary and Joseph, she writes,
were not travelling alone to Bethlehem as strangers. This was their family ancestral home. They were likely part of a travelling community of family members all headed to a place ready to welcome them for the census. It would have been unheard of for them to be alone on the road, let alone be utterly friendless in Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary probably would have been welcomed immediately into almost every single home in the town given their lineage, let alone the standards of hospitality at the time. They were well known, well respected, and likely well loved.
The mystery illuminated on this night is that creation bears God. The birth of a peasant boy in Bethlehem—not rich by material standards yet whole-heartedly welcomed into the wealth of a living, loving community surrounded by the warmth of animals, the care of midwives and the wisdom of ancestors. This revised version of a familiar story reveals the truth that has been true from the very beginning: creation bears God. The divine light shimmers through the whole vast story of earth—from the first fiery bang that birthed planet earth to the emergence of a tiny tender spark of life in the primordial ocean; from the evolution of species and the dominance of humankind to this time of climate chaos in which we must redefine who we are and rediscover our belonging to the world.
“Blessed are you who bear the light in unbearable times.” I’m thinking of a friend who has just lost her husband, and another friend whose mom suddenly left this world three years ago yesterday. I’m thinking about of those whose addictions imprison them and about their loved ones who feel, and may in fact be, helpless. I’m thinking about how many of us struggle with anxiety and depression, and what it’s like to parent a little one with mental health challenges. I’m thinking of people I know who, while learning English, going to school, working night jobs and caring for sick family members are also living with the constant stress of the fear that immigration authorities will find them. And I’m thinking of how, when I’ve flipped on the radio to the impeachment hearings I’ve found that I truly can’t stand to listen to the madness that has engulfed our nation.
On his last Christmas, a few months before he was executed for his part in a failed plot to kill Hitler, the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words from his prison cell to his fiancée, Maria:
I have had the experience over and over again that the quieter it is around me, the clearer do I feel the connection to you. It is as though in solitude the soul develops senses which we hardly know in everyday life. Therefore I have not felt lonely or abandoned for one moment. You, the parents, all of you, the friends and students of mine at the front, all are constantly present to me. Your prayers and good thoughts, words from the Bible, discussions long past, pieces of music, and books—[all these] gain life and reality as never before. It is a great invisible sphere in which one lives and in whose reality there is no doubt.
The shadows in us fight to smother God’s blaze. And yet the flame of God’s oneness with us is alive in creation, alive in the altar of our hearts, alive in the roots of the trees and the wings of the birds, alive in our homes and schools and workplaces and even in our government. Tonight, the light of God is praying in us. This light is beckoning to us across the sweep of a cosmic story, a story that declares: creation bears God. The light and the courage and the hope of the holy one is indigenous to us. The Irish theologian and poet, Padraig O’Tuama invites us to a kind of prayer that is about this wider, deeper view of why we’re here and who we are. He says:
To pray is to imagine. And in imagining, we may imagine that we are imagined by something Bigger. . . . Light of Lights, Story of stories, in whom our own chaos and creation are contained. Holy, holy human one.
Jesus was born long ago and Jesus is born today. This is a mystery and tonight we enter this mystery. We are this mystery. As the poet Lucille Clifton reminds us, “angels have no wings and they wear their own clothes.” The light of God is kindled in us. The message of God’s peace and joy for all is on our lips and in our hands.
 19 December 1994; Letters and Papers from Prison. pp. 418–19
 Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, pp xii–xiii