Recently, we got together for dinner with Holly, her husband and their little one, who’s just over a year old. As we lingered at the table over the remains of stew and salad, Holly, and our eldest child, Nyix, reminisced about the time Holly spent as our Sunday babysitter—how tiny Nyix was when Holly first met them, how Nyix loved playing church as a toddler, and of course how they huddled in the basement that unforgettable Spring Sunday of the tornado. There was one story I hadn’t heard before, though. Holly said that one day when Nyix was three or four, they told her, “I remember being born.” Holly replied, “Are you sure? What was it like?” And Nyix said, it was like “Ahhhh,” as she put her hands to her sided and wiggled.
It seems like there are important things we know when we are small that we forget as we grow older. If being born feels like “ahhh” I can relate. That’s about what parenting has felt like to me—as joyful, terrifying, and disorienting as an upside-down roller coaster. Suddenly, our lives revolved entirely around feeding and changing this sweet, helpless little being. Then we needed to gate the stairs and hide away all the choking hazards. With walking came running, bouncing, climbing, roller skating. And with talking came “why” and all the other unanswerable questions. Messes, oh the messes never end! And yet, somehow, they still take me by surprise. So many tough moral dilemmas. How do I nurture attachment while also setting limits? YouTube. What if my child only wants to eat cheese? How much can I afford to spend on hair dye?
Getting back to the baby in the manger . . . He’s not a teenager—yet, this child came into the world under less-than-ideal circumstances. The baby’s parents were not ready. I doubt they had read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. They got pregnant before they were married, which, in those days, was a crisis that threw their lives into turmoil. Then Caesar decreed that everyone travel to their ancestral towns to be counted and taxed. That was about seventy miles on foot, four or five days’ strenuous travel at minimum. No exceptions for pregnant people about to give birth. No mercy for poor people who couldn’t afford the risk and expense. I bet they felt sort of like “ahhhhh.”
Today, it’s the same, isn’t it? Children are born to families without stable housing to parents who must work yet can’t afford childcare, to undocumented immigrants and refugees seeking asylum. Children are born to people who don’t have a script, people who make mistakes, people who are learning on the job, people who need more support. Children are born into a world full of scary stuff, a world that hardly seems fit to grow up in—a world at war, a world which aches with the wounds of white supremacy, a world facing climate disaster.
What is significant, what is indeed holy, about the story we read tonight, is that when this child was born into a dangerous and difficult world at an inopportune time, to parents who are not ready, the community made space for this family. With the influx of travelers for the census, relatives squeezed into over-crowded homes. Joseph, Mary, and the baby may not have been housed in the “inn,” that is, in the usual guest room, but they were surely welcomed into the ancestral home with warm Middle Eastern hospitality. In those days, after all, people and animals lived together. Probably when the women of the house realized just how quickly the baby was coming, it was an “ahhhh!”-type moment. And yet they made room amid all the hubbub, to hold Mary’s hand, to comfort and coach her as she gave birth.
It was not only relatives who offered space for this vulnerable family. Strangers on the cold hillsides made room too. When the shepherds were visited by angels, Spirit-messengers splashing glory and song all around the starry night sky, proclaiming the unlikely news of peace on earth, the surprising promise of joy for everyone everywhere—well, I imagine the shepherds felt sort of like “ahhhh!” And yet they welcomed the wonder of this birth—the birth of a child, the birth of hope and possibility, the re-birth of an ancient way of harmony and wholeness. They pushed on through their skepticism and terror and disorientation. They left their sheep unguarded, running to see the child and his parents.
The welcome for baby Jesus extended far beyond the human world. Creation itself made room for the mystery of Creator’s birth, for the revelation that God is with us in fragile flesh and mortal breath. I love the way the piece “Nativity” by Liz Valente depicts the child ringed with attentive animal witnesses. Curly-horned sheep, Cows with moist noses, whiskered mice—all pause, all make room for the child. Even the straw takes part in the contemplation, radiant with color and light. In this shimmering moment of rest, we can see that this child is both unique and not unique at all. The infant Jesus embodies the divine, because God wants to make it clear to us that we are divine, to awaken us to the truth that creation itself is holy.
During Advent, our congregation has been focused on rest, and in fact this whole year we will explore the practice of Sabbath. In her book Rest Is Resistance, Tricia Hersey, the founder of The Nap Ministry, portrays rest as an essential act of liberation amid what she calls “grind culture”—the collaboration of white supremacy and capitalism. Grind culture, she observes,
Views our divine bodies as machines. We ignore our bodies’ need to rest and in doing so, we lose touch with Spirit. Our rest is centered on connecting and reclaiming our divinity, given to us by our birth. . . . Our collective rest will change the world because our rest resides in a Spirit of refusal and disruption. Rest is our protest. Rest is resistance. Rest is reparations. (p. 12)
Make no mistake—the unique yet universal story of birth, the divine word of God with us and our world, the message of good news and great joy, of sacred rest and renewal for all creation—is always disruptive. We are not ever prepared to receive this child, not really. Tonight, we are tied up with a variety of preoccupations and expectations—our own and those of others. Cooking, shopping, and wrapping. Sermon writing. Family tensions. Money concerns. COVID complications. Blizzarding snow. Worries about loved ones. Kids buzzing with sweets and anticipation. Loneliness. The ache of grief.
Make room, amid everything else, to be with this little one and all that he has to teach us and give us—that’s the call of the nativity story. If we follow the lead of the relatives, the shepherds, and the animals ringing the manger, if we make room for holy disruption, then we, too, will come to know that God is with us and that we are with God. Amen.