Today, if you go to the site of Jesus’ birth, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you will find a crowded and noisy place filled with people from all over the world. These are pilgrims who have made the journey through checkpoint and contested borders to the holy place; folk who have come from afar. The church itself is the oldest place of Christian worship in continuous use, but at the heart of the building is a cave that lies beneath it all, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. To approach, you descend into darkness, through the rugger scrum of devout worshippers, into a crowded chamber below. Suddenly you turn a corner, and the cave is filled with light.
Our Gospel tonight tells the story of that birth, over two thousand years ago. The event itself was obscure, of no particular note, only chronicled after the fact by the Gospel writer Luke. It involved ordinary people, none of them distinguished in the eyes of the world. No great crowds were present, unless we count the army of angels who appeared to the shepherds. No selfies were taken by fans with the Holy Family.
Then, as now, Bethlehem lay in occupied territory, and Mary and Joseph had to cross a border to get there. They didn’t count much to the emperor Augustus or the governor Quirinius, those vaunted celebrities and powers in the land, though Mary herself had secret knowledge of her son’s revolutionary significance. “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19), as it says in our reading, no doubt trying to wrap her mind around the significance of what had been said to her by prophets, angels, and shepherds.
Though his birth was concealed in the cave that served as a stable, in a backwater territory of a mighty empire, Mary’s son turned the world upside down; as it says later in Luke’s Gospel, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel…” (Lk. 2:34). The humble were lifted up, and the mighty were cast down. The glory of the child born in a manger threw shade on the imperial splendor.
Jesus Christ came into the world to transform what was ordinary into what is extraordinary. G.K. Chesterton says somewhere that such is the power of the Gospel message that it is impossible for people like us to look at a picture of a mother and child without seeing the glimmer of divinity (The Everlasting Man). Since that first Christmas, the Gospel has grabbed our imaginations and will not let them go.
In other words, the Shutterfly Christmas card received with a picture of our friend’s family, no matter how anodyne or secular the sentiment, is forever stamped with the story of Bethlehem. Hearth and home have become the dwelling place of God, not because these things are intrinsically sacred (they’re not), but because the Son of God has made his home with us. What is ordinary has become extraordinary.
In this season, even the elements themselves speak a Gospel word. The frozen landscape itself is imprinted with the coming of the Son of Man. Those of us who have ventured out into what the poet John Milton called “the Winter wild” have caught a glimpse of the deep freeze of human hope. “It was the Winter wild, / While the Heav’n-born child, / All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies; / Nature in awe to him / Had doff’t her gaudy trim, / With her great Master so to sympathize…” (On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity). Nature itself, bare and unadorned in this season, reflects our desperate straits, our deep need for help, preparing the way for God’s grace and love.
Tonight we come, like the shepherds, to see the thing that has taken place which the Lord has made known to us. We, like Mary, wrap our minds around the words we have heard. What was obscure has now eclipsed everything else. The child born in Bethlehem has transformed the world, turning our darkness into light. What is ordinary has become extraordinary, as Jesus Christ takes human flesh and makes his home with us. May God bless you in this holy season, in the midst of this “Winter wild.”