A reflection by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay
The First Nowell…. is so familiar, we hardly need to retell it as we do every Christmastide. The census, the journey, Bethlehem so crowded, the inn, the stable, the beasts, the birth, the annunciation by angels to shepherds, the shepherds hastening to see the infant, who will shepherd, a guide and safeguard to his people, swaddled, lying in the manger. Mary pondering the unfolding wisdom in her heart. And meanwhile the magi, the kings or wise men – would that they were both – on their own long pilgrimage, following a most brilliant star, – and still, just following a star, after all, and sharing their prophecy with Herod, who seeks to use them for his own purpose – to betray the child to him – and so he sends the on in their search. Their arrival that same extraordinary night. Gold, frankincense, myrrh. The dream of Herod’s true purpose and off they go, home by their other way. Joseph’s own dream, from which he takes Mary and his new son home by yet another way, the very long way of Egypt, to keep their family safe.
If you were listening closely to the gospels, you may have noticed: the only way to get the fullness of that whole story is when the accounts are combined. Otherwise it’s a house or a stable. Shepherds or wise men. And actually the three kings, the subjects of that beloved carol, are nowhere at all to be found.
Both gospels tell the story of the birth of an extraordinary leader with a transformational message of love and respect, for whom even his birth is a representation of his life’s message; his birth calls forth and unites so many in caring. And yet, we only get the full range of the miracle, the beauty, the wonder, when we ourselves combine those elements that are distinct, that belong to one or the other of the original, beautiful, gospel accounts. Think of a creche. Who do we see there? Mary, Joseph and the baby in a manger. A crude stable structure. A cow. A donkey. One or two sheep. One or two shepherds. Three kings or wise men, bearing gifts. Everyone’s dressed in flowing, Eastern robes. One or many angels. Light in the stable, shining out warm and golden into the dark, frosty night that is lit from above by a great star. Ah there it is. The Christmas story in all its fullness, in all its goodness.
What a holy scene this is. A safe birth. A safe family. People and animals together, taking in the miracle of a birth, and a child in squalor and splendor, utterly helpless and mighty, just arrived in this world, already going to heal the world, already starting to heal the world because look who else is there: kings who are wise and insightful. Great kings and humble shepherds together, sharing equally, in a stable. The divine, think of it, the divine manifest and good and saving and speaking clearly to all of us. Angels and mortals, all rejoicing together. The beauty of night and the beckoning of light, warmth and love and safety in the midst of cold and want and danger. Sacredness seems present in every element. The scene is so full of so much that people long for all the world over.
The sacred present in each element seems magnified because they are all present together, animals and people, rich and poor, powerful and weak, all living things, birth, love, hope and joy, the greatest and most sacred gifts of life. Another name for Christ is Emmanuel, and in Hebrew, Emmanuel means God-is-with-us.
There is a divine spark in everything that lives and shares this planet. The gathering of living creatures to celebrate the great goodness of life, kindles those many sparks into a flame bright as a star. In Christmas, the blessing is renewed. The blessing and message of Christmas, which we celebrate here, and must take with us when we go is that the sacred is with, and in, us. And when we celebrate Christmas, we are reminded that it is our task, gifted and blessed as we all are, to do the ongoing work of humanity, that this world might become the world of that first nowell, where all people care about and for each other, where all people live in harmony with animals and nature, where everyone lives with a sense of the sacred around us, where all are warm and loved and safe, where joy abounds and our prayers for the welfare of all are finally answered, and our work for the welfare of all is finally fulfilled and everywhere, in all our ways and languages and differences and sameness echoes “Alleluia.” Alleluia. Amen.