By Kristine Blaess
When my husband Michael and I first married we bought an ebony nativity made in Zaire. I love it for its sleek, dark figures and the beauty of the wood. This set has Mary and Joseph. The shepherds are African bushmen standing silently with spears instead of crooks, watching over their sheep and the baby Jesus resting in the manger. And the wise men kneel with crowns on their heads, bearing their gifts for the newborn king.
One year our son also came to love the set, particularly the baby Jesus, who is the size of a pinkie and fits perfectly into a toddler’s little fist. We played with the nativity, arranging and rearranging. We played with the baby Jesus, and always returned it to the cradle when we were done, until one day we didn’t.
Over the next weeks we looked high and low for the baby. We looked under beds, in the couch, in cabinets. . . how many places in a house can baby Jesus hide? We finally acknowledged that Jesus was gone, and our nativity would no longer have a baby.
Easter came, and as we celebrated the empty tomb we laughed about our empty manger.
Then the morning before Pentecost, as we made toast, the toaster burst into flame, the flames licking the bottom of the cabinet above.
When the flames died down and our hearts quit racing, Michael pulled out the bread and noticed something – a giant dark crumb, perhaps? – lodged at the bottom of the toaster. Reaching into the toaster, he came out with something dark and ashy. It was our baby Jesus. Baby Jesus had been in the toaster for months. Who knows how many times he had been toasted? But he still looks good — that dark ebony wood hides the char, and anyway, every life picks up some scorch marks over time, doesn’t it?
As we hear the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke tonight, our hearts sing as the ancient story resonates within us. Mary and Joseph have arrived in Bethlehem and Jesus is born and laid in the manger because there was no room for them in the Inn. We sing along with the angels as they sing “Gloria!” and we imagine what it would be like to be with the shepherds in the fields, watching their flocks by night, and having the host of heaven and the glory of the Lord shine in the sky around them.
In the background are the characters that we will not meet until this Sunday and next Sunday as we read in the Gospel of Matthew. These are characters that did not come with our ebony Nativity, and probably not with yours, either.
In the background are the soldiers, marching. Bethlehem, and all of Judea are under the power of Rome. The Roman army is an occupying force in Judea, enforcing a peace, the Pax Romana, that is at times more violent and brutal than peaceful. The soldiers are there to enforce the rule of Caesar Augustus and of King Herod who was appointed King of the Jews under the authority of Rome.
King Herod ruled the Jews ruthlessly, even murdering his wife, several sons, and other relatives. We will come to learn that King Herod is terrified most of all by the birth of this child, Jesus, who will one day supplant him as king.
Even though the soldiers and King Herod are not parts of our nativity sets, their shadows loom large over this blessed evening. All is not well in this holiest of lands on this holiest of nights. Violence and oppression are just beyond our sight.
Which is what makes this nativity tonight resonate all the more deeply with us. We come to celebrate together tonight – we celebrate the birth of a child, the newborn king. We celebrate the warmth and wonder of family, of community. We celebrate, because even as adults we long for the return of hope – hope that everything that has gone wrong will be made right, and everything that has broken will be made new.
We resonate with the soldiers marching and this ruthless king, trembling at the birth of a baby, and the shadows they cast over the nativity, because there are shadows that cast their darkness over us, too.
We live in this land and in this life where light and hope and joy are overcast by shadows. They are with us tonight, even as we are dispelling them together with song and story and candlelight.
But we know that waiting outside these doors for us are loneliness and anxiety, illness, the worries, and burdens that we set down for an evening when we came in here. We worry over the state of our families, the state of our nation, the state of our world. Our singing together, our joy in this community have real power against the shadows that lurk. And so we rightly sing and rejoice together to push back the darkness.
But the shadows also remind us why we need and why we trust in a Savior who is more than a baby. The shadows remind us why we need and why we trust in a Savior who, at the end of his life, came to us through fire of the cross.
Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus. And we celebrate Jesus who, through his death and resurrection entered and defeated the fires of hell. We celebrate Jesus, whose Spirit came to the disciples on the day of Pentecost as flames of fire over the heads, and whose Spirit comes to us afresh tonight, igniting our hearts with his love.
Jesus comes to us as a baby in the manger, and he comes to us as Lord. Doing so, he turns our lives around. He lights fires in our hearts and fires under our feet. He challenges us. He changes us. He heals us. He makes us alive again. Jesus, born to us this night, will season us with his holy fire, and will bring us home into his glory.
The Rev. Dr. Kristine Blaess is rector of St. Paul’s, Murfreesboro, Tenn.