One rainy Saturday night last year, my wife Monique and I drove up from our home in Cambridge, UK, heading through Cottenham and down to the village of Rampton where something truly amazing was happening — a live Christmas tableau. We parked in the Village Hall car park and walked the long dark path down to the old church. Little lanterns lit the path, tiny lights still burning even in spite of the wind. As we turned the corner around the old churchyard, we saw the tent, and we walked over, hushed, to see the sight. Three sheep stared out at us, curiosity all over their faces. One pony was too busy eating the hay at his feet to notice anything else. A crew of men and women dressed as wise men and shepherds and Mary and Joseph all huddled (a few shivering) around a manger with a baby doll in it — all of them trying to stand as still as possible. We marveled, and, after a few moments, we let the cold drive us into the far warmer church, where there was plenty of room for us, along with mulled wine, minced pies, and old and new friends. In that place, there was no reason to doubt or wonder or even ask what Christmas was all about. It was all around us, welcoming us home.
St John the Evangelist wrote, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10–11, NRSV). This Jesus that John extols is the eternal Word of God. In the beginning, when God said into the darkness, “Let there be light,” Jesus was the very words that God spoke. And the created light of that primordial day was but a dim reflection of Jesus himself, the light who “shines in the darkness,” the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (1:3, 1:9; cf. 2 Cor. 4:6). For John goes so far as to say that the Word not only was with God in the beginning but is God himself.
But we see from Jesus’ life that there doesn’t seem to be any room for God in the world. Bethlehem has no room for Mary and Joseph, so the baby we celebrate on Christmas is born in a manger surrounded by curious sheep and munching ponies. King Herod has no room for a baby that might be a king, so Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus have to flee to Egypt for safety. When Jesus becomes a man, his hometown of Nazareth has no room for him or his message, so they try to throw him off a cliff. The religious leaders have no room for a teacher from the middle of nowhere, so they accuse him of blasphemy. The Romans have no room for an upstart Jewish monarch, so they nail him to a cross. Even Jesus’ own friends have no room for him in their hearts, so one of them betrays him, and the rest flee to the hills at the first sign of trouble. If Jesus really is the Word, as John writes, then it really seems that the world has no room for God.
“I got to teach Episcopal Sunday school last week, a rare privilege, and it was in a New York church so the kids had plenty to say,” American radio personality Garrison Keillor wrote in 2007.
Teenagers, and if you expect them to sit in rapt silence as you tick off points of theology, you’re in the wrong place. They made plenty of noise, and not much of it about religion….
New York is very gaudy at Christmas, and the Santa Clauses on 5th Avenue swing their bells with style, and the store windows glimmer and the city at dusk is ever magical, but all New Yorkers know that loneliness is a part of life and can’t be extinguished, not by entertainment or pharmaceuticals. I walked around the city that Sunday night — two homeless people were camped on the steps of a Lutheran church on 65th, in the midst of grand old apartment buildings, and the opera crowd was wending toward Picholine and the Café des Artistes for the lobster bisque, and on the uptown subway we all sat and did not stare at the crazy old man boogeying in his sleeveless T-shirt and singing incoherently and watching his own reflection in the glass — and how the 17 year-old kids should mesh New York with the Nativity, I was not able to tell them.
In his extended description, Keillor paints a picture of New York that is all surfaces and loneliness. It is hard on the outside, letting nothing in and nothing out. It seems there is still no room for Jesus in this inn. In a world like ours, what is Christmas all about?
In spite of a world that shuts Jesus, that shuts God, out at every turn, Christmas is about just this: God makes room for himself with us. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” John writes (1:14). With whom does he make room? With an unwed mother and a patient soon-to-be husband. With shepherds, tending their flocks by night. With wise men, gathered by ancient wisdom and a shining star. With the boys and girls of Egypt. With the children of Nazareth. With the tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, and even some of the Pharisees and Sadducees. God makes room for himself with the greatest of us and the least of us, with the richest and the poorest, with all sorts and conditions of men and women. God makes room for himself with all of us.
And where does he make room? He makes room not in a palace or a nicely appointed Bethlehem inn. He makes room for himself in a stable. He chooses for his bed a manger filled with hay. He chooses as his attendants a few sheep and a distracted pony. He takes as his raiment the swaddling clothes of the poor and the poor in spirit. On this night, God makes room for himself on earth and sets up his kingdom in the least expected places, so that sheep and ponies and drummer boys and girls can have a king that knows them inside and out. No matter how hard the darkness tried to snuff it out, as John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5).
On Christmas Eve, close to midnight, there is magic in the air. After all, “there’s only one more sleep ‘til Christmas,” as a certain frog likes to sing. Many churches will gather in those special moments to celebrate the Eucharist. Communion is one of those places where God makes room for himself by making room for Jesus. And he does that by his Holy Spirit, to make room for himself in us, when we receive the bread and wine in faith. Christmas isn’t so much about making room for God in our lives. It’s more about letting God make room for himself in us by opening ourselves up to this story that we’re about to tell together. Each of our hearts is a stable, each has its own curious sheep and distracted ponies. Each of us is where God wants to be in Jesus. Welcoming God home into the warmth of our hearts for mulled wine and minced pies is what Christmas is all about. And that’s why we gather on a night like tonight: to tell this magical story again.
On Christmas Eve, the snow on the ground, the stars in the sky, the spruce tree glittering with beloved ornaments, we stand in the dimness and sing about the silent, holy night and tears come to our eyes and the vast invisible forces of Christmas stir in the world. Skeptics, stand back. Hush. Hark. There is much in this world that doubt cannot explain…. A day in New York can show you such startling sights, including a band of doubting teenagers clustered in church on a snowy morning, that the birth of the child in the hay seems not so impossible after all, even appropriate, even necessary.
Christmas is the season not of making room for God, but of God making room for himself with us.
The featured image is “Away in the Manger” (2001) by Flickr user seanbirm. It is licensed under Creative Commons.