Because many of us are so familiar with the Christmas story – of Mary, and Joseph and the baby Jesus in the manger… Because year after year we hear the familiar story repeated…
…the effect of this is that we start to think of the Christmas story as a story that is predictable, a story unfolding as planned.
We know what to expect.
Everything happens as it should.
Comforting, safe and familiar.
Like slipping into an old pair of warm, cozy slippers. Ahhhh.
But, when we consider it closely, the truth is, the Christmas story is full of unpredictable, anxious moments,
and a number of things that don’t go as planned.
Imagine, for instance, pregnant Mary and Joseph in small-town Nazareth. Mary was pregnant, but not yet married to Joseph. Not good, according to Torah law.
Imagine the stress of that situation, the sense of rejection they must’ve felt amid the disapproving glares, suspicions, and unhappy family members.
Have you ever felt the stress of rejection, at school, at work, at home?
Imagine Mary and Joseph’s weariness with the ordinary, daily life tasks and civic duties within the Roman regime – as they fulfill the Roman law to make the difficult and weary four-day walking journey to Bethlehem, despite Mary’s pregnancy, all in order to be counted in a ordinary government census.
Have you ever felt weary from the daily routines and demands of ordinary life? Trying to find a job? Doing the laundry? Paying the bills? Worrying about taxes, and government and the economy?
Imagine, Mary and Joseph’s anxiety over the unpredictable, the unexpected; how, upon reaching over-crowded Bethlehem, discovering to their shock: no more rooms available!
And because Mary is about to give birth, their frantic, desperate search for a place, any place, to lie down, and have a roof overhead.
Have you ever felt anxiety when things go horribly wrong, and don’t go as planned? The unpredictable illness? The unexpected job change?
We all have felt, at one time or another, to varying degrees, exactly what Mary and Joseph were feeling.
And yet, amazingly, that doesn’t stop God from coming close to us… as the story of Mary and Joseph tells.
Many of us will have already put up a Christmas tree.
Christmas trees come in many different shapes and sizes: small, large, tall, wide, artificial or real.
Some are more ornately and exquisitely decorated. Others, more simply, crafty or homey.
There are fibre optic Christmas trees, ceramic table top Christmas trees, even, poinsettia Christmas trees, which we’ve had here at St. Matthews since the 1970s.
But, recently, I came upon a picture of a Christmas tree in a magazine that struck me as just too odd.
Get this: The upside-down, artificial Christmas tree! Have you seen any of those? Very strange.
Apparently, they were all the rage some years ago in the States. I don’t think I’ve seen any around here in the stores, or elsewhere.
Apparently, you can hang one of these from the ceiling, or you can put one in a strong and sturdy base on the floor, to keep it from tipping.
It seems they’re designed mainly for the urban dweller living in a crowded, smaller living area.
You can imagine how there’d be more space “underneath the tree” for gifts, or just the ability for people or furniture to move more easily “around the tree.”
Clever. But still, too strange. I don’t know about you, but to me, an artificial Christmas tree at least has to look like a real evergreen tree standing upright in the ground.
And yet, I had to wonder, might there be some even little redeeming aspect about this upside-down Christmas tree, or some historical precedence for it?
The historical record will point of course to the church reformer Martin Luther, who in the 16th century in Germany, first popularized the Christmas tree as we know it today.
But, interestingly, would you also know that already back in the seventh or eighth century, legend has it, that St. Boniface, also in Germany, used the example of an upside-down, triangular evergreen tree to teach others about God; God as the Holy Trinity – one God known in three persons: Creator, Holy Spirit, and Jesus.
Imagine the three triangular points of the upside-down tree, Creator God, and the Holy Spirit are at the top, at each of the top points, and Jesus is at the bottom point.
Jesus is at the bottom.
I don’t know if St. Boniface intended this, but something about “Jesus at the bottom” – rings true about what the Christmas story is all about.
God comes to us in Jesus right to the “bottom” of our lives, right to the ground of our being, right to the very real, earthy realities of our stressful, weary, anxious lives and world… Joining us even in the most lowly of places and circumstances we can imagine.
Jesus, at the bottom.
How amazing is that!
That’s because, it’s unexpected. It comes as a complete surprise.
Just as an upside-down Christmas tree catches our eye and curiosity because it’s so unexpected, so too is the mind-boggling, unexpected behaviour of our Holy God – a God who isn’t relegated to the far-flung stars, supernovas and galaxies of the universe, but rather, comes right down to the bottom of the earth, right into the middle of the stress, weariness and anxiety of our lives and world, even when the last thing on our minds is anything remotely connected to divine and sacred things.
Author Ann Lamott says there are three most important prayers we can say. They are: “Help!” “Thanks!” and “Wow!”
Christmas is a time we pray “Wow!” Wow, that God is with us and loves us, no matter what!
And this “wow” of awareness is life-changing.
It must’ve been life-changing for Nelson Mandela, as he must’ve experienced something of the divine presence right in the middle of that awful prison life he endured for 27 years… allowing him, to emerge from that dark place with a renewed sense of passion and purpose to be a force of forgiveness and reconciliation in a divided South Africa.
Can the “wow” of realizing God-with-us, also change us, so we too can be a force for good, a positive force of God’s reconciling love and forgiveness in our own lives, at home, at work and in the world?
Can the Christ Child also be born in our hearts tonight, and over the coming days, months and years, grow within us, so that we might be changed?