A BABY CHANGES EVERYTHING
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
December 2, 2017; Christmas Eve
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son
and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…”
“Joseph, son of David,” says the angel, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” With those words, the life of Joseph of Nazareth changed forever.
Until that time, he’d been an ordinary Jewish man: a teknon, in the Greek, a laborer — an occupation poorly translated by the English word, “carpenter.” Let’s just say Joseph was a blue-collar kind of guy. The sort of guy who went to work with a hard hat and a lunchbox, who hauled cinderblocks around with one hand, whose fingertips were rough but whose touch on the hair of Mary his beloved was surprisingly light.
Then that day, the news came to Joseph that he was going to be a father: but not in the way he’d always expected. “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Well, that’s sure unusual. That angelic message plunged Joseph and Mary — and their relationship — into turbulent waters such as they had never imagined.
But they got through it. In those two, love triumphed over jealousy. Faith triumphed over doubt. Courage triumphed over fear.
Quite apart from angelic proclamations that the laws of nature were being suspended, first-time parenthood is a life-changing experience for anyone. On that subject, Presbyterian minister and novelist Frederick Buechner has this to say:
“When a child is born, a father is born. A mother is born too, of course, but at least for her it’s a gradual process. Body and soul, she has nine months to get used to what’s happening. She becomes what’s happening. But for even the best-prepared father, it happens all at once. On the other side of the plate-glass window, a nurse is holding up something roughly the size of a loaf of bread for him to see for the first time. Even if he should decide to abandon it forever ten minutes later, the memory will nag him to the grave. He has seen the creation of the world. It has his mark upon it. He has its mark upon him. Both marks are, for better or worse, indelible.”
Yes, a baby changes everything.
But I don’t need to tell you about that. Whether or not you yourself are a father — or a mother — you certainly know other people, at least, who’ve been through that experience. You don’t need to look very far to see new parents whose lives are upended by the demands of this new job that some have called the most important job in the world.
No one’s ever ready for it. There’s no course you can take that tells you how to do it — though some enterprising teachers have tried. There’s no way to get a certificate or diploma ahead of time, to declare that you’ve been trained, tested and are fully prepared to shepherd a new human life through the perils of this mortal existence.
As any psychotherapist will tell you, there are a great many people who spend years sorting out the mistakes their parents have made, in the course of learning that new job — and finding ways to forgive them, even as they in turn are having children of their own, and making a whole different set of mistakes. The cycle continues, generation after generation: the most important job in the world, and no one adequately trained ahead of time to do it. There’s nothing but on-the-job training. (I wonder sometimes how any of us have survived!)
It’s a crazy system, but it’s the only one we’ve got — so we all do well to make the best of it.
Which is, after all, exactly what Mary and Joseph did. They made the best of it. We know nothing about their wedding, after the angel dropped that bombshell news on them. We don’t know if they had a big ceremony anyway, studiously ignoring Mary’s growing “baby bump” — or whether they settled for the first-century Jewish equivalent of a quick trip to the courthouse.
Mary certainly learned a few things from her older cousin, Elizabeth. She and her husband Zechariah had received their own bombshell angelic announcement, about her conceiving a child in her old age. Zechariah, a local priest, was so shook up, he even lost his voice for a while — quite the occupational hazard for a man who relied on his voice for a living. Those two, in that parallel story, likewise learned how a baby changes everything.
Not many months after that, Mary and Joseph learned of the need to travel to Bethlehem. Nine months pregnant and perched on the back of a donkey, struggling to maintain her balance with that new body of hers, Mary continued to make the best of it — as did Joseph, banging on the door of every inn and guest house in Bethlehem, until he found that grumpy old character who led them back to the stable and showed them the pile of clean straw that would make do for a delivery room.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger.” A manger — a feeding-trough — was surely not the cradle she’d imagined for her little Jesus. But it was the place to which the Lord had led her, so surely it was the right place, after all.
A baby changes everything. It was true for Elizabeth and Zechariah, and for Mary and Joseph — and, my friends, it is just as true for you and me this night.
The news Mary received from the angel, that seemed so remarkable at the time, is no less remarkable in the year 2017. I’m not talking here about a miraculous conception — which is, after all, a rather insignificant detail in the full context of the story — but rather the greater miracle we call “incarnation.” Literally, the Latin means “in the flesh.” The Christian church has always maintained, as a central doctrine, that in the birth of Jesus God entered the world in exactly the same way as each one of us entered it.
We’ve all grown used to hearing it, over the years — our response may be “ho hum, tell me something I haven’t heard” — but try for a moment to imagine what that claim must sound like to anyone hearing it for the first time. God. Becoming. Human.
God is holy. That’s one of the most distinctive attributes of God, all throughout the scriptures: holiness. The word “holy” means “set apart.” Something that’s holy is fundamentally different from the life — and even the world — we know. Between the holy and the ordinary is a barrier that can be breached in only the most exceptional circumstances.
At the very center of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem there was a room known as the Holy of Holies. It was, according to ancient belief, the place in this world where God was most clearly present. No one was permitted to enter it but the High Priest, and then only on one day a year: on Yom Kippur, the dread Day of Atonement, when the High Priest would plead with the Lord not to blow away the sinful human race with one fiery blast of divine judgment.
Tradition has it that, in the latter centuries of Temple worship — before the Romans destroyed the place in the year 70 — the High Priest would not enter the Holy of Holies unless he had a rope tied around one foot. The other end of the rope was carefully tended by another priest. There was a practical reason for this. If the High Priest should be less than forthcoming in making his own confession, and if he should then fall down dead in the presence of the shekinah — the bright cloud of God’s presence that filled that little room — then his fellow priests would be able to use the rope to haul his body back out, for none of them could enter that space without themselves being struck down dead.
This is not the image of God most of us have, especially not in the Christian tradition — and for a very good reason. It all changed for us in that stable in Bethlehem: in that moment when whoever was attending Mary — it could have been a midwife, or it could have been Joseph himself — took that naked baby boy, wiped the blood from his body, and laid him, still connected by the umbilical cord, on his mother’s breast. And Mary, weeping tears of joy and exhaustion, looked into his eyes for the first time, and she was overcome with the wonder that here was not only the son she had long expected, but God in the flesh.
There was no shekinah. There was no terror, no fire of judgment. There was no instant death for this one who not only looked upon God, but gazed deeply into God’s eyes. In that stable in Bethlehem, Mary — that ordinary peasant girl, the most-favored one — was permitted to do something no High Priest of Israel had ever done. She kissed the face of God. Then she offered God her breast, and God drank life from her very body.
This baby changes everything: not only for his parents, but for the whole human race. The birth of Jesus of Nazareth changes the religion game completely, because — hearing this lovely story — you and I can realize once again, or maybe even understand for the first time, that God’s deepest desire for us is that we enter the place of holiness not by the door of fear, but by the door of love.
That same Jesus is calling you this night, calling you to himself. He’s calling you into deeper relationship with him. Everything about the life you have been living that is bitter or ugly or broken or shameful you can lay at his feet. Such burdens you need carry no longer: he will carry them for you. There is no anger, no judgment before his manger-bed. There is only grace and acceptance and love.
What child is this, who — laid to rest on Mary’s lap — is sleeping? The king of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone him.
Let us now sing the words of that ancient carol, as our personal act of praise and adoration!
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
Frederick Buechner, “Father,” in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), p. 51.