A few weeks ago we were talking about these big, blobby blow-up figures that people put on their front lawns at Christmas time. You know. Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, and of course, Santa.
I think these big blobby Christmas characters are reflections of us, aspects of who we are. Take Rudolf, for example. Rudolf does not belong with the other reindeer. He’s got this red nose that lights up.
Do you ever feel like you might not belong? Especially at Christmas? You might not feel as jolly or merry as the rest of us. You might be feeling loss or grief. You might feel broken this time of year, or like you have done something wrong that you regret, or maybe you just look around and see a world that is profoundly out of joint.
Even if you don’t feel like you belong, you are still a part of Christmas. Because Rudolf does belong, after all, doesn’t he. He even provides an essential service to his fellow reindeer. He helps guide them through the fog. If you are grieving or feeling broken or sinful, or if you see the world as being out of joint, you have something to offer the rest of us, an kind of guidance. Because after all, what is Christmas really about anyway? Is it not about the fact that God comes to us not just when we are jolly and merry, not just when we are looking pretty by the mistletoe, but also when we are grieving, when we feel broken? God comes to us sinners, even though we don’t deserve it. God comes to a world which is profoundly out of joint. And God loves us there, precisely there.
Rudolf reflects an aspect of who we are.
Now, there is one Christmas character which I don’t see on people’s front lawns. Her name is Befana, and she is from central Italy. Befana was offered the opportunity to come with the Magi to pay homage to the Christ Child, but she passed up the invitation because she had to sweep up her house with her broom. Then she has a change of heart and rushes out to join the Magi but they have already left. So she searches and searches for them and for the Christ Child. She has been searching ever since.
I think this reflects us. We miss opportunities to see wonder. We are too busy, too preoccupied with our lists of things to do. And yet we search. We search for the Christ Child. Sometimes we search without knowing where the Christ Child is. We might search without even knowing what or who the Christ Child is. Yes, Befana reflects us.
Now on the eve of Epiphany every year, guess what happens. This is the night before we celebrate the Magi coming to the Christ Child with their gold and frankincense and myrrh. On that night, Befana flies down your chimney on her broomstick and brings presents and candy to the children. And, (now this is important) she also will sweep up for you. (Especially if you leave her a glass of wine and some cake.)
In other words, even if we are searching, even if you have missed our opportunities to see wonder, maybe even if we still can’t find the wonder even now, we are still a part of Christmas. We can still bless.
I wish we had big blow up figures of Befana on our front lawns. She reflects a very good aspect of who we are.
Of course, the biggest, oldest, blobbiest blow up figure of them all is Santa Clause. Some people object to Santa Clause because they say he represents the commercialism of Christmas. Everyone must buy gifts to give at Christmas. Everyone must buy and buy many gifts. People say we should keep Santa away from the manger scene. Keep the commercialism as far away from the true meaning of Christmas as possible!
I would respectfully disagree. Because if you ask any kid, they will tell you that Santa does not buy the presents he brings to children. Your mom or dad might buy you presents. Likewise, your grandma or granddad, aunt or uncle. Your brother or sister might buy you a present if the grownups make them. But Santa does not buy his presents. Santa makes his presents, with the help of his elves, and by means of their special Christmas magic. This is widely known. So get with the program!
Santa has a lot more to do with giving than he does with buying. Look at this figure. Fat to the point of rolly-polly; old, with a certain kind of wisdom that includes a sense of right and wrong, even a sense of accountability and consequences, but is even more deeply under-girded by an attitude of abundance and generosity and good will.
Yes, Santa reflects some of the best of who we are.
But there is one figure that appears sometimes on people’s front lawns, who is not just a reflection of who we are. Who is not like us at all, on fact. This is the Christ Child.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” And everyone went to their home towns to be registered because you did not want to find out what would happen if you refused. When Emperor Augustus told the world to jump, the world jumped, because Emperor Augustus could make you suffer if you didn’t.
Yes, Emperor Augustus had arrived at the top. He had won the rat race. He had ascended the ladder. He had accumulated so much raw power, political clout, propaganda popularity and massive wealth that he no longer was regarded in the same way as the rest of us mere mortals. The rules did not apply to him or to his cronies in the same way that they applied to the rest of us. No, no.
You know what people called Emperor Augustus in some parts of the Roman Empire? “Son of God.” They called him, “Peace Bringer.” They called him, “Savior.”
How very like us, for Augustus to ascend, by means of his own skill and power, to the status of a god. Augustus is a reflection of who we are as well.
The Christ Child, on the other hand, is not like us. The Christ Child stands in direct contrast to Augustus. Here, this Christ Child, through whom all things were made, whose arms once stretched in motherly embrace across the unimaginable distances of the cosmos, whose fingers trilled the songs of quarks and gluons and leptons and electrons and protons and neutrons and atoms of this vast creation, this one who was completely immortal and invulnerable becomes mortal, deeply vulnerable, human.
The Christ Child, the embodiment of God on earth, will die without Mary’s breast milk to feed him. The Christ Child, the organizing principal of the universe, will die without Joseph’s loving embrace.
“For unto you, this day is born. . .a savior,” says the angel to the shepherds. Now the angel points to the Christ Child in direct contradiction to that other savior, that other son of God, Augustus. “And this shall the sign for you. You shall find,” not an emperor in a marble palace, not a general with an army stretching from one horizon to the other, but rather a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes like every other baby in the Middle East, and lying in a feed trough because there’s no room for him anywhere else.
This is different. Instead of a mortal pretending to become God. God has become mortal. This is not like us. This is absolute love. This saves.
Again, in the Gospel of Matthew, we hear about the Magi, described later as the three wise men, the three kings who come from far away to bring their gifts to the Christ Child. The Magi would have been very wealthy, to be able to bring such expensive gifts. They would have been powerful, to travel such great distances. They do the right thing with their wealth and power. They offer themselves to the Christ Child.
The Magi are like us, the very best parts of us. Whether we are very fortunate financially or whether we have difficulty making ends meet, whether we have great power and are deeply educated like the Magi were, or whether we don’t see our power very clearly and got our education from the school of hard knocks, we bring ourselves and everything we have to the manger and offer it to the Christ Child. This is the best of who we are.
Now, there is another Christmas character in Matthew. That is King Herod. King Herod lies to the Magi in an effort to get them to lead him to the Christ Child, because King Herod sees the Christ Child as a threat to his power, to his whole word view. When the Magi catch on to Herod’s lies and refuse to help him, Herod flies into a rage and commits atrocities against the children of Bethlehem in an effort to kill the Christ Child. Why? Because King Herod will do ANYTHING to keep his grip on power, to make himself look good, to save himself.
We are like that. Herod reflects us too.
The Christ Child is precisely the opposite. Instead of hurting others in order to save himself, he suffers and dies in order to save us, who are unworthy, who do not deserve it. Why? Because he loves us. Because he loves us truly.
“Now, you must love,” says the Christ Child. ‘You must love one another. And you must love your enemies. This is the true path of safety, because in this way you avoid becoming your worst vision of your enemies. You avoid being devoured by your own hatred. You stand up to your enemies, yes. Jesus stood up to his enemies all the time. We are to stand up to our enemies. But we are to love them too.
Christ Child says, “Anyone who wants to be my follower, let them take up their cross and come after me.” This is the true path of power. This is the path of God’s power, the path of the cross. We are to sacrifice ourselves and what we have for the blessing of other people and this bright creation around us. We are to be like the Christ Child. We are to be different too. It might seem futile sometimes, stupid even. It might feel like a real cross. But this is the path to resurrection. It is the true path of true life. This saves.
So come to the manger. Come to the Christ Child. Bring your whole self, all the aspects of who you are. Worship this one who is so different, who is so completely beyond what we are, who makes us different too, because he loves us, absolutely and utterly. Yes, this Christ Child loves us truly.