Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Eve
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Any Pentatonix fans out there?
For those of you who don’t know—and because I love their music and want you to love it too—Pentatonix is an a capella group of four (formerly five) members. They shot to stardom when they won season 3 of The Sing-Off and became incredibly popular through your YouTube music videos. But they’re best known for their Christmas albums. Their Christmas albums have been the best-selling Christmas albums every year since 2014. You can actually hear their music on holiday radio stations!
One of their songs, and the name of their second Christmas album, is titled “That’s Christmas to Me”. It’s a beautiful, perhaps sappy tune about what Christmas means to the group: a warm fireplace, presents under the tree, mistletoe kisses, the joy of family, candles in the dark. You know, Christmas-y stuff.
Every time I hear that song I stop and listen, and not necessarily because of the lyrics–I really like the harmony too. But it does beg the question: what does Christmas mean to me?
It’s not an easy question for me to answer. There’s so much we associate with Christmas, how can I decide what it means to me? So tonight, I want to take my cue from one of the most overlooked characters in the Christmas story: Mary.
It may surprise you, but Martin Luther, the accidental founder of the Lutheran tradition of Christianity, adored Mary. Because she is so very, very popular in the Roman Catholic Church (not to mention the Eastern Orthodox Churches), we often assume that Luther threw out any sort of devotion or love of Mary. But that’s simply not true. Luther, being a Roman Catholic until his excommunication, upheld many of the traditions around this remarkable woman.
There is perhaps no mere mortal who receives as much praise and adoration as Mary, the Mother of Jesus does in Christianity. She is called Theotokos, the “Mother of God”; and the “Queen of Heaven”. Ancient church traditions assert that she was born without original sin and that she was taken up to heaven without dying at the end of her life. The Roman Catholic Church has a fervent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and prayers to her are an integral part of that devotion. Five of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Eastern Orthodox Churches are devoted to Mary. She is considered superior to all other created beings, and thus prays to God on behalf of all human beings.
While Martin Luther rejected the more extreme practices of Marian devotion, it cannot be denied that he held her in the highest esteem, as Christians have done for 2000 years. It would do us Lutherans good to reclaim some of that esteem and devotion to Mary that is at the root of our theological tradition.
With all of this devotion to Mary, one wouldn’t be out of line to assume that Mary was someone who was already important when the angel Gabriel visited her to deliver the stunning news of Jesus’s birth. One wouldn’t be out of line to assume that she was rich and powerful and beautiful; and indeed, many of our images and icons of Mary depict her this way.
But to do so misses much of the point of the story. Because before her visit from Gabriel, Mary wasn’t important. She wasn’t powerful. She wasn’t rich. We have no idea if she was beautiful or not. She was insignificant. She was a nobody.
What we do know about Mary was that she was a poor girl engaged to a low-class construction worker, a carpenter. We know that she lived in the sparsely-inhabited, rural town of Nazareth. We know… well, that’s about all we know. While there are other, later, traditions surrounding Mary’s life, the fact that she’s barely mentioned at all in the New Testament shows just how much of a nobody she was for her entire life. There’s very little evidence-based, trustworthy knowledge about her. She just wasn’t important enough.
She is not someone people would have looked at and said, “You see that Mary? One day, she’s going to make it. One day, she’s going to be important. One day, the whole world is going to know her name. One day, God is going to make her special.” Because she wasn’t special.
And I can sympathize with Mary. I’m not special. Most of us, I believe, can sympathize with Mary. We live in a town of just 2000 people according to the last census, and that’s stretching it. The logging industry that gave birth to our town is greatly reduced from what it used to be. The farms that were supposed to take its place in the economy are largely gone. Our livelihood mostly relies on the generosity and wealth of others who can choose to come and spend their vacations here; and when they don’t—when the rains of summer keep people away or poor winters ruin the snowmobile season—it hits our town hard, and people struggle. We have a pretty decent median income, and great houses on the lakes, but 19% of our town lives in poverty, and 9% don’t have health insurance (source: United States Census Bureau: Three Lakes, Wisconsin).
We do have a few notable sports figures who came from our town. But most of us will never achieve any sort of fame or notoriety. We are important to each other. But Three Lakes, like Nazareth, is a town that maybe only 1/10,000,000th of the world’s population will ever care about. We are, in the grand scheme, pretty insignificant people. Could God really be interested in us?
What about the 22% of our county that reports binge or heavy drinking of alcohol? Or the 20% of mothers in our county who reported smoking while pregnant? Or the 14% of us who report depression, and yes, that includes myself? Could God really be interested in us? (source: Oneida County Public Health Department)
And that’s why Mary matters tonight. That’s why this story matters. It matters because the incarnation, this event of God becoming a human being wasn’t some big grand affair. Nothing about God’s choices makes any sense. They challenge every assumption about who and what matters.
God, ruler of the universe, could have been born in an upper class family living off the entitlement they receive because they are wealthy. Instead, Jesus was born among the poor.
God could have been born in a kingly palace, Herod’s palace, perhaps, surrounded by slaves ready to bow to every whim. Instead, Jesus was born in a dirty, smelly cave, surrounded by animals.
God could have sent messengers to announce the coming of the Messiah to all of the kings and emperors and nobility of the world. Instead, Jesus’s birth was announced to a group of shepherds—the lowest of the low class, the dirty, crass, crude, scorned folks out in a field somewhere. Jesus’s birth was announced to the lowly, the despised, the forgotten.
God could have been born in a way that drew honor and praise from the Chosen People and their king. Instead, Jesus is given honor by foreign dignitaries who give him gifts his own people could never dream of giving him.
God could have been born a citizen of the Roman Empire, or the Han Dynasty, or the Mayan civilization, civilizations of great power and influence. Instead, Jesus was born a Galilean, an oppressed people with no influence at all in the wider world as a people oppressed by the Roman Empire.
If this were just an isolated incident, I’d think God might have made a miscalculation. But it’s a pattern that’s repeated over and over and over in the Biblical narrative—who matters to God is largely separate from who matters to human beings. Whether it’s old geezers like Abraham, or lying scumbags like Jacob, or all-around terrible human beings like Samson, or murderers like Moses or poor fisherman like Peter and Andrew, or overzealous church police like Paul, or empowered, persistent women like Phoebe, Lydia, Priscilla, or confused people like Nicodemus, or sexual minorities like the Ethiopian eunuch, or poor country girls with no future like Mary, God goes out of the way to go to the diversity of people no one else thinks matter.
At every turn, God eschews power and honor and prestige and specifically takes on people that live with daily fear and pain and worry and doubt and insecurity and vulnerability and weakness: people like Mary; people like us.
And that’s what Christmas means to me. It means God no longer being treated as just as an idea or a cause or an abstraction, but going through that messy process of growing as a fetus and being born in the dump, in a cave. It means God not living a life of luxury, but sharing in the hard life the vast majority of human beings go through.
It means a God who is all-too-well acquainted with depression and sleep-anxiety and hunger and thirst and boo-boos and uh-ohs.
It means a God who understands exactly what it looks and feels like to live the way we live, right here in Three Lakes, right here in Wisconsin, right here on this planet.
And that matters. It matters to me.
It matters to everyone like me who suffers from mental illness and struggles with it who needs to know that God is acquainted with sorrow and grief.
It matters to every part-time seasonal service worker who has ever had to wonder whether the weather was going to provide a good tourist season who needs to know that God knows what it’s like to be poor.
It matters to the 25 transgender people who were murdered this year because of hatred who needed to know that God knew what it felt like to be murdered.
It matters to the minimum-wage workers who can’t make enough money to support themselves even though they work more than 40 hours a week who need to know that God knows what oppression feels like.
It matters to the new mothers wondering how in the heck they are supposed to cope with this new burden when they are so far away from their support systems to who need to know that God understands being unprepared for motherhood.
It matters to the people wondering if their taxes are going to go up or down and can’t make heads or tails out of anything because the whole process is a joke who need to know that God knows what it feels like to live under economic uncertainty.
It matters to the people wondering if their lives will ever mean anything to anyone, and if maybe the world would just be a better place if they removed themselves from it, permanently, by completing suicide, who need to know that God knows what it’s like to want to die.
It matters because when God told the poor nobody Mary through Gabriel that she was blessed among all people, that message was for all of us just like her.
It matters because when the angel told the shepherds, “I am bringing YOU good tidings,” and “to YOU this day is born a savior,” and “this will be a sign for YOU,” that message was for everyone who’s ever felt like a shepherd, left out in the night, forgotten, ignored.
It matters because the birth of Jesus was God’s messy, bloody entry into our crap, into our lives, to take care of us.
It matters because Mary’s acceptance of this whole ridiculous plan ushered in a new era of hope that simply wasn’t possible before. Now, we know that God is with us. Now, we know that the world will never be the same—that it is about to turn. Now, we know that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for us, every last one of us, no matter what our lives look like, no matter who we are, no matter what we’re going through.
That is why tonight matters. That is what Christmas means to me: hope, life, advocacy, accompaniment, redemption, salvation, healing, wholeness, for you, for me, for us.
Featured Image: This photo of a mosaic of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the child Jesus in the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel, donated by the Catholic Church in Japan, taken by Adriatikus, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.