December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve 2016 Year A

Around this time of year many of us have the fantasy of the perfect Christmas. This fantasy appears in many versions, but a standard one goes something like this. An attractive old house sits securely on its wooded parcel of land. There’s plenty of snow on the ground, and more is falling– gently, silently– through the cold crisp air. Inside the house, members of the extended family are caught up in their holiday celebration. Parents host their grown children and young grandchildren, various aunts, uncles, and cousins, and the occasional in-law, fiancé, or friend. The entire clan is attractive, respectable, well-mannered, and well-spoken. All have broad smiles and straight teeth. Most extraordinary about this gathered clan is that all the members get along with each other!

Despite hours of proximity, rich food, and potent drink, no simmering hostilities boil to the surface. No harsh words are spoken. The animated conversation is mixed with frequent laughter, celebrated memories, and new stories. Many hands in the kitchen make the preparation of Christmas dinner go quickly and soon the table is covered with a variety of fragrant, tasty dishes. Everyone sits down and the family enjoys a splendid meal. After the dessert, the air echoes with compliments for the cooks. The entire family helps clear the table and clean up, and it’s not long before the kitchen counters are empty, and everyone is seated around the fireplace.

The presents stacked beneath the tree are opened one by one, and each gift delights its recipient. It’s always the right size, color, and style. Children gleefully tear off the brightly colored paper and smile gratefully at their elders. No one lashes out in envy, bursts into tears, or damages one of the toys. A dreamy state of tranquility overcomes the revelers as the fire in the hearth burns low. Outside, the gentle snow continues to fall.

There’s a problem with this lovely fantasy. Christmas never happens this way. Christmas Day may feature drizzle rather than snow. Someone may be missing from the family circle or someone hard to tolerate may be present. As for the rest, they are down-to-earth people with less-than-perfect profiles. A little eccentric, a little shy, a little outspoken maybe.

There is testimony to the indomitable human spirit in the way families gather again and again despite the often painful consequences. Our fantasy of Christmas– our pursuit of an elusive perfection– leads to frustration and disappointment. When the leftovers are stored away, the tree taken down, and the trash put out, we may find ourselves wondering whether Christmas is for the perfect– those perfect people who live in an imaginary town just over the horizon.

When the fantasy of the perfect Christmas fills our heads, we can do ourselves a favor and go back to the beginning. We can look at the original Christmas and recognize that the first Christmas was far from perfect. Forced by government bureaucracy, Joseph brings his pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the sake of the census. Not a single relative with a bedroom to spare remains in the old hometown. And there’s not a hotel room to be had for love or money.

The young couple find some space out back, inside a barn filled with farm animals. A couple of local women help with the birth. Joseph, meanwhile, tries to get his wits about him. The months since he found out about this disturbing pregnancy and nearly brought his relationship with Mary to an end have been hard. The dream, demanding that he accept the child, was followed by this awkward travel to Bethlehem, and now this sleepless night in the barn.

Nor is it a perfect Christmas for Mary. The unease of pregnancy and the discomfort of travel give way to the pains of labor. Once her baby is delivered, Mary soon yields to her hunger for sleep. Yet this sleep is suddenly broken by the unexpected arrival of shepherds from the countryside. These ruffians approach, their eyes wild as they proclaim a story of angels filling the night sky with song. Joseph wonders if there’s wine on their breath. Falling to their knees they ask to see the baby. They delight in Mary’s little one, then quickly as they came, go off into the night shouting songs of praise. They are drunk, but not with wine, their hearts are full with heaven’s joy.

Christmas in the barn is far from perfect. The circle around the manger is made up of people with problems. But Christmas in the barn is real. The baby is born, wet upon the blankets. Hard-living shepherds hurry to meet him. The small stable becomes a wide enough place to encompass the world, a world of imperfect people like you and me. The gospel makes clear that there’s room at the manger for imperfect people.

The perfect Christmas of our fantasies is something we try to accomplish on our own. If we just bake more cookies, give the perfect gift, smile more to cover our pain, then it is sure to happen– or so we imagine. Yet we become frustrated time and again. We try to live up to some fictional standard and we end up sorely disappointed. The gospel comes to us as an awkward surprise, a Christmas gift we did not foresee. God in Christ accepts us in our incompleteness and imperfection. God in Christ comes to us in an eminently imperfect, unmanageable way, with all the disruptions of a baby born in a barn and put to bed in an animal trough.

God in Christ relates to our imperfect selves by becoming one of us. The good news is that God knows our imperfection, and God loves us as we are. God does not require us to be perfect. God only asks that we become real, as real as the events in that Bethlehem stable, as real as divine love.

What we need to do is remarkably simple: put down the burden of the perfect Christmas and accept the freedom of the real Christmas. We can gather around the manger with people who have problems, like Joseph and Mary, with hard-living people like the shepherds, in imperfect conditions. Here imperfect people like you and me find a surprising acceptance, God’s love in a baby.

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”