A message for and from the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
There’s something strange about the sign that the shepherds outside Bethlehem received that Christmas night so long ago. After all, if a choir of angels appears above the hillside, lighting up the night sky and singing of God’s glory, the most likely explanations are that you’ve been sampling the sheep dip, or that God is up to something. The shepherds received a fairly clear and unambiguous sign, you might think, that something unusual was afoot. And yet, the angels tell another story. “This shall be the sign,” they say. There will be a child, a newborn baby in the city, lying in a manger for a crib.
A child is born. As signs go, it is one that could be said to blend in a little as ordinary life goes by. How many babies are born in the city at night, wrapped and swaddled with love, laid down to sleep? Even the manger isn’t that unusual. How many parents are unprepared, or under-resourced, or out of luck? In my grandmother’s day, the child would have been laid in a dresser drawer, the indoors, upstairs equivalent of a manger. It happened all the time. The sign is not as unusual, as spectacular, as we make it out to be, with our costuming and our carols. It would have gone unnoticed to so many of the people of the city: God arriving in plain sight, and in the most open of secrets.
While the angels cannot help but bear witness, because something so special is happening that night, in that barn in the city of Bethlehem, in that baby; still, the sign is not after all that God has broken the sky, filling with world with ungodly fear. It is rather that God has entered the world in the most humble and the most human way possible: being born of a woman, as were we all.
Nothing in the world is completely ordinary. All of it is the creation and fulfilment of God’s purpose, even this. And to make an infant the sign of God’s presence among us was a stroke of genius.
They convict us, these small creatures, of our sinfulness. They call out our pride, spitting up without regard for the status of the person singled out for such an honour. They call out our greed, demanding that we share our time, our bodies, our hair and glasses and keys. They call out our selfishness, the inward-looking self-preservation that is split open by a picture of a child washed up on a beach, or sitting smeared in the back of an ambulance. Peace on earth; goodwill to all people? The children call for our repentance, for us to do better, for their sake, for Christ’s sake.
And yet, babies do not judge us. They offer chance after chance for us to do better, to love harder, to grow into the image of God. They are the most merciful human beings.
The sign of God’s love for us is love made manifest. The song of God’s glory is the soft lullaby of a weary, happy woman; and the sigh of relief of a man who didn’t know he was holding his breath. The sign of God’s presence among us is more mundane than we expect, because the open secret is that God is always with us; that God has always loved us; that God doesn’t need to break the sky to reach us or light up the night in order to tell us that God is always with us: Emmanuel. God is with us, demanding our repentance, our best efforts to do better, love harder, forgive more freely. God is with us, loving us into new life, promising peace at the last, offering infinite opportunities for love to glory over its alternatives.
May the signs and sounds of God’s presence surround you and those whom you love this Christmastide. May they soothe your sorrows, lift you up with laughter, and may flights of angels sing you to your rest. Amen.