On Christmas morning in 2009, I had the privilege of a lifetime. One of the Nucla kids, now grown and married, invited me to be present at the birth of her first child.
Jonah arrived with his little arms folded over his chest like a saint, his tiny eyes closed as if in prayer. I knew he would be small and perfect but what I had not anticipated was how much peace he would bring with him into this world. Just like the baby Jesus, I remember thinking. Just like the baby Jesus.
Every time Christmas comes around and I recall Jonah’s birth, a part of me is genuinely put out that he has had the audacity to grow into himself. For daring to turn one, then five, and now eleven. I am like everyone else in this regard; we all wish a child who is precious to us would stay little just a little while longer.
We are that way with the baby Jesus, too, I suspect. At Christmas time, we step into the humble-yet-holy nativity, wrapping ourselves in this sacred moment, wanting to stay here as long as possible.
But time refuses to cooperate. It won’t stand still. Not for us. Not even for the holy family. The angels came and left. The shepherds came, then left. The Magi came, finally, with their precious gifts. And then after paying homage to the Christ child, it was time to head home. Home by another road, Matthew tells us; they had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod.
This morning’s scripture leaves us with the Magi—gifts given and hearts full–turning homeward and then slipping out of sight. Next week will catapult us into Jesus’ adulthood as we stand on the shore of the River Jordan and watch him wade into the water to be baptized by his cousin, John. And the Spirit of course.
Between the fare-thee-well to the Magi and the watery baptism, we don’t have much to go by. Luke gives us a story of Mary and Joseph dedicating their newborn at the temple, then a tale of the twelve year old Jesus wriggling away from them in the holy city so he can hang out with Jerusalem’s finest theological minds.
Matthew supplies us with different details. Instead of Luke’s two scenes set in Jerusalem, Matthew gives us the rest of today’s story, one we may be reluctant to receive because it is gruesome.
The wise men left Bethlehem and bypassed Jerusalem. Herod was left pacing anxiously. When he put two and two together, Herod flew into a rage and called for the deaths of all of Bethlehem’s children aged two and under.
But by then the holy family was already gone; Joseph had been warned in a dream to flee with his family into Egypt, where they remained until Herod’s death.
My heart sinks thinking about Mary and Joseph hurrying for the border, racing against time, pressing their tiny one close. I think about the terror they surely felt, the grit they summoned to keep going, and the relief that filled them as they crossed over into safety. I think too of the prayers they no doubt lifted for Bethlehem’s people.
Surely this life-altering experience left its mark on Mary and Joseph. Close calls usually do. And surely their need to flee became a part of the story they would tell young Jesus about the circumstances surrounding his birth. A story not merely of his narrow escape but of the suffering of innocent people at the hands of the powerful.
Any reasonable person wants children to make it to adulthood unscathed. That’s why we suffer with the children in Montrose whose homes, today, have little or no heat. It’s why we weep and pray and do what we can when we see photographs of children in refugee camps or cages at our southern border. It’s why we vote the way we do.
And if our prayers and actions are directed toward preserving and safeguarding children’s innocence, certainly we want this same thing for the baby Jesus. We ache because we cannot shield him from life’s injustices and cruelty.
If we were in charge, we would want Jesus to have an idyllic childhood and grow into manhood without a care. But we are not in charge. God is. And what God chose when God came to us wearing skin and bone was to be alive in all the same ways we are alive.
Said another way, when the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us (as the poetry of John’s gospel puts it), he sought no heavenly advantage, no sacred sparing. God in Christ entered into this life just as we all do, vulnerable, subject to the same threats and forces that affect everyone else.
And as much as we might regret the ugliness Jesus and his family faced, as much as we might wish he could have landed on the threshold of adulthood unscathed by life, I invite you to consider how much more help Jesus can be to us, how much more we can turn to him in anxious and fearsome times, because he too has experienced these realities. And from very early on.
The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, John’s gospel is sure to say. Christ did not come to earth wearing a human costume. His was no role he played like an actor in a film, returning home at nightfall to shower off the hard work of having played one of us for twelve long hours.
Jesus joined us in the human experience. Fully. Completely. He took part in its complications and messiness, its countless contours and contortions, its inevitable uncertainties and uglinesses. And from the time he was but a tiny child.
And this matters. Because Jesus willingly entered into the whole shebang, we can trust he knows what our lives are like. He is intimately acquainted with how excruciating and unfair life can sometimes be. And conversely, how utterly exquisite.
A few weeks back, I stumbled upon an essay by an Episcopal priest who reflected on her recent experience with breast cancer. She decided that because when God became flesh and lived among us he didn’t have breasts, God was limited in God’s ability to grasp her experience or walk with her through her valley of the shadow of death.
Well, no Jesus did not have breasts. But then neither did he wait for several agonizing years to receive a heart transplant. Nor did he endure the horrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Neither did Jesus have to live through a deadly global pandemic.
Jesus had a particular experience in a particular body in a particular place and time. And yet it was from all these distinct experiences that Jesus was then and is now able to meet us in our diverse and different lives.
I have long said that I consider it a miracle that any of us can relate to anyone else because our lived experiences, although often quite similar, are so incredibly particular. How amazing is it that we can, like Jesus, reach into our lived experiences and our rich imaginations to relate fully and well, to find true compassion for and solidarity with others. This is such a holy and beautiful thing, is it not?
The Episcopal priest who wrote that essay is right; Jesus did not have breasts. But this does not mean he cannot relate to someone who does.
What was a stumbling block for that priest was, twenty years ago, an entrée for me in my experience with breast cancer. Because I knew that Jesus inhabited his body as fully as humanly possible, because I knew he too understood the heavy weight of waiting, because I knew he was intimately acquainted with sorrow and suffering, I had no doubt about his ability to companion me even though he did not have breasts. Believe me when I say my doctors and my circles of support were great helps but none of them gave me what Jesus did—which was pure presence and perfect understanding.
If similarity is a requirement for compassion and solidarity, we are all sunk. I will never understand you and you will never understand me. The white community will never be able to stand with the black community because we lack the experience of descending from slaves and growing up assaulted by racism’s endless blows.
If we have to be the same in order to be allies, no cis-gendered man can call himself a feminist because, well, he has no idea what it’s like to be a woman.
The gift of Christmas is not simply the birth of heaven’s child here on earth. The gift of Christmas is that God comes and takes on everything we take on, not because God needs an education but because we need to know we have a most worthy companion. One who identifies with us. One who is here with us.
Someone who did not suffer breast or colon cancer but who is more than able to journey with us as we seek treatment.
Someone who did not have to claw his way up and out of a bitter divorce or who lost everything in a house fire but who, even still, knows in his bones what it is like to feel that everything precious is now gone. Jesus knows exactly what it’s like to be us–at risk sometimes, needful others, always worthy of a worthy companion.
Years ago I took part in a meditation group that taught us to detach from this world to travel inwardly into the outer reaches of the universe. It was an interesting discipline in the beginning but I bowed out after a time.
No, I thought. This is the opposite of what Jesus did. He did not seek escape from this world, he entered into it. He burrowed down into every part of it.
Heaven’s child, the son of God, Jesus asked for no special treatment here on earth, no reprieve from the wounds and worries of life, no exemptions from its horrors and hardships.
While he walked the earth, Jesus mined the depths of the human experience. He did this not out of holy curiosity or divine obligation. He did this out of love. Pure and unwavering love.
Jesus came and entered into life’s highest highs and lowest lows because he is Emmanuel—God with us. God for us. The God who looks like we do, breathes and laughs and cries like we do. The God who understands us completely and who holds us as close as Mary and Joseph did when Jesus was just a wee child in need of everything.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, the world has moved on, our calendars have been changed. And yet Jesus is still being born in our hearts and minds and lives. He is still a marvel, still a miracle, still making his quiet peace available to us. Help him be born anew within.
Thank you for coming to us and showing us who you are by becoming one of us. Thank you for being our friend, our companion, our guide. Thank you for all the ways you make it known that we are not alone. That you know and understand us in the fullest possible way.
Help us grow in our capacity to genuinely relate to others, to be compassionate and responsive. Help us be more like you, you who are utterly like us.
The essay referenced in the sermon is God became flesh, but he never had breast cancer in The Christian Century, December 21, 2020. The author is Elizabeth Felicetti.