At Christmas God came into the neighborhood. The God who created light out of darkness, who flung stars and planets across the universe, who poured out the thunderous seas and shaped the earth’s beauty became present in the intimacy of birth, in the humility of the manger.
The Christmas crèche is one way we attempt to approach the mystery of Emmanuel – God with us. We set up a Nativity scene. Do you have a favorite one? I purchased mine on a trip to Bethlehem in the year 2000. It is hand carved out of olive wood. It was purchased in haste. The second Intifada had recently begun and to get into Bethlehem we had to take a back way, leave our bus, crawl over a barrier of broken concrete and enter a town that had been deserted by tourists. Only one shop was open and our guide told us there could be no time for shopping, it was too dangerous. A Lutheran pastor friend and I worked out a way that allowed me to enter the shop on the way to the Church of the Nativity to choose a crèche and then as we came back he covered for me as I hurried in, paid for the figures and got back to the group.
The shopkeepers were desperate. The source of their income and support was tourism and it had completely dried up with the violence and danger of the conflict. Although it’s expected that a buyer will haggle and negotiate the price, there was no time and my heart wasn’t in it. But there was a bonus for me. When I unpacked the Nativity set I found an extra figure. It was made by a different carver and was probably meant to be Joseph. But I already had a lovely, matching Mary and Joseph so he was designated as the innkeeper. Every year I set up this crèche I remember the people of Palestine and all those who walk in darkness and the shadow of death.
The crèche shows us who was in the neighborhood when love came to town as the baby Jesus. Of course there were Mary and Joseph, so poor and exhausted, so far from home and support that they took what little shelter they could find. They were first-time parents full of hope and anxiety, uprooted and at risk because of policies that showed little concern for their vulnerability. Homeless in Bethlehem, they made a nest in the stable and kept themselves and their newborn alive through their love and courage.
There was that innkeeper. He wasn’t a Mother Teresa or even a Bill Gates but he did at least open his outbuilding to the struggling couple. He did what he thought he could that night and it was enough to make room for love to be born.
There were those great working class figures, the shepherds. Their hands weren’t clean; and they didn’t smell great; and they weren’t accepted in polite company. While others were warm and resting, they were working, keeping vigilant, laboring while everyone else slept or celebrated. When love comes to town, the first to hear about it are not the emperors or governors but the ones who sat under the stars and had ears to hear the hope proclaimed by heavenly voices.
There are also the magi or kings, those intelligent, learned and risk-taking foreigners who are making their way to find the child whom God and their studies has revealed to them. In my house the kings and their camels spend a few weeks getting closer and closer to the crèche but don’t actually arrive until January 6 which is the 12th day of Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany. They bring precious and valuable gifts that neither the parents nor the shepherds can afford. Their response to the promise of this child of peace is generosity.
Finally, there are those who hear this good news through the testimony of their friends and neighbors. The nativity scene is always open to the viewer, drawing us into the mystery and making us a part of the story. It is not just to that neighborhood in Bethlehem, but to every neighborhood that God comes.
God comes to the pregnant mothers and expectant fathers, those nervous first parents who receive the gift of the child. God comes to the rough and hard-working men and women who labor while others sleep, who protect us and prepare all that we need, often behind the scenes and whose hearts and ears are open to receive the message. God comes to the innkeepers and shopkeepers and residents and community leaders and business folk who open a place for the babe to be born.
God comes to the thought leaders and innovators, to those with riches to share and power to make change. God turns their lives upside down and sets them on paths they might never have expected to encounter truth and love in a most unlikely source.
God has come to this neighborhood. We can see him in the faces of our neighbors, all of our neighbors. We experience him in the love we share with one another. As one amazing Christian wrote before he was condemned and executed in a Nazi prison, “Jesus stands at the door knocking. In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the [Christmas] Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God enters our world as a displaced person, a refugee, one without a home. God’s love comes to the wealthy, the working poor, the educated classes, the unemployed. God draws near to those who can’t sleep, the parents of young children, those who keep vigil with the ill and dying, the ones pulling the night shift.
When love comes to the neighborhood things change. Those with homes and those without shelter sit down to a meal together. Those with two coats give one away. Those who are burdened and overwhelmed by the demands of jobs and the care of possessions have a moment of peace and rest. Children and the vulnerable show the way to the learned and esteemed. We let go of our fear and anxiety and discover new hope in the birth of the babe. We find the strength and courage to go on for another day.
This day and every day God comes to our neighborhood, to Ballard and Shoreline and the Share Shelter; to West Seattle and South Lake Union and the University District, to Wenatchee and Portland and Washington DC; to Cairo and Berlin and Jerusalem. The open crèche is an invitation to each one of us to join the great drama of God’s love for the world.
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord, love come down at Christmas. Amen.
With faith, hope and love,