May we pray together;
God, meet us tonight, in a birth, a human birth, a divine birthing. Meet us in every different circumstance in which we come here, and every pandemic, panicked, painful circumstance of this world. Meet those in poverty and struggle, vulnerability and need, grief and sadness, making sacred all that is human and earthly, making the impossible, possible, realizing the wildest hopes and dreams for us and for this broken, beautiful world, for life! for love! for joy! now and forever. Thank you, God, for meeting us and all creation, this night, and always. Amen.
Here before us in wool figures, and Christmas carols interspersed with the words read, is again the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel. Each year, hearing it again and thinking about a proclamation for this year about this story, we return to it, and hopefully, even prayerfully, hear it anew, or hear something new we hadn’t expected. Like the first time of this story witnessed, full of surprises, even shocking events and claims. To confirm a birth as glorious, that each birth is, and this birth glorious for its hope in God, hope in a God child born in and for the world and our needed saving, healing, freeing, to live, to love, tonight and beyond.
So, tonight, as we hear and see the story again, it is the “registration” or census that has caught my attention. Decreed by the Emperor, the “August one” for bringing the Pax Romana and greater unity to Rome, if by force, to count citizens, no doubt for taxation, and the greater burden falling on those like this poor family who must travel no matter what, no matter late in pregnancy and a soon to be birth, from Nazareth to their hometown, Bethlehem, the city of David, to be counted. But they are of little account, with no space for them to be decently sheltered for the night, let alone a night to give birth, but among the animals and the straw and feeding trough, and the pain and noise and mess of childbirth. And so, a child is born, another to be counted in the decreed registration, although in every other way this child and this family are of no account.
But this seems to be God’s way again and again. Those of no account, a young Mary, her relative Elizabeth, and then Shepherds, the manual labourers of the fields, are the ones chosen and spoken to by angels and sing and travel with haste to be at this birth of seeming no account, but witnessing a birth that means everything for God, by God, making every birth and every person and everything in this world and all creation count to God because God has chosen to meet everything earthy, everything human; meet this material, mortal, temporal, world, in glorious divinity, in sacred honouring and unity and connection with all things, for all time, in incarnation, so that no birth and no-thing and no-one will ever be of little or no account before God. Because it is now all sacred, we are now all sacred, each and every one, and everything and all creation, of God as it always was and is once more in this birth, this child, now and forever, glorious! And heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and heaven and nature sing! It has been 21 months and counting of the pandemic and all that it has exposed in racial and cultural and economic and gender and ability and colonial inequities.
It has been 21 months and counting of counting, numbers of cases, numbers hospitalized, numbers in ICUs, numbers of deaths - and sadness in each one, and alongside numbers of drug poisoning deaths, violent deaths, murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls’ deaths, ongoing and too often unnoticed, and numbers of vaccines and vaccinated and numbers not, numbers boosted, now numbers of children, and now numbers rising again, and uncertainty and fears, even tonight, rising again. .
It has been almost two years of relentless counting. And reminders that these are more than numbers, but people each one, and the acknowledgment that all are not equally counted, or of the same account, and how we need to work for and fight for greater justice and equity and reconciliation and redress as marginalized and privileged, Indigenous and colonizers, black and white, differently able, diverse in gender and sexuality, people all together, and all on and for a planet and climate that continues to suffer at our human hands in unprecedented ways, and to unequal impacts on people’s and communities’ and nation’s wellbeing and even survival.
This human story is also before us this night as we well know. And we may want to simply forget this story tonight and celebrate the warm glow of a birth centuries ago and that of candlelight and carols tonight and hold on to the warmth of their glow as long as we can.
But God’s promise, God’s sacred hope, God’s joy, is in the darkness and the light. It is in the pandemic and the possibilities. In the climate crisis and efforts to care for creation. It has always been as it was spoken by the prophets before. As it was on the first holy night of Jesus’ birth, to parents and a child of seeming no account in precarious poverty, and the birth of God’s saving grace for the world, in a cross and resurrection that will follow, and made possible every night after, including this night. God’s promise held in darkness and light, the material and the sacred, the mortal and the divine meeting. Always and all ways, by God’s gracious acting for all creation.
I was struck by the first line of the Holiday Newsletter for the Shelbourne Community Kitchen that came out this week. It read, “It has been quite a challenging and heart-warming year at the Shelbourne Community Kitchen.” Challenging and heart-warming. Have you, have I seen this time, in this way? Can we see this and every time, in the darkness and the light, as sacred, as of God’s promise, as challenging and heart-warming by God’s grace. It reminds me of a Jewish colleague in Multifaith at the university of Victoria, who in conversation about family and friends and gatherings and changing circumstances, used the phrase, and not naively or romantically, knowing the serious impacts on so many, but also as “the gifts of the pandemic.” That which has been and is possible to be, the heart-warming, the life-giving, the hope-filled, the grace-full, justice-making, neighbour-loving, acting and being that is possible, just as the birth of a child to parents in poor and desperate circumstances who are of seeming no-account, can count for everything and everyone in this world by God’s gracious acting. Isn’t that challenging and heart-warming to us tonight? And doesn’t it hold the possibility in every night and day, of just such a sacred meeting?
I will end with a story one of the participants in the “Religion, Conflict and Peace” course that a number from this community and beyond have been studying together over the past few months, shared after our last meeting in December. For them it was a story of how justice and peace, hope and joy, are always possible, even in an instant of meeting.
“In 1946, my paternal grandparents had stayed behind in the small village in then East Germany called Insel, because my great grandmother was dying, after we had fled to Düsseldorf. When my grandparents were ready to also come to West Germany, the border guard told them to turn around stating, ‘Why would you old folk need the West?’ A young mom who had just crossed with her husband and child (and had never met them) saw what was happening she called out loudly, ‘Father, Mother come, we have already bribed him!’ And they were allowed to cross.” In a moment, in a simple act of love and courage, all was changed for them. One moment of no account, and in another, counted as family. They went on to say, “I am convinced that there are hundreds of stories…of this kind of peaceful humanitarian action during wartimes… in every country…” and at all times. I am convinced too.
It is just this kind of meeting, of possibility, of love, of hope, of everyone being counted as everything to God and one another and all creation that meets us in the birth of Christ Jesus this night. And that same sacred hope and love and peace and joy to live together as a gift every night and day by God’s grace. Let it be so, in all our relations. Amen and Blessed Christmas.