In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
If you are a 9-months pregnant teenager Mary clinging to a donkey that is carrying you through rocky terrain with your fiance Joseph leading you along to his hometown to be counted by the emperor so that this distant king can know just how politically powerful he really is, I’m guessing you have some periods of long silence to think about a lot of things. I imagine lots of those ponderings began with, “I was supposed to…” or “I thought that…”
I wonder if Mary thought: “I was supposed to be on bedrest for this last month of pregnancy, not plodding along on the hike from hell”.
I wonder if Joseph thought: “I was supposed to be preparing for our wedding week, where my friends and family were going to surround us with support and love to start our lives together, not fending off all the rumors going around since Gabriel appeared to Mary”.
And then, far away from the village of people that knew them well, Mary goes into labor with no room at the inn while she and Joseph scramble for a solution, finding only a place among animals, a feed trough with hay for placing the baby.
I wonder if Mary said to herself, “I thought that the birth of my firstborn child would be in the presence of all the women who know about childbirth, not just bless-his-heart Joseph and all these barn animals.”
I wonder if Joseph said to himself, “I thought that I’d at least be able to control making Mary comfortable for this big moment, and I see now that I’ve failed on that front too.”
One by one, every expectation for the story Mary and Joseph thought they would be living out together started falling to the ground, likely making them wonder, “Is God really with us at all?”
This is an apt description of the year we have just lived together. I remember last New Year’s eve, sitting on the couch with friends and champagne, dreaming and scheming together about all we might do and see and enjoy and explore in the coming year. But March came along, the great unveiling of every crack in our nation’s way of being and the “I was supposed to…”s and “I thought that…”s started to trickle then become a flood that overwhelmed us.
“I was supposed to live off the retirement savings that I now see have all but disappeared.”
“I thought that we had addressed this systemic racism in our country back in the 60s.”
“I was supposed to be at that wedding.”
“I thought that I’d never need to deal with this depression again.”
“I was supposed to spend every waking moment watching my grandchild grow up this year.”
“I thought that I would have at least one more chance to see her and kiss her forehead before she died.”
From cancelled milestone events to loved ones who died too early to revelations of just how unjust the systems of our country are, the weight of all that we have lived through in 2020 won’t be fully measured for decades to come. We are all Mary and Joseph, weary, traumatized, feeling lost and unsure of where to go now, and the only thing we might be certain of in this moment is that we feel completely unprepared for whatever lies ahead of us.
But you know what? After this journey in which Mary and Joseph watched their expectations and plans shatter before their eyes, I wonder if the other thing that shattered alongside was their illusions that they could control and tame the wild God of the universe. I wonder if their images of God shattered because somehow Mary and Joseph are able to receive the good news – that yes, angels came from heaven to say that God has been born here, to you, Mary and Joseph – from the absolute last people they would have written into their plan: some shepherds now crowding a small space, filling it with the stench of people living outside, the kinds of people who were ostracized that far out in the fields because their communities preferred not to see them. If you’ve lived through what Mary and Joseph have and gotten to the point of letting it all go, this turn of events that would be upside down to everyone else might strangely make sense to you. Because perhaps everything that shattered in your life left a space in your heart to truly hear from the outcasts of your society the very word of confirmation and grace and joy you’d been longing for that whole journey to Bethlehem: God is with you. God is for you. God has come, even here and now, especially here and now. These words from the shepherds can find Mary and Joseph, they can find us, because somehow, all that shattering has opened us up in a way we haven’t been open before. We can receive and revel in this untamed grace of God that has been born to us because our own plans and expectations are no longer in the way. We can join Mary and Joseph in letting go of the God we expected, so that we can finally receive the God who is.
Beloved children of God, it is true that so much of what we expected and hoped for and planned has shattered. And my prayer for us this Christmas is actually that we, like Mary and Joseph, can let it all be broken. Let the tears fall when your family’s faces appear on the Zoom call instead of in your dining room. Lament all the unlearning we have to do on the long road to justice. Grieve for the beloveds we have lost during this pandemic. Most importantly, let go of who you expected God to be. Because the good news has come, and maybe with the shattered glass crunching under our feet, we can finally be a people who see this God clearly. Let the shattering open up space in your heart so that, like Mary, you are no longer surprised when the confirmation of God’s presence among us comes through a messenger who you would never have hung out with during coffee hour, when the announcer of the good news is proclaimed through the voices and faces of the ones society has cast out into the fields. And instead of rushing on, may we linger here, dear ones, since we finally don’t have another place to go. On this night, among the rubble of our shattered dreams, may we ponder all of these things in our hearts like Mary. God has come to us. God is with us. And nothing will ever be the same again. Amen.