Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Behold" - A Reflection for Christmas Eve

John 1:5, 14

The Christmas play had been going pretty well. The youth had recited their lines; they had even coordinated a dance in the middle aisle, which was well-done. Of course, this was after a hearty potluck meal organized by some of our adult members. Parents happily and proudly snapped pictures, families gathered to watch their smallest members perform.

Yep, things had gone off pretty well without a hitch. And so it was finally time for the much younger set of children to process in – all dressed as characters from the nativity story. We had Mary and Joseph, and at least one wise man. Not even being preschool age, they’d needed some encouragement to make it down the aisle; to stand next to the manger, complete with a doll playing the role of Jesus.

Everyone was encouraged to join in singing “Away in a Manger,” these youngest children more or less standing where they should, but quickly beginning to want to reach for nearby parents. All of this was finally being brought to a head as Joseph reached in and picked up baby Jesus, and started to walk out of the chancel with him.

That’s not quite how the story was meant to go, but it’s how things went on that particular evening. But we do expect to hear the more traditional story tonight; we gather every Christmas Eve to hear it. It’s a familiar story that many of us have heard so often. It may be that many of us could recite it ourselves, and we don’t realize it.

It’s a story of humble beginnings for a baby born to a peasant family and God’s announcement of who he is. It’s THE story – the story of Christ’s birth, of God made known to us in the most modest and surprising of ways.

But it’s meant to be more than a story.

When the first angel shows up announcing a baby born in Bethlehem, there aren’t a lot of words used. It’s actually a pretty brief announcement. After assuring the shepherds to not be afraid, the first thing the angel says is, “See.” In other translations: “Behold.”

God’s messenger is starting this announcement with something more than an invitation to hear and believe a story. It’s an announcement to behold something, to see for oneself and take it all in. Behold this baby, behold God With Us revealed in flesh and blood. These shepherds are invited to behold the unfolding story of God’s new promise – to become a part of it, to participate in it, rather than just hear it.

“The light shines in the darkness,” the beginning of the Gospel of John says. Later, he writes, “the Word became flesh and lived among us” It’s no small thing that these verses talk about things we can see; things we can touch. We don’t just read or hear or talk about light; we can see it, maybe feel its warmth. We don’t just read or hear or talk about flesh; we can see it and touch it.

John uses these words for Jesus, saying that God’s Word, God’s love is embodied in the one born tonight. It reiterates that this is more than just a story. This is a light that shines in life’s dark corners. This is a physical, tangible Word from God to be embraced and experienced.

Shane Claiborne, the leader of a Christian community in Philadelphia living and working side by side with the poor, recently wrote a piece for Esquire magazine. In this article, he invites non-Christians (mainly atheists) to rethink this faith of ours. He wants to make the case that it was always meant to be about something other than judgment and anger and exclusion.

Near the end, he writes about the entire story of Jesus being about a God who didn’t want to stay “out there,” but instead wanted to move into the neighborhood – yours, mine, ours. Through Jesus, God moves into the neighborhood proclaiming that redemption and healing and wholeness is possible for everyone; that ultimately love wins, that no one is beyond the reach of this love.

The Christ child comes to a world that craves more than a story. He comes to a world that wants to be able to pick something up out of the manger, to hold it and see it and feel its weight and carry it out. He comes to a world wanting to really experience something, to see a difference, to see that real transformation is possible, to see that real relief and real hope and real love is possible. He comes to a world not wanting just words, but a real Living Word made flesh.

There will be moments to reflect; to think about what it all means, to sort out our beliefs about tonight. But first, we are invited to behold the moment itself. Behold the light shining in the darkness, the Word made flesh. Behold this good news of great joy for all the people.

Behold the baby born this night. Pick him up and carry him with you.