This is the text of a sermon for Christmas morning, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Luke 2:1-20.
So here we are. The morning after the night before, as it were; through yesterday and late into the night Christians gathered all over Melbourne to remember Jesus’ birth. And now, in the light of a new morning, we and other congregations have gathered again, perhaps with less drama but with no less sincerity, to consider what it all means – and what it all means for us.
It got me thinking about Jesus’ birth from the point of view of “the morning after.” We aren’t told what time of day – or night – Jesus was born, but at some point, the drama of the birth itself would be over, the shepherds would have come and gone, and Mary would have been left holding a new baby boy, with more than the usual amount of processing to do to make sense of her recent life-changing experiences.
I remember all too well my own “morning after” musings, the day after my daughter was born. I sat holding her and marvelling at the tiny, perfect, new person. I traced a finger over her feet, and realised that as soon as she learned to walk on those feet, she would be walking away from me, to explore the world; at first beyond her blanket on the floor, then beyond her home, to school, to work, out on a date; perhaps one day, down an aisle to marry, or to make other significant life commitments. It was my job to hold her hands while she learned to walk, and then to let them go, so that she could.
It’s a bittersweet sort of realization, when it hits you as a mother that your job is – as best you can – over time to make yourself a smaller and smaller occupant in your child’s life, so that your child can have the space necessary to define his or her own identity and carve out an independent path. For Mary, holding God-made-flesh in her own vulnerable hands, I can only imagine that it was even more overwhelming. What would it demand of her – I’m sure she wondered – to raise and nurture and form the human character of this unique person? What would it cost her when he eventually let go of her hands, and moved on to a destiny at which she could only begin to guess? What would be her part in the new reality which was coming in to the world, in the form of her son? Whatever was to come, it was not a reality which she could anticipate with certainty, or control. Heavy things to ponder in her heart, in the clear light of a new morning.
On that first day, Mary could not have begun to imagine what would come of her mothering; Jesus’ public ministry, his death and resurrection, a church which would begin small and persecuted but go on to express itself in empires great and terrible. Perhaps it was just as well for Mary that she couldn’t foresee it all, or she might have struggled to trust that God would be at work, even in the shadowed parts of that long story.
Of course, we look at Jesus and his legacy from the other end of a very long passage of time. We know the shadows of that history; some of us have even experienced them in deeply personal and hurtful ways. And it makes it more poignant, then, for us to come back and be reminded of how it all began; with an innocent child, a vulnerable mother and hopes and dreams for a better future; hopes and dreams which needed just as much care and nurturing as any infant. Hopes and dreams which are fragile and sometimes hard to trust.
It’s why some of the more overly sweet or glossy sentiments at Christmas time tend to irritate rather than encourage me. Jesus came as a light into a dark world, and although he continues to shine in it, denying the darkness which still lingers is just plain dishonest.
So where does that leave us, on our “morning after” – coming to be reminded of the light which came into this world of shadows? We, too, come to gaze on the Christ child, each with our own fragile hopes and dreams. We, too, each reach out, tentatively, to God in a way that is more about trust than about certainty. We, too, each know what it is to be caught up in realities which are much bigger than us and beyond our ability to control.
And what do we find here, as we gather to celebrate a baby? By definition, we find beginnings. We find that our fears and brokenness and darkness are met, not by final resolution, but by an invitation to hope and trust and to be part of the experience as these beginnings play out to their inevitable conclusion.
In Christ, we are given a hope which helps us not to be overcome even in our fragility; not to be paralysed in our vulnerability; but to be encouraged to look for the light beyond those shadows.
Mary has long since let go of Jesus’ hand, surrendered her maternal responsibility and gone to her blessed rest. We, now, are the body of Christ; it is up to us to take up the legacy of hope and trust which has been left to us. It is up to us to be the bearers of good news of great joy. It is up to us to recognize and know and be able to extend to others the salvation which came into the world in this baby boy. It is up to us to recognize that the mission of the messiah – the mission of justice, peace, reconciliation and renewal – continues and is placed in our care.
That is a hope which we do not yet see fully realized. Like Mary on that first morning, we see the glimmerings and beginnings of something which will be greater and brighter than we have ever yet known, but which still requires nurture and care in order to grow.
It is up to us to open our hands to receive that, to open our hearts and minds to carry it forward, to open our lives to glorifying God.