May I be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas. Whatever brought you to Holy Communion this evening, we are glad that you are here. Some of you are here because your parents made you come. That’s a good thing. It’s good to build up political capital at home. You might need it later. Some of you are here because a sibling asked you to accompany them. Some of you are here because it is Christmas, and you are wandering, and perhaps you feel a little awkward. That’s okay. Some of you are here to hear our choir sing, and maybe support a particular member as they perform the Schubert Mass. Thanks to you. Whatever brought you here tonight, welcome. We’re glad you are here. Merry Christmas.
Tonight, as I reflect on the Gospel stories of Christmas, I am struck by a question: how do we understand? How do we understand? How do we understand our fellow human beings? And how do we understand this Christmas story?
Goethe, the writer of Faust, wrote that you can only understand what you love. If you approach another person with aversion, you will never see them fully. I find Goethe’s aphorism central to the tension within our story tonight. Mary and Joseph, subjects of the Governor of Syria are compelled to travel across the country to Joseph’s hometown. A distant political figure has declared that Syrians should be registered. I find it hard to ignore the political echoes in our own day. The Roman census was an attempt at understanding the people in a new territory. This sort of understanding has an impersonal tone. Registries are a means of control. We’ve got your number, your name. We know what you’re doing.
Thanks to Luke, this story has taken on a veneer of beauty. “A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” these words may make us smile. Linus recites them in “A Charlie Brown” Christmas, after all. These words begin the Christmas story, and to us that may make them seem beautiful. But to the people who lived in the Roman territory of Judea, in the province of Syria, the decree would have been frightening. Mary and Joseph did not have the power to say “no” to this registry, to this journey. Poor as they were, they had to comply or face potentially violent consequences. So, heavily pregnant Mary and Joseph made their stressful and unchosen trip to his hometown. They made the journey because Augustus and Quirinius were trying to understand their new territory and the people that came with the land.
The empire’s way of understanding is destined to fail because the way is unloving. When we approach another human being with aversion, or with a desire to control, we will never understand them, not fully. The Roman empire controlled territory with fear. The Pax Romana wasn’t peaceful for the conquered lands, the people living under the empire’s thumb experienced Rome as a violent foreign power. Foreign policy based on fear, in the long run is destined to fail.
While I could be tempted to preach on foreign relations, Christmas often feels like a much more domestic holiday. As the old song goes, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” Oftentimes this seems like a better idea before we’ve been stuck in the house with our family for more than 24 hours. But Goethe’s words: we can only understand what we love can be true in our family lives as well.
Growing up, my father loved football and baseball. I was his firstborn son, and when I was little, I think he dreamed I would also love playing ball. But for me, little league didn’t go very well. I lacked hand-eye coordination as a kid, and I really did not want to play. My father didn’t understand at first, and there was some tension, not a lot of tension, but some. I got his permission to share this story with you.
I discovered a love for swimming, which my father didn’t understand at all, at first. My mom took me to swim practice and encouraged me. It wasn’t until a swim meet in high school that my dad really figured out my love for swimming. He watched as my teammates cheered me on in a particular race. He remembered that what he really loved about sport were the friendships he found on the team. When he saw I had found that sense of team as well, he understood. The tension that had existed around sports, it evaporated. Dad loved that I loved being on swim team.
I wonder how often in our families, and in our wider society, our failures in communication are really a failure to start with love, and then seek understanding. How often do we approach one another with a desire to control? With a desire to get someone to buy into our understanding of a situation? Jesus talked about love more than just about any other topic: Love your enemies. Love your neighbor. Love. Love. Love. Jesus’ ethics began and ended with love, which might explain the titles applied to him from Isaiah: “Wonderful Counselor,” and “Prince of Peace.”
Love and understanding are at the heart of this Christmas story. God’s love for humanity was so great that God chose to be born among us. Over and against the violent backdrop of Rome, God chose to enter our lives in the particular story of a human family. When their fellow human beings could make no room for them, God chose to born to Mary and Joseph on that dangerous and marginal road.
The story of Christmas shows simultaneously our own broken human relationships, and the depth of God’s love. God chose to be born on the edges of society, to a couple living under the fear and stress of occupation.
On Christmas in 1980, the preacher William Sloane Coffin told the Riverside Church in New York City to picture any painting or statue of a Madonna and Child: “Two things unite the mother and child: the mother’s arms and the mother’s eyes. And the understanding is there in Mary’s eyes not because she has read Dr. Spock.” (Remember, this was 1980. Today we might say the understanding isn’t in Mary’s eyes because she’s read “What to Expect when you are Expecting). [The understanding is in Mary’s eyes] because she adores her child.”
Likewise God adores each and every one of us. God loves us all infinitely, and thus understands us infinitely. God understands us better than we understand ourselves. God is not omniscient because God has a bigger brain, is a bigger know-it-all than anyone on earth. God is all-knowing precisely because God is all-loving.
The question then at Christmas is not, “Do you believe?” I think our modern world has tried to make faith into a series of proofs. Do you believe this or that? Do you think the Bible is literally true? Which exact star glowed in the East? Where did the wise men come from? In what manger was Jesus laid? Christmas is not about having the right answers. Christmas is not about believing the right beliefs. Christmas should confound our intellect. It’s alright if you are not sure tonight what you believe because the question of Christmas is different. The question of Christmas is “Can you glimpse God’s love?”
Whether you are a person of faith, or you might just consider faith, we learn tonight that understanding begins with love. It’s okay to love this story, and not fully understand why. Life and faith are a journey. But, wherever you are on the journey, feel the love.
This Christmas, may you feel the love of God, as present today as it was to Mary and Joseph on that stressful and scary night so many years ago. May we all seek to love one another, and thus understand one another more fully. May you feel the love of God who understands you deeply because God loves you infinitely.