Displaced and Found by God – Nick Utphall reflects on the place of baby Jesus in a pandemic.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Christmas Eve (Nativity of Our Lord), Years A, B, and C
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
At worship planning in early November, some members of my congregation raised the idea of renting a barn for our Christmas Eve worship services. Here in Wisconsin, some location that could offer a little shelter from the cold of the night probably seemed like a good idea. And maybe the ambience was intended as much as the practicality.
In this year of the pandemic, we prepare to celebrate Christmas with physical distancing at the very least and perhaps many other alterations to Christmas traditions. I’ve also been hearing about drive-thru living nativities and candle delivery routes. My uncle’s congregation got a grant so that their barn worship could also have heaters and porta-potties. Not quite the cozy feel of a congregation in their usual church building, dressed up around Christmas trees with an organ softly playing Silent Night!
While many are lamenting that Christmas this year will not be what it should be, I can’t help but reflect that maybe it’s more meaningful this year and grounding for us. More meaningful not in a we-really-cherish-it-extra kind of way for finding more appreciation in the loss. More meaningful because somehow it seems closer to its origins, to a night in the little town of Bethlehem when a baby was born, and in that we came to understand God with us.
Those ideas of worshipping in a barn aren’t just because it can be outdoors and we might be able to gather more safely with our aerosols and droplets dispersed. A barn was the natal place (or, more accurately, probably one of the limestone caves around Bethlehem, where shepherds could corral their sheep). Even a porta-potty is fancier than those origins of human life mixing with animal waste. Nicholas Blincoe’s Bethlehem: Biography of a Town reminds us that the village was barely a rural outpost, a crossroads for livestock more than offering human population or resources or culture. The location was less about what it WAS than about what it WASN’T. And it is there, to just such a place, that our attentions are turned when we observe Christmas.
In the central point of the festival of the Incarnation, our God comes to be with us. It is worth celebrating with all the cheer and gladness we can muster. Certainly that can be reveled with fancy clothes and joyous gatherings and offering cheery gifts. But it is far from dependent on that. Just the opposite.
Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of life-as-it-should-not-be, times of loss and death. That is precisely when we need a counselor and bringer of peace (Isaiah 9:7). Miracles aside, even a birth, a child born for us can be a sign of new beginnings, of God’s continuous work on behalf of life, a marker that it is not the end, no matter how bad things are.
Jesus was born in a time of oppressive forces, forcing behaviors and practices that wouldn’t have otherwise been chosen. This year, we may feel confined at home, restricted in what we can do. Joseph and Mary, similarly, were restricted, but in their case it meant they couldn’t stay home and had to travel. Oppressive reality may be an empire or it may be a contagion; either way still impacts our ordinary lives.
And when the baby Jesus arrived, it’s good to remember it wasn’t in a cozy birth suite. In these days when we hear much about medical systems at a breaking point and elective procedures postponed and not enough doctors and nurses to staff the hospitals, we also know that Mary’s delivery didn’t come with assurances of insurance and ready amenities to care and assist. Maybe we understand something more of her reality.
For our limited gatherings in days where we may not even gather with family and are told not to have guests into our homes to minimize the spread of the virus, we may better recognize circumstances of the ancient lonely birth when the family was not welcomed into anybody’s home but had to make due on their own. Clearly, it was a less than ideal environment.
In this year when all of our standard accretions are swept away, maybe it can offer the opportunity to focus on what is left, then and now.
There isn’t a guest list. There isn’t apparent assistance and aid. There isn’t freedom and ease for what we wish life to be. There aren’t the eventual festivals and crowds and bright lights.
There are sheep. There are stars. There is hardship. There is a child given to us.
God comes to be in our real reality. Not our wishlist reality, our ideal. Not just where everything can feel right and is briefly decorated and dressed up.
Of course, that’s the case in our other real Christmases, too. When baking is a frustration of imperfection and burned edges. When family squabbles and sometimes cries. When arguments don’t just get in the way but define. When songs are off-key. When lights burn out. When somebody is missing. When it doesn’t feel alright. Christmas is never about the ideal, but about the real. Because our God comes for our real lives.
Maybe this year we notice more our need, our longing, our lack.
This is an odd commentary, because it is about the intersection of ancient details with everyday details for life now. I can, then, only comment generally. You’ll observe for yourself and your congregation. But whatever you faithfully and compassionately observe, remember that the need and the lack is not a separation or diversion from what is supposed to be; it is at the very heart of Christmas and why God intends this.
I also hope there is a silver lining, one of those rare pandemic benefits, that as other things are swept away or are not possible, maybe we also notice what remains. There are sheep. There are stars. There is a child given to us. There are parents. There is hay. There are the realities of governments and roads and human life (and maybe essential workers, in those shepherds and the reporters who come to them).
In an example of rare incidents of noticing what remains, I almost never give attention to the psalmody assigned for Christmas. But maybe this is its time. This year, state parks and outdoor activities and enjoyment of nature have found a new and cherished place in our lives. So, again, as other things are cleared away, we might particularly notice in the psalmody a location away from our familiar sanctuaries and cozy living rooms. Here it is broadly proclaimed that all the earth is a special location as God comes to be with us and with all creation. This can be an occasion for us to attend to verses of the Psalm where it is not about our decorations or festivities, but is that all creation has decked itself and leads the hymn of praise.
The lectionary proceeds sequentially through three Psalms for Christmas (the only time it is set up that way).
First, from Psalm 96:
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Let the heavens, and let the earth be glad rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
at your coming, O LORD
for you come to judge the earth (Psalm 96:1, 11-13)
Second, from Psalm 97:
The Lord reigns!
Let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness surround the LORD;
righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.
Fire goes before the LORD,
burning up enemies on every side.
Lightnings light up the world;
the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.
Light dawns for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart (Psalm 97:1-5, 11).
Finally, from Psalm 98:
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord,
who comes to judge the earth (Psalm 98:4, 7-9a).
Or maybe you are ready for Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 98:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive its king;
let ev’ry heart prepare him room
and heav’n and nature sing…
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy.
In a year when we can’t do much of that to which we’re accustomed and with those with whom we’re familiar, maybe we find especially the opportunity to tune our songs and our attention to the joy of the world, joining with fields, rocks, seas, clouds, dawn, sheep, and all of the realities. It is here that God comes to be.
Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/