It was in the year 1223, almost 800 years ago, that the first nativity scene appeared at Christmastime. St. Bonaventure tells the story in his biography, The Life of St. Francis of Assisi. That year, St. Francis visited the Italian town of Grecio, where he hoped to tell the story of Christmas, and observed that there were too many townspeople to expect that it could happen within the walls of the church. St. Francis had an idea. During his recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he had seen the small cave said to be the birthplace of Jesus. He found a small cave outside the town of Grecio, spread some hay over the floor, and brought and ox and an ass to lie down there. He invited the townspeople to come and visit, and there he preached the story of Christmas.
Some good historical and biblical questions arise out of this story. At that first nativity scene, Jesus, Mary and Joseph—the characters we would most expect to see—were not there. On the other hand, the characters that were there—the ox and the ass—they may be popular in Christmas carols, but they aren’t mentioned in the Bible. (The Gospel writers talk about the manger, which presumes the presence of animals, and the tradition grew from there.) As for the other characters in the nativity, only Luke writes about the presence of the shepherds, and only Matthew writes about the magi and their gifts, but there’s no evidence that they showed up at the same time—as most of our nativity scenes suggest.
In spite of these historical problems, and St. Francis’ incredibly simple setup, that first nativity scene was a hit. It grew into an incredible worldwide tradition, with not only live figures, but the small creches we keep in our homes. This year, I find it especially helpful and uplifting to think about how that whole tradition started, for it started with a problem—not everyone could go to church. It was a problem that had a solution. Francis wanted to tell the story, so he set up the nativity scene. And people came to listen, because while being in the church building might have been desirable, what they wanted most was the joy of the story.
Christmas in 2020 has unique challenges—none of you need me to tell you that. We are missing out on gathering at church for worship and music, we are also missing out on time with family and friends. We’re missing pageants and holiday concerts and visits to see Santa Claus—all of these things are all on hold this year. That’s to say nothing of the real suffering that has caused these changes; the incredible loss of life, the fear of illness, the exhaustion of health care workers, and the economic damage that is devastating homes and lives. There is so much to pray about; so many reasons to look for ways to help.
All of this presents a challenge this year: in a time when so much seems joyless, how do we proclaim joy? For good news of great joy is what Christmas is all about.
St. Francis seemed to know that. He knew in his heart that when the window dressing of Christmas is gone, the good news of great joy is still there—it resides in the story. So, with confidence that people would come, St. Francis went outside the walls of the beautiful cathedrals to the darkness of a cave. He took some straw, an ox, and a donkey, and it was there that he told the story of Christmas.
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” The story starts at 10,000 feet; what God is doing is for “all the world.” And then quickly, the story centers around one family. A young woman named Mary is engaged to Joseph and discovers that she is pregnant. Mary and Joseph have come to believe that the child will be special—blessed by God—even though they may not understand what that means.
The miracle comes to them at a bad time. The decree from Caesar Augustus will require a journey, so even though she is almost nine months pregnant, they depart for Joseph’s home, Bethlehem. It was slow going. Mary rode the donkey; Joseph walked. By nightfall they made it, but by the time they arrived there was no room in the inn. It was far from ideal, but they found a warm enough place among the animals. They had each other, and Mary gave birth to her baby and wrapped him and bands of cloth and laid him in the manger. Exhausted Mary finally rested, when half spent was the night.
As if there were not enough mysteries in the story already, guests began to arrive—people they did not expect came to see and to welcome the child. A group of humble shepherds came, saying they had followed a star until it came to rest there. Magi, astrologers, from the east, had taken a long journey; they too came. They had followed the same star—they had been watching for it all their lives. They brought gifts. They bowed down and worshipped the child.
This unlikely gathering of people had one thing in common; each had heard the voice of an angel. I’m not sure exactly what the voice of an angel sounds like, but for each of these people the effect was the same—they made a choice to go where God was leading them. Mary chose to believe that this mysterious pregnancy was a sign she had found favor with God. Joseph, who was shocked and nervous, did not dismiss her quietly but took her to be his wife. The shepherds were simply keeping watch over their flocks by night, when they were taken by surprise. They dropped everything to go and see, so amazing was the star and the promise—good news of great joy. The common thread among all these people was what they were able to hear from the angel. Every one of them was told: “Do not be afraid.” And they believed.
All these people were able to hear that message—do not be afraid—and they were able to hear it more loudly than all the voices that might have kept them away: voices of fear, or shame, or inadequacy. Instead, “Do not be afraid” was the voice they heard. This is what it means to find and proclaim joy in a time when so much may seem joyless.
This week I was reminded of a story I once read, by a pastor named Kathy Bostrom. One year, in mid-December, she found herself recovering from major surgery in a hospital bed. Hospitals are not always quiet and restful places, with noisy machines, difficult roommates, cries of pain, and “code blues” rushing the staff to emergencies. Hospital employees work heroically to give patients as much peace as they can. This seems like a good year to remember the experience of people in hospitals, which leads me to share Kathy’s story. She tells it best:
One night as I lay in my hospital bed, hooked up to so many machines I couldn’t even move without help and close to tears from the pain and frustration, I heard a faint sound. Amidst the cries of pain, blaring TVs, and beeping monitors, I swore I heard a different type of sound altogether: a soft, sweet, gentle song. Then it was gone. Was I imagining things? That was entirely possible with all the medications coursing through my veins.
A few hours later, still awake and trying to block out the sounds of the woman wailing across the hall and the loud, angry voice of my roommate swearing on the telephone, I heard the strange, beautiful sound again. Could it possibly be? No, I must be hearing things.
When the nurse came in to check my vitals, I asked her: was it me? Or was there indeed a very different sound breaking through the harshness of that place?
“Oh,” she said, as she wrapped the blood-pressure cuff around my bruised arm. “It’s tradition here. Every time a baby is born in the nursery, they play Brahms’ lullaby on the loudspeakers.” A lullaby on the loudspeakers. Floating through the harshness of those halls—a lullaby.
And right then, for the first time since I had come through the emergency room of that hospital, I smiled, albeit weakly. I felt hopeful. I felt peace. Lullaby on the loudspeakers: a baby is born! (THE PRESBYTERIAN OUTLOOK, November 20, 2006)
“Do not be afraid;” said the Angel to Mary, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
This is the story. Good news of great joy, that can still be to us, no matter our circumstances. A reminder that God has not forgotten us, and never will.
One of the Christmas traditions that is sacred for many of us—and so perhaps hardest to be without—is the lighting of our candles as we sing Silent Night. We huddle together closely, the music begins, we tip our candles to our neighbor as the light begins to spread. A quiet and calm comes over us, as if no one in the world could be doing anything else.
Churches are coming up with creative ways to replicate it this year, with Zoom gatherings or a Facebook Live service. They are all faithful attempts, but I suspect none of them are quite the same. I wonder if it might be more helpful to remember that for many folks, this year may not be so different than others. Every year when we light candles on Christmas Eve, there are people who cannot be there. Every year, members of our church are hospitalized, or may be in unable to leave their homes, or maybe they’re just old enough that driving to church at night isn’t safe. Every year there are doctors and nurses, military personnel and emergency plumbers and snowplow drivers who work on Christmas Eve. I must believe that God is as close to each of them as God is to those of us who gather in the Sanctuary and share the light. And I wonder if this is a year for all of us to be more mindful of them. They can help us remember this year, that Emmanuel—”God with us”—is with us just the same.
“Do not be afraid;” said the Angel to Mary, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Amen.