Ordinarily Sacred Luke 1:26-38 12/24/2017
Many manger scenes show Mary as a figure down on her knees, a look of saintly adoration on her face, with her arms held up and palms upraised. While that gesture is probably meant to infer Mary’s praise and worship of the Christ Child, it tends to give her a look of surprise — as if she has somehow just stumbled across this newborn infant lying in the straw-filled manger. And of course, it goes without saying that the Joseph figure in the manger scene is an aloof kind of presence, a stalwart-looking figure pretty much devoid of emotion. How many new parents have you seen react to the arrival of their first child in such fashion? How many mothers who have just given birth could kneel even if they wanted to?
A far more authentic, accurate and emotionally articulate representation of the little family’s first moments together is probably found in the work of folk artist Tom Clark of “Gnomes” fame.
Clark is an ordained Presbyterian minister who spent most of his career life teaching, but who is now sculpting and producing figures of various sizes and various settings. His version does not have Mary and Joseph kneeling and gazing at the infant in holy detachment. Rather Mary is holding the child, and Joseph is standing by her with a “goofy, new father” grin on his face.
If there is any time when the real First Family should be pictured in a hands-on relationship, it is at Christmas. For the Incarnation, when God entered our world as one of us, is when God became hands-on with us. How can completely ordinary events, ordinary things, and ordinary circumstances get raised to a higher power? How do they become sacred? In fact, what is a sacrament, really?
Isn’t it when you confer the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world — bread, wine, water, as Martin Luther would suggest. How about touch, breath, and words?
The more ordinary an object or being, the more faith is required to perceive its sacred potential and miraculous qualities. Mary was “ordinarily sacred.”
Who was more ordinary than Mary, a simple, unassuming peasant woman from a nowhere place called Nazareth? But it is her just being ordinary that provides such a perfect foil for the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit in her life. It was in her quiet, unremarkable, day-to-day life that Mary “found favor with God.”
It speaks to our lack of faith in the possibility of ordinary sacredness and ordinary miracles that we feel compelled to depict Mary on her knees worshiping the newborn Jesus as though he were some tiny deity that had magically materialized in her face.
What we need to envision is an ordinary Mary looking pale and weak, disheveled and exhausted, but with her face transformed by joy and love as she snuggles the tiny baby Jesus tightly against her.
Mary didn’t gaze in respectful reverence at her newborn child. Like a mother of a newborn baby she cuddled him, counted all his fingers and toes, chuckled at the hair he did or didn’t have, and wondered over the softness of his skin.
This is the true miracle of Christmas.
Jesus was not some glow-in-the-dark Christ-Child. Jesus, the very God incarnate, was a real, live, ordinary, crying, cooing, sleeping, eating, wetting, pooping baby. And just as with all babies, his greatest need was to be held in human arms, touched by human hands, soothed by human words of love and reassurance.
At Christmas we are all called to birth and cradle Christ in our own lives — to wrap our arms around our faith. When we birth and cradle Christ in our own ordinary lives by faith, we find our arms wrapping around others who need Christ birthed and cradled in their lives.
There is a classic story of the holy season that comes out of World War II England towards the end of the war. I believe this story perfectly illustrates this miracle of being ordinarily sacred.
A soldier was concluding sentry duty on Christmas morning.
It had been his custom in other years to attend worship in his home church on Christmas Day, but here in the outlying areas of London, it was not possible.
And so, just as dawn was breaking, the soldier walked with some of his buddies, down the road that led into the city.
Soon the soldiers came upon an old gray stone building over whose main entrance were carved the words, “Queen Anne’s Orphanage.”
They decided to knock and see what kind of celebration was taking place inside.
In response to their knock, a matron came and explained that the children were war orphans whose parents had been killed in the bombings of London and surrounding areas.
The soldiers went inside just as the children were tumbling out of their beds.
There was no Christmas tree in the corner and no presents.
The soldiers moved around the room, wishing the children a Merry Christmas and giving as gifts whatever they had in their pockets: a stick of chewing gum, a Life Saver, a nickel or a dime, a pencil, a key chain, a good luck charm.
The soldier noticed a little fellow standing alone in the corner.
He looked a lot like his own nephew back home, so he approached and asked,
“And you, little guy, what do you want for Christmas?”
The young boy replied, “Will you hold me?”
The soldier, with tears brimming in his eyes, picked up the boy, nestled him in his arms, and held him close.
Emmanuel means God with us; God for us. But more than that, Emmanuel means God does not keep us at arm’s length. God is with us with open arms and with hands on us throughout our lives.
Arms around us & hands on us:
- During the good & the bad times;
- During periods of happiness & and periods of sadness;
- When we are feeling up or feeling down;
- When we are successful & when we feel like a failure;
- God does not keep us at arm’s length even when we try our very best to keep God away from our lives.
If Christ is born in us this Christmas, we too will reach with open arms to those in need; we too will have a hands-on relationship with life and with love.
At Christmas we are all called to birth and cradle Christ in our own lives — to wrap our arms around others and offer the world the miraculous power of an ordinary hug. Amen
“For in the child of Bethlehem, the life of the world that is to come has come into the life of the world that is.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
©Rev. Tim Wolbrecht, December, 2017
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon1 12-24-17” name of the sermon.