For almost a month now, at some point every day, (sometimes before breakfast, sometimes after breakfast), but each day, our 2-year-old and 3-year-old will come to us and say, “we want to go to Bethlehem.” And we say, Okay.
So, our 3 -year-old daughter wraps her head in a scarf or a t-shirt, and she puts her lovey bear under her shirt like it’s a baby, and says, “I’m Mary!” And our son, who wants to be a part of whatever his big sister is into says, “I’m Joseph!” And together, the two of them look at me and say, “Daddy, get down on my hands and knees. You’re the donkey.” Then they get on my back, knees grinding into the floor,and we ride through the rooms of the house looking for Bethlehem.
Most of us have known this story since we were 2 and 3 years old. It’s as comforting in its down-home simplicity, as it is in its familiar in the exquisite details that we hear every year: A young and faithful mother, treasuring it all in her heart, A quiet and strong father, the ragged shepherds under the stars, the supernatural splendor of the angels overhead, all waiting for the birth of a baby.
The question for us is: can this story still surprise us? Can this story still surprise us so that we, too, can travel across the hills of our distraction and sentimentality to arrive at Bethlehem again and find ourselves among those who have gathered around to adore the One who is wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger?
Well, the story begins with the one who was given the title “the Prince of Peace…,” the one who some called the “Divine son of God…” Do you know his name?
History remembers him as… Octavian, or Caesar Augustus. Never much celebrated in our retelling of the Christmas story, Octavian was the great nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar who did what his Dad couldn’t do: Octavian deposed his rivals, set up an Empire, and enlarged its lands so that its boundaries stretched and reached further than they ever had before or ever would again. Octavian was called the prince of peace because he brought the Pax Romana, by conquering and laying to waste to every other power in the known world, so that he brought an ironic peace for sure – but a real peace, by virtue of ruling as a dictator and crushing the voices and lives of anyone who challenged him…
And he printed coins that had his image and a new title, “Divine son of God,” so that his subjects throughout the empire were reminded of their ruler and his power over their lives every time they went to the market to buy a piece of bread.
From what he supposes is his seat of absolute power, it is Octavian who pronounces a census: that every life should be counted, that every man, woman, and child should be accounted for, not because of his great concern for his subjects, but simply because you can only tax somebody you know exists.
And it is his decision about extracting a tax from the people which sets in motion a young and faithful mother, A quiet and strong father (and perhaps their donkey), on their way to Bethlehem, traipsing over the hills through the desert, so that they too may be counted as subjects by the Roman Empire.
And when this little family finds its way to Bethlehem, when they finally locate a place to stay in a makeshift hotel room that is nothing more than a cattle stall, it comes time for Mary to have her baby. History can tell us some of the background to these events, but there are some things history can’t tell us.
In fact, there are only two details we really know about the birth: First, that the Child was wrapped in bands of cloth, or a swaddle and then that he is laid in a manger. We only really know these two details and so there are so many questions we might have about the circumstances of this holy birth.
For example: We don’t know if Mary has had prenatal classes, if there was someone to show her how to breathe, or if anyone has taught her how to count contractions, or anyone has told her what to expect.
In prenatal classes at Henrico Doctors, or wherever an expecting mother might choose to have a baby, part of one whole class is dedicated to the seemingly simple task of wrapping a baby in a swaddle. A mother will learn, if she doesn’t already know, how to take a swaddle – a large, square piece of cloth that the hospital gives her – and fold it into a triangle. If you were this mother, you would learn how to lay the baby in that triangle and wrap them up, more or less like a very large burrito, keeping as much of the contents inside as possible. You would learn to tuck the corner that is leftover into a crevasse somewhere and hope for the best.
You learn too, if you don’t already know: the reason for the swaddle is that the infant can’t control their arms and legs yet, he will involuntarily flail them about until you bind and secure them, and only then can the baby go to sleep.
And Jesus is bound in this kind of cloth, and swaddled into this little package. God’s infinite love chooses to be born into one very small human life and bound by the same constraints we experience…To know hunger, thirst, sorrow, disappointment, frustration… (As well as the joys of life to be sure: friendship, laughter, and joy.) But the good news of great joy is that the Savior born for me and for you intimately knows the same limits we experience.
He is born for all of us, who have had our life limited by alcoholism and addiction, who have had our life bound by chronic disease or pain, who feel the constraints our spirit is put under when we’re bullied, or labeled, or misrepresented. He is born for all of us who live with grief, or anxiety, or loss, or shame, or any other burden of suffering that limits our life.
Jesus’ birth means God is with us and truly knows those hopelessness moments, and helpless seasons in our life.
At the beginning of his life, Jesus is swaddled in bands of cloth, and it won’t be the last time. After he dies on the cross for us his body will be taken down and he will again be wrapped again, swaddled this time by a grieving mother and the few who gather around.
Jesus was born into the world to die for us, and to be raised to new life for us, and because our crucified Lord is living, we can look forward to a day when we will no longer be bound by the sin and heartbreaks and disappointments of life.
This past week, on Wednesday, we celebrated the life of Judy Rabe. She was a longtime member of Epiphany, a faithful wife and mother. Her interment after the service was at Holly Memorial Gardens in Charlottesville. The cemetery has rolling hills and graves as far as the eye can see. After we all parked our cars, the family and their friends walked together across those hills, up to the site where Judy’s body was ready for burial. We gathered there to read the words of Scripture, to ask God to receive Judy into his mercy, and to remember his promise to raise her up on the last day.
As we looked out at those hills, we saw the graves of faithful mothers, quiet fathers, beloved children – and the good news of great joy is that they will live again, -We will all live again – because of the birth of the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, who also wore grave clothes for us, before God raised him up to live again, never to die.
The titles of “Prince of Peace” and “Divine Son of God” were placed on Jesus as a way to say he is God’s chosen servant and the One through whom we see what God’s power in the world looks like.
In Jesus, we see a God who counts every life…every man, woman, and child – all of us. We are accounted for, and wrapped safely in God’s love until the day of resurrection and God’s last and best surprise.
But tonight, we celebrate a birth, And we want – and we need – to travel across the hills to Bethlehem to take our place and sing praise to the one who is born for us.
The Holy Family traveled to Bethlehem because of the census.The Shepherds arrived in Bethlehem because of the announcement in the sky. Later on, we’ll hear how the Magi reach in Bethlehem by following a star.
So, how do we get to Bethlehem?
Bethlehem means “House of Bread” in the Hebrew and through this supper God does one better than take us to Bethlehem. God brings Bethlehem to us. The one born for us, who died for us, who has been raised for us; the one who comes to bring God’s peace, not by conquering, but by giving himself for all, comes to you.
Here at this table, his body is placed into our hand, and our hand becomes the manger, rough and fragile as it is, and we receive the Christ child into our life. God, in his mercy, decrees that every life, every man, woman, and child should be accounted for, and in his kindness, he takes our life and wraps us up in God’s love.
How silently, how silently, he comes. The gift is given with the words, “The body of Christ, the Blood of Christ, given for you.”
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray, Cast out our sin, and enter in, Be born in us today.