The Manger Is Not In Bethlehem
Every one of us could probably tell the Christmas story. We know it well. A young virgin named Mary conceives a child by the Holy Spirit. She and her betrothed, Joseph, travel to Bethlehem by order of the emperor. There Mary gives birth in a manger because there is no room in the inn. Heavenly lights flood the earth, angels announce the good news. Shepherds leave the fields and their flocks to come see the newborn baby. Everyone is praising God. For many of us that is the extent of the Christmas story. It ends with the birth of the baby. That is, however, only part of the story.
There is another part of the story that we do not often hear or tell. It is the part of the story when the angels stop singing and go back into heaven and the shepherds return to the fields. At some point Mary and Joseph will gather their things, pick up Jesus, and travel home to Nazareth. That is the part of the story that is often left untold. It is that part when everything looks like it did before the birth; when the manger is again empty, the night sky is again dark and silent, and the shepherds are again living in the fields keeping watch over their flocks. That does not, however, signal the end of Christmas. It is, rather, the beginning. Christmas really begins when we quit talking about the story and allow our lives to become the story.
In a couple of days or maybe a week or so from now our family and friends will have retuned to their homes. The leftovers will be thrown out. Decorations will be taken down. Bills will be coming in. The kids will be back in school and parents back at work. Like the shepherds we will return to the fields and flocks of our lives; to the routine of daily life. Everything will look like it did before the birth.
But looks can be deceiving. Who would have ever guessed that God would become human with flesh, blood, skin, and hair, a body just like ours? Who could have imagined that a young virgin would give God human life? Who would have thought that our Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, the one for whom we have waited would come among us as a baby?
We need to hear and trust that other part of the story. It tells us that the miracle of Christmas is not in the virgin birth, the heavenly light, the angelic appearances, or the songs of heavenly host. The miracle of Christmas is in you. The invisible God is now seen in a human face. The eternal Word is now spoken by a human tongue. Sacred touch is now given by human hands. Yours is the face. Yours is the tongue. Yours are the hands. The glorious exchange of gifts has been completed in the birth of Jesus. God has given us divinity and we have given God humanity.
All of this happens, Luke tells us, in the most ordinary of places and circumstances. It happens even as a government orders a census and taxation. It happens in the midst of travels, crowds, and over-booked motels. It happens in the darkness and fear of an unknown future. It happens with the birth of a baby. It happens while working the night shift.
Jesus’s birth did not take the shepherds out of the fields or away from the sheep. Before Jesus was born they were shepherds living in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. After Jesus was born they were shepherds living in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. Jesus’ birth does not allow us to escape the reality of our life and world. It is just the opposite. Jesus is born into the circumstances of our life and world. There is no place you go or circumstance you encounter in which Jesus is not being born. Look at your life. What do you see? Name the reality, whatever it might be, because that is a place in which Jesus is being born, a place where God’s divinity meets your humanity.
He is born in the joys, celebrations, and thanksgivings of your life. He is born in the sorrow, losses, and griefs of your life. He is born in times of hopes and fears, in your words and in your silence. He is born in your successes and accomplishments as well as your failures and disappointments. He is born in times of heavenly transcendence as well as earthly immanence. The salvation of God’s presence, love, and healing fills every aspect of your life.
So let the angels depart and the shepherds return to the fields. Let the sky become dark and silent. Let the Holy Family go home. Let Christmas become real. The manger of his birth is not in Bethlehem. Your life is the manger of Jesus’ birth and that, as the angel says, is “good news of great joy.”