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On Tuesday evening, our Pilgrims’ Path community gathered here in the sanctuary and tried out a contemplative prayer practice in which we closed our eyes and imagined we were travelling with Mary and Joseph along the road that leads from Nazareth to Jerusalem in anticipation of the birth of Jesus. When we had finished, one member of our group told us about a journey he had taken in a taxi along that same road back in the 50’s. The thing that struck him, he said, was that the road was very steep and covered in stones. Thousands of years later, even in the comfort of a car, it was an arduous journey and the view of Bethlehem from the road, he added, really wasn’t much to look at either.
Our tendency here in the west, far away from the Holy Land, is to wrap the Christmas story with as much Hallmark perfection as we possibly can. Just look at our stable here in the sanctuary of the church. It’s absolutely beautiful and it smells pretty good too. So even though I know most of us have given up on a Hallmark Christmas this year, thank you very much Mr. Omicron, it’s easy for us to forget that the setting the writer of Luke’s gospel chooses for his version of the birth of Christ is a rather harsh one. If we have forgotten this, today’s scripture readings will serve to correct our memories pretty quickly.
Listen again to the description of Bethlehem according to the prophet Micah. “As for you, Bethlehem, you are the least significant of Judah’s forces.” Hear how Mary describes herself when she sings her magnificat to her cousin Elizabeth “In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my saviour for you have looked with favor on the low status of your servant.”
Earlier this week, my colleague in Toronto, Marlene Britton who was born in Jamaica, was talking about how much she and her Jamaican community love this time of year. “When you hear your country constantly described as a third world country or a developing nation and your people as being underprivileged it’s easy to locate yourself in the Christmas story” she said. “We know what it is like to be born in an insignificant place. We know what it is like to have low status. We know this story is for us.”
Thank God that is so because heaven knows there are people across the globe living in lowly places who need to hear the promises of honour, mercy, justice and lasting peace for their lives.
But what about those of us who live in North Vancouver or anywhere in the northern hemisphere for that matter? What about those of us who have escaped the floods and fires and been in the privileged position of being able to send aid this fall? What about those of us who society would never consider to be of low status? Is there anything in this story for us other than the promise that our arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations will be scattered and we will be pulled down from our thrones and sent away empty-handed? Is this anything other than a story to put us in our rightful place?
I asked myself that question on Wednesday of this week when the news cycle was starting to get to me and I was beginning to feel more than a bit low so I turned to the bi-weekly reflections our Regional Church sends out to support and nurture ministry personnel during the Advent season. Instead of finding comfort and joy when I clicked on Wednesday’s reflection I was confronted by words from Rev. Alan Lai who serves the congregation of South Arm United in Richmond. Alan reminded those of us whose have a history of colonization of the way we have taken the story of Christmas and Westernized it to suit the needs of the powerful. I found no comfort and little joy in his piercing words just a confrontation with a harsh reality. So again, I asked is there nothing but judgement for those of us who identify more readily with the powerful in today’s readings?
I think I was asking that because I wasn’t sure that judgement is the word we need to hear right now.
The irony is that one of the things I have always valued about the way Luke tells about the birth of Jesus is that he speaks of a saviour, a ruler, a prince of peace and a king of kings that is not born in a palace but rather is born in a lowly place, a place that is down to earth and accessible to all, a stable. If Luke had set his story in Buckingham palace, instead of in Oppenheimer Park in the downtown eastside basically, it would be a story that was accessible to only a very few privileged people. Instead he brings the infant Jesus down so low that we can all lean in to access him, even the animals. The road to get there might be arduous but the invitation is for everyone to come.
And yet I wonder if this story actually does take place in Buckingham palace as surely as it takes place in a stable.
This spring, when Prince Phillip died, the world was presented with an image of Queen Elizabeth the likes of which we had never seen before. Despite the ornate surroundings of St. George’s chapel and the ethereal sounds of the choir wafting overhead, the Queen looked completely diminished, shrouded in black from head to toe, sitting all alone in her pew due to covid restrictions, her grief palpable. Despite her status as one of the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet, there she was brought down low just like the rest of us. And what was it that brought her down? Plain and simple, the price of having opened her heart to love.
Franciscan scholar and catholic priest Richard Rohr talks about the way that although God can be described as a moral force, or as consciousness and a high vibrational energy, the truth is we don’t fall in love with abstractions. We fall in love when our human hearts are brought low enough to recognize our need for one another and beyond that our need for the love that first created us and has the capacity to transform us. Rohr says that love, God incarnate, the Spirit enfleshed, Emmanuel, God who is with us, always begins with particulars, this woman, that man, this Elizabeth, that Phillip, this Mary, that Jesus, this parent, that grandparent, this baby. It is the individual and the concrete that opens the heart space to the kind of encounters that change our lives, even if that change involves a breaking of our hearts so painful and so harsh is takes our very breath away.
That is why the story of Jesus birth resonates with us so deeply, even if at first glance we can’t situate ourselves inside of it. It’s the brilliance of the writer of Luke’s gospel who knows that the quickest way to our hearts is through the promise of new life and the promise of love that comes to us in the same skin we all wear no matter how high or how low our earthly status may be. It’s the brilliance of the writer of Luke’s gospel who knows that when our hearts break open for the sake of the world, the world is transformed.
It’s our human nature to want to know our place, where we fit into any given story. Are we the low ones that need to be brought high? Are we the high ones that need to be brought low? The way love sees it, we are one and the same, we are all on a level playing field. The view from the stable is of a world in which above all things, it’s love we need most of all. It’s love that has the capacity to knock us off our pedestals and bring us down to a place where we are more willing and more able to seek a different way for ourselves and our world. It’s love that looks us in the eye no matter how low others may say our status might be to say it is you, you are the favoured ones, it is you who are meant to give birth to my presence in the world.