St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“A Crèche In You”
Collect: O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Christmas II readings:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; 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 will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
I pray I never get too old for Christmas. The wistfulness of hearing Bing Crosby sing I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The joy of opening a present given with love. The greater joy of watching someone open a gift you know they’ll love. May none of us never be too grown up to search the skies on Christmas Eve, whether for Santa, for a Star, or for bands of Angels. I hope we never lose the wonder of imagining what it was like on that night so long ago.
The pondering is something that may be familiar to us, but in recent years there have been a lot of things that have pointed to the fact that Christmas, as we know it, is a recent invention. The movie The Man Who Invented Christmas is not about the baby in a manger, but rather Charles Dickens and how he took a relatively minor Christian feast and made it a day of celebration with a whole commercial season tagged onto it. Before there was Yuletide, a pagan tradition, focusing more on the shortened days and the solstice.
The Church had tied itself to these pre-Christian rites, Latin or Germanic, saying that the light they were celebrating was the true light, the Christ who came into the world. As we prayed in the Collect: “O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven…” In the dark of this night, wintry cold, we look to a crackling fire for warmth and strength. We pray for light in these shortened days.
And again we are reminded that it was a pregnant girl, with a man she probably barely knew, fulfilling the expectations of society, and maybe not even realizing the checklist of prophecies that they would be fulfilling each step of their journey to Bethlehem, to Egypt, and back to Nazareth. It would be easy to think of it back there, back then. But we come this night, in the quiet cold, to remind ourselves that Jesus’ birth is Here. Jesus’ birth is Now.
St. Francis may not be a big part of your lives. But one thing he did you probably have in your home right now. In 1223, 796 years ago tonight, TONIGHT, mind you, he gathered the townspeople and his followers to come and pray, and sing, and worship at a midnight mass in a little town called Greccio in Italy. Small and inconsequential, Greccio was a lot like Bethlehem. Ignored and on no one’s radar. But what happened almost 800 years ago is right here in our midst.
St. Francis decided that he wanted to make everyone aware that Jesus is being born to us still, and in his devotion to the Christ Child, the Little Child of Bethlehem he called him, he gathered an ox, a donkey, a young maiden, an older man, and arranged them around a manger. For the first time in recorded history he staged what we would call a Living Nativity. Another word to describe it is a Crèche. We have one here with us tonight.
This symbol has become ubiquitous, but such a simple thing, it is singular. Before we had stained glass, or pageants, or musicals, or movies, a humble man of God brought together the simple elements to draw us closer to the Living God.
Like the bread and the wine, also simple elements, God blessed it and used it. Now we have millions of nativity sets representing the miracle of God putting on a human suit and moving into the neighborhood.
We have the Angels singing Gloria. We have the Shepherds preaching Good News. We have a tired and jubilant set of parents being barged in on by those most would never invite to the party, any party. And yet, here they are. And by inviting them we see that all are welcomed into this singular moment upon which we see all of human history hanging. This is the Cruxpoint that leads to the Cross. This is the night when all the Universe held its breath to see if Love could be Born, to see if Grace could come True.
And so with the simplicity of a fool, St. Francis called his fellow devotees to lift up this one so tender and mild. And we still do to this day. We sing, “Glory to the newborn king.”
He chose a setting outside a church, a humble place on a grove upon a hilltop, and he invited the villagers of Greccio to bring their torches to a midnight mass. The poverty of the Child, the humbleness of his birth was what St. Francis wanted to portray. He had been to the real Bethlehem in the real Holy Land, and the simplicity and poverty struck him. So different from the deification he had so often seen linked to Jesus. Live animals would provide the sights, the sounds, and yes, the smells of what welcomed the Almighty to our plain of existence. He wanted Simplicity to be honored; he wanted Poverty to be exalted; and, he wanted Humility to be commended. The solemnities of the Mass were done there with all the senses being uplifted, the holy and world met in the birth of this newborn King.
According to St. Bonaventure, “a certain valiant and veracious soldier… affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.” The tradition and the story continued slowly until 1291 when the first Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, put up a Crèche in Rome at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. It has been spread around the world ever since. In cultures where Jesus is not revered, and only acknowledged as a foreign God, a Crèche is not an unfamiliar scene.
And the ones I have seen around the world are as contextual as they can be. I often see Oxen and Donkeys. I have seen Sheep and Camels. In northern Europe, I have seen Moose even. In Africa, I saw there all African Crèches. I have seen pictures of Asian Crèches with elephants, South American Crèches with llamas, and the like. I find it wonderful. For isn’t that how Christ should come to us? Emmanuel? God with us. God one of us. God one with us.
And tonight I would invite you to set up a Crèche in your heart. You need nothing. You already have all you need.
You see, we are all Oxen and Asses. We are smelly and tired. We are looking just to get some rest, and yet, even in this state, we are invited into this scene. We are invited into the story of Grace. We are all the Oxen; we are all the Donkeys.
We are all the Shepherds, recipients of the divine decree that “unto [us] is born this day… a Savior which is Christ the Lord.” Will we leave our livelihood behind and go and see if it could be true? Will we shout with loud hosannas to let all the world know what we have witnessed, what we now know to be true? We are all the Shepherds.
We are all the sheep. Clueless. Drug along. Yet still apart. We would rather be back in our field, eating our grass. But sometimes we find ourselves where we need to be instead of where we want to be. We are all sheep.
We are all Joseph, called to “Fear Not” and play a part in a story that is not our own, or so it would seem from our perspective, but God had other ideas. God has a part that only we can play. We are, all of us, Joseph, too.
And yes, we are even Mary, the mother of God. We all have the option to say or not to God, “Yes, Lord, I believe. I trust. I am yours.” Just a few decades after St. Francis lived, a German theologian, scholar, and mystic, Meister Eckhart penned this.
'We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.'
You, yes, you are the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. You are to bear Christ, and let him be born in your heart, in your life, in your times by what you do, what you say, by who you are.
That Crèche that is in us, is an echo of St. Francis’ devotion almost 800 years ago. Take that with you. Make room for Christ to be born in you tonight. May it be seen in our lives that we too, like Francis, embrace this Little Child of Bethlehem. And may the world truly see how we embrace him with all of who we are. Amen.