Today we gather with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds to receive the gift of Emmanuel again.
Emmanuel: God with us.
Emmanuel is the greatest gift that God has given us. The One who set creation into motion, the One who hung the stars, who created the seas, the One who breathed life into you and me, tells us in the gift of Emmanuel that God wants to be with you and with me, forever.
At its core, the gift of Emmanuel is God’s proclamation of love for creation. God reminds us that as creatures created by God, we are good. Like a loving parent, God’s desire for us is to thrive, to be whole, to share in God’s glory in this life and in the life to come. We can never wander too far off, we can never get too lost, for God not to find us. God comes to be with us in the gift of Emmanuel, to show us the way back home to our God-given goodness.
And God does this by coming among us.
As the gospel of John put it, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” In Greek, the word “dwelt” is σκηνόω, skénoó, means to pitch one’s tent. In the incarnation, God has arrived to our campsite called earth, pitched God’s tent, and invited us to gather around a fire and to look up at what is beautiful, true, and good. As we wonder at the goodness found in this life, as we marvel at the beauty of creation, God whispers in our ear a secret, “It is all for you… and it is nothing without you.”
Yes, it is true that God does not need us, but what is revealed in the incarnation of Christ, what is revealed in the gift of Emmanuel, is that God wants us, that God wants to be with us, now and forever.
To imagine this type of God can be hard for those haunted by an image of an angry God from their childhood. Imagining the type of God who wants the best for creation may be difficult when faced with the harsh realities of this world.
Which is not so different from Mary and Joseph, who first heard news that Mary would bear the Son of God. For Mary, Joseph, and the larger Jewish community, life under Roman occupation was difficult. God had promised to send the Jewish people a Savior, but it had been a long time, and amid waiting, many began to lose hope.
That is why the angel Gabriel’s first message to Mary was “fear not!” That is how Joseph’s moment of divine invention, through the message of an angel in a dream, lent him the courage to believe that Mary’s story was true. It allowed Joseph “to dream a dream where love never dies.”
Knowing Mary and Joseph, knowing you and me, God comes to us knowing our “hopes and fears of all the years.” God comes to us in vulnerability, so that we might receive God in vulnerability. God comes to us first as a baby and not as an adult so that we might be more open to receive this proclamation of God’s love for us.
Just this morning, my daughter Evelyn, who is three years old, burst into my room, gave me her baby doll and said, “Mom, Jesus is born today!” And as I held this baby doll, I began to think about the experience of holding a baby.
Just think about the last time you held a baby.
When you hold a baby, you cannot help but be enveloped by the miracle that is before you. Their fragility, their vulnerability draws out our own vulnerability. Their tenderness invites our own tenderness. Our defenses drop when we hold a baby. The walls in our heart drop. As we behold the love that is before us, we cannot help but have our hearts filled with love.
I am convinced the reason that God first came to us as a baby, as opposed to as an adult, is for our benefit. So that we might receive the gift of Emmanuel in vulnerability. So that the walls that we construct between ourselves and our world might be lowered, so that we could fully receive a God who lowered all barriers between God and creation, through the infant Christ.
God come to us in the vulnerability of an infant so that we might receive God’s own tenderness towards us. So that we would see that God desires our response, our own participation in this thing called faith, as we hold our own Savior in our arms.
To enter into the Christmas story anew and to receive the gift of Emmanuel, we may need to become like the One for whom we await to hold and to behold, a vulnerable child. We may need the faith of a child to believe again that all things are possible with God, that God’s promises for us will come true.
I was struck by this, as I have tried to teach my three-year-old daughter, Evelyn, the story of Christmas this year. Now despite Evelyn’s being a priests’ kid, I knew that I had my work cut out for me. I began to teach the Christmas story by asking her, “Who are we waiting for this Christmas?”
Without skipping a beat, she said, “Santa!” I said, “Ok, sure, but who is the most important person that are we are waiting for at Christmas?” This time she looked at me like I was crazy, and said, “Santa!” “Someone else…hmm…maybe…” Finally, she said, “Oh, Jesus!”
I said, “That is right!” And as I pointed to a picture of a baby in a Nativity scene, much like the one in the back of the leaflet, I asked, “Who is this baby?” Evelyn replied: “Miriam!” (Now, Miriam is her best friend’s baby sister.) I replied, “No, silly it is Jesus!”
“Ok, last question” I promised her as I pointed to the angels, “who is this?” To which she responded, “Fairies!” I said, “Evelyn they are angels. Angels are real, they are from heaven, fairies … (spoiler alert: cover your kids’ ears now if they believe in fairies.)… I’m not sure if fairies are real.” Now she had had it with me, and she protested, “No mom, fairies are real and angels are make-believe.” To which I replied, “I think it’s time to go to sleep.”
Just this morning, I whispered into her ear, and said “Did you know the reason Jesus comes to be born is because God loves you and all the world?” Her eyes got big as she said, “For ME?!” I said “Yes, for you, and for the world.”
To receive the gift of Emmanuel anew, we may need to become like a child learning it for the first time. We may need to let go of the notion that we are somehow experts of the story and the meaning of Christmas. This can be harder for adults and especially for people who work for the church.
Some years we may think that the angels are a bit more like fairies, and the baby whom we await is not different from a baby that we already know. Some years we may really be waiting for the grown-up equivalent of Santa. And yet the invitation remains for us to enter into this story with the faith of a child.
To receive the gift of Emmanuel as though it were for the first time. To believe again that God’s deepest desire for us is for our flourishing. That is why the light came into the darkness. That is why the light continues to come into our darkness, to show us the way back home to God.
This Christmas may God show us through tenderness and vulnerability the way back home to our God-given goodness. May our hearts be opened to receive the love God has FOR YOU and FOR ME through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Through all the busyness, may we remember that the ultimate gift that God gives us is God’s self, and that the greatest gift that we can offer to one another is the gift of ourselves, of our presence. Amen.