“All right—so where is Jesus tonight?”
That always seemed to be the question at my house on Christmas Eve when I was growing up. Like lots of families, we set up our nativity scene weeks before Christmas when we decorated the house; but we always left the baby Jesus figure out until tonight, Christmas Eve. The scene looked a little funny that way—all those rough wooden figures staring at an empty bin—and maybe that was part of the point, since the season of Advent is one of waiting for God to make the scenes of our lives make more sense as well.
We’d wait until Christmas Eve to put the baby in the manger; that part came after church and went right along with setting out cookies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph. Jesus would always get hidden somewhere for those few weeks between the decorating and Christmas Eve—usually behind a book on the bookshelf. He was wrapped in tissue paper, crinkled and yellowed from years of use, and when we found him on Christmas Eve, we always handled him with great care. The wooden figure was tiny, and fragile, and easily lost, and my sister and I loved that about him.
And I think most us love that about Christmas. This time of year comes around, and we love to sing of God as a baby once again. “Silent night, holy night”, we sing; “Away in a manger”, we sing; “haste, haste, to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.” We’re happy to sing these carols again when Christmas rolls around—so happy that we might forget what a completely bizarre vision of God this is.
Most of the time, we tend to think of God in big terms. We think of the creator of the universe; we think of a power present everywhere; we think of a love that holds us and all of creation. But here at Christmas, we speak of God as coming into the world as empty of physical power as can be; as vulnerable as any soft-skinned newborn; as tiny as a loaf of bread. We’re used to the God of power and might and glory, of heaven and earth; but the God who willingly chooses to be weak? To be hungry? To be dependent on two brand new parents? This is something very strange, indeed.
If we think that God would choose to come into the world in this way because it was way back then—when all was calm and bright anyway—Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth quickly dispels that illusion. Those first words can seem like a throwaway: “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 towns to be registered” (2:1, 3). This business about a census can seem like a set of unimportant details that always gets tacked on to the start of the Christmas pageant, but it’s much more than that. It’s evidence of the sort of world Jesus was born into, marked by conflict and uncertainty and the movement of great political powers.
Palestine was ruled by Rome in Jesus’ time, as was a vast stretch of Europe and Asia, and the people were taxed heavily by the Emperor from far away. They were used to the presence of Roman soldiers in their cities and towns and to the rule of Roman governors. So when Luke starts his story this way—“a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered”—it meant that all of the people had to move at Rome’s command. It was an example of the Empire’s great power, and a reminder of the heavy taxes levied on the people, since planning for taxation was one of the primary purposes of the census.
So amidst the great power of the Empire, a child is born in a quiet village. He’s born not to a family of great renown, but to common folks with no claim to fame. He’s born not in a palace, but in a holding area for animals. This is God’s way of entering the world? This is God’s way of fulfilling the hopes of the ages? In a way that seems unbelievably weak and fragile compared to the powers that be? It’s a strange story—there’s no doubt about it.
The great poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote many years ago of how fragile a dream can seem when it’s up against the much stronger stuff of daily life. Her poem “kitchenette building” is set in a crowded apartment complex, filled with families struggling to make ends meet. Listen:
We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan, Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.” But could a dream send up through onion fumes Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall, Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms Even if we were willing to let it in, Had time to warm it, keep it very clean, Anticipate a message, let it begin? We wonder. But not well! not for a minute! Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now, We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.
What chance does a dream have, the poem asks, when there are so many other voices to contend with? What chance does that “giddy” sound have when it’s up against the strong sounds of paying rent, of making ends meet, of keeping body and soul together? How could the dream get through, “flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms”?
It’s a great question for Christmas Eve. What does it mean that God enters the world in a way so fragile and vulnerable, amidst the much stronger stuff all around us? What does it mean that God enters the world quietly when there are so many clamoring, loud voices to drown it out?
There are the voices of the ever-present calendar, keeping many of us so perpetually busy that we barely have time to pause. There are the voices of the market, telling us that we always need more, that happiness is found in accumulating, in growing, in stuff. There are the voices of anxiety and fear echoing everywhere, driving us to worry over the kind of world our children are being sent into.
And in the midst of all of this, we persist in singing “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met in an infant. They are met not in a voice louder than all the rest, not in fist stronger than all the rest, but in tiny, fragile child. What can this mean?
I think it’s one of the greatest words to us that God’s ways are different. “If I would have been God, I wouldn’t have done it that way,” said Martin Luther. “I would have just called the devil and twisted his nose and said, ‘Let my people go!’ But God is amazing. He sends a little baby, weak as an earthworm, lying in a donkey’s feedbox. And that little baby overcomes all the power of hell and sin and death.” God chooses what is weak, what is fragile, what is quiet to transform the world.
So what chance does that quiet voice of promise have over the much louder ones around us? The word of Christmas is that the quiet voice has already won, because God has made it so. The voice of love will be stronger, because in Christ, God has made it so. And maybe that knowledge, that great gift of Christmas, can open up something new in us once again. Maybe it can help us to listen carefully and attend to those quiet voices among us:
The voices that call us out of the familiar tracks of old grudges and onto a path toward forgiveness. The voices that call us out of old ways of isolation and fear and into following Christ’s path of giving ourselves away in love. The voices that call us back from patterns of defeatism and apathy and into dreaming and working for God’s kingdom of justice and peace, where all are fed, all are respected, all are known.
Where are those quiet voices in your life? See if you can’t hear them speaking, fluttering, singing an aria this Christmas. Attend to those fragile dreams, and hold them as carefully as you would an infant. “Christ the child is lord of all,” we sing tonight. May we know that quiet voice of promise transforming us and all creation in love once again. Amen.