Last Saturday night, it was balmy in Washington and it seemed like all the world was converging on Woodley Park. Everyone was coming to see the “Zoolights” at the National Zoo. Something about the traffic jam, the Christmas buzz, and the excitement of going to see something fun reminded me of when I was a kid. On a night like last Friday, close to Christmas, our family would pile into the car and drive to some church—usually a Baptist one or a nondenominational one—in order to see a live nativity. If you haven’t seen a live nativity, it’s just what it sounds like: volunteers dress up as biblical characters to portray the Christmas story. The better ones—the ones worth driving to—have real animals, as well. Sheep and donkeys. Maybe someone even splurges to rent a camel. Sometimes there’s Christmas music piped in and sometimes a choir will sing.
The characters themselves are silent. They say nothing. Or rather, I should say, the characters don’t use words. They actually “say” quite a lot.
As I think about it, a living nativity makes a point that it might not even mean to make. It serves as a visual, if not visceral, reminder that words fail. Words can mislead and misrepresent. They only come close to describing or naming. And so when there’s real mystery, when there’s real miracle, it’s best to keep quiet. Or better yet, to allow the words to take new form. The words persist even if they change form. As T. S. Eliot puts it
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world; (“Ash Wednesday,” 1930)
“Still” is the Word. The Word continues on… it just changes. That’s what happens at Christmas. The Word becomes flesh. It becomes something new.
In the Gospel for tomorrow we hear it proclaimed: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In tonight’s Gospel, we see that truth beginning to be enacted. The Word becomes flesh—God’s Word of love, justice, renewal, and mercy–whispered from the beginning of time, stuttered through the wilderness and the prophets, but finding ultimate eloquence in the form of a little baby, Jesus the Savior.
The Word becomes flesh in Jesus, but the word is also enacted by others on this holy night. And even though they say nothing with their lips, they express faithfulness with their lives. Their postures preach.
The word of God awakens the shepherds. Like an electrical current shot through their bodies, God gets them up and moving. They go, going where they can’t even begin to imagine. But they reach out as if to receive all God would be for them, all God would do for them. Like Michelangelo’s great painting of Adam reaching toward God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the shepherds perceive the outstretched hand of God, and they reach forward to grab hold. God’s hand pulls them into the manger and the Word becomes flesh.
The angels are there, singing with words that are transformed into tones and melodies. Somewhere between wind chime and birdsong, the angels sing their praises, but their posture is almost a dance, poised carefully between the things of the world and the things of God. The angels point to the Source of all words, with their wings, with their movement, with their song. They work as holy ushers, helping others find their way to the manger and the Word becomes angel-flesh.
Joseph is there, kneeling in strength, standing in humility. Joseph has grown and learned over the past few months. God’s strength and fortitude has been added to his own as he stands up into his role as protector of Mary, protector of Jesus, protector of what is holy, of God’s Word becoming flesh.
And Mary cradles. She holds on to God-become-Flesh with all that she is and all that she has. God has made of her a miracle and so she holds on even as she does so carefully, lightly. As Jesus grows, Mary will let him fall down, let him explore the boundaries and limits of being fully human. Eventually Mary will come to the hard truth that the Word of God cannot be held too tightly, but at the same time, once there has been a new birth, nothing can separate us from God born within us… not even death.
And so, the Word of God comes to us anew this Christmas. How do we receive him?
For many, God’s epic poem of light out of dark, of life over death, falls flat, like a bad joke at a holiday party. But for others—for those who are willing—God’s word continues to transform, to move and motivate, to enable and enact, to become flesh in us.
Like the shepherds, we can reach towards God. Like the angels, we can offer praise, and usher others towards God’s love. Like Joseph we can be strength itself, and offer protection. And like the Blessed Virgin Mary, we can cradle God’s revelation within us, even as we allow God’s Word to change and change us, to grow and bring us to new growth.
The point of Christmas is not that we simply admire the Holy Family and take a picture of the crèche, and put it away until next year. Rather, it’s for us to join in the drama and find our place around the manger. The Word becomes flesh, the Word becomes action, in us. And it will look like whoever we are and wherever we may be.
In Southern Sudan and the Central African Republic, the Word perhaps becomes flesh as Christians stand for peace and refuse violence. In the Philippines, the Word might become flesh as food and supplies continue to be shared. Across our country the Word is becoming flesh as people, motivated by their faith in Christ, offer help those affected by storms, the economy, health challenges, or any other thing. The Word becomes flesh when we call or visit someone who is alone, when we help a stranger, welcome a new immigrant or befriend the poor. On and on our list could go, and should go.
In churches such as ours, we place a crèche, a nativity scene, in our chapel, and it remains here only during Christmastide. Then it goes away, as it should. If the Word remains, it does so with us.
Howard Thurman (African American theologian and mystic) put it this way:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart. (The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations, 1985.)
The Word has been made flesh. The Word is being made flesh. May we behold his glory in our lives, this night and always.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.