Carla J. Bailey
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
I’ll tell you a story. Once, a long, long time ago, when things were very hard in the world, and religion had made an uneasy agreement with greed, and political power was used to conquer nations and build empires, there was a people who began to wonder if God had abandoned them. They were trying to get along with their neighbors, but it was hard because everything they thought, everything they believed, everything they trusted was being ridiculed or worse, completely ignored, like you ignore parts of the newspaper when it’s written in a language you don’t know, or the background noise in a busy restaurant. The people prayed. They gathered for worship. They kept their children as protected as they could, but that was especially hard because the children were assimilating, as children do. The people were desperate for something to change, for a new leader to come to their people, one like they had years and years before, who was strong and mighty, a great warrior and favored by God.
Then, a baby was born. His mother was faithful. So was his father. They raised their baby to be a boy who studied the Scriptures and as he became a young man, he grew wise, courageous, mysteriously authoritative and a profound threat to the principalities and powers. He lived and spoke in ways that gave strength to the weak and hope to the despairing. He was completely human and yet, there was something about him that led those who encountered him to wonder over his remarkable access to God - to imagine that he was himself able to impart God’s self - that he was something quite a bit more than human, you might even say, he was divine.
But there is more to this story. He became the focal point of a movement that transcended the religion of his birth, the nation of his origin. Strangers, children, rulers and common folk sought his truth, his presence, his thoughts on things in general and his interpretation of God, in particular. The powerful began to recognize that his power, while appearing weak, was maybe greater than their power. The poor in spirit found in him the strength to live another day. He demonstrated justice for all people, for the poor, for women, for children, for those who had diseases and no health insurance, debts and no job, sorrows and no comfort, anger at the way things were and are when they could be different. Tonight, the Christian world, around the entire earth, honors his birth.
But Mary, his mother, without really knowing why, exactly, once she was comfortably settled after giving birth to this baby boy, began to fill up with dread. Holding him against her breast, rocking him side to side, you know, the way mothers do, she quietly listened to all the stories people were telling about who he would become, her son, her new baby. And she was just a little afraid when the scholars from the east visited them, bringing gifts you’d give to a dying old king. Her baby didn’t need those things. He needed a blanket and a carrying basket, not oil for anointing dead bodies and incense for covering up the smell of decaying flesh. She pondered these things. She pondered her husband’s vivid dreams. She pondered the words of Simeon that a sword would pierce her heart also. She pondered just how difficult would it be to take her infant son away to some anonymous place where she and Joseph could raise him quietly, with love and affection, where he wouldn’t be ridiculed or stared at, or hunted or killed. Couldn’t he fulfill God’s promise without such a hard life? Without such a cruel betrayal, without such a violent death?
Lulled as we so often are by the romantic images of this night in story and song, few of us stop to wonder what, exactly, Mary pondered in her heart. The story begins as with the time-honored words, “Once upon a time…” In that region there were shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And the time came for her to be delivered, and she gave birth to her first born son, and laid him in a manger. Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
But the life of Jesus tells a different tale. In the story of Jesus’ life, there are power struggles and arguments with the priests. Rome is the enemy of the Jews and taxes are at issue. There are women who are forced into sexual slavery, but Jesus saves them. There are angry men, plagued with terrible mental demons – as bad as the post-traumatic stress of today’s returning soldiers, and Jesus freed them. There are people who have money who would do anything not to part with it. And Jesus tells them they’re foolish, so foolish. There are executioners among them, and betrayers, and Jesus forgives them. There are rich landlords, working fishermen, tax collectors, and there is Mary.
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb
Now leaves his well-beloved imprisonment,
There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come;
But Oh, for thee, for him, hath th’Inn no room?
Yet lay him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars, and wisemen will travel to prevent
Th’effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my Soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how he
Which fills all place, yet none holds him, doth lie?
Was not his pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss him, and with him into Egypt go,
With his kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
~ John Donne
Sometime tonight, as we celebrate the birth of our Savior, it would please God, I think, if we pondered, for just a moment, the entire story of his life. Perhaps then, we, like Mary, will understand why the hopes and fears of all the years are met in him tonight. May the peace of this holy night fill your minds and hearts with hope. Amen.