Christmas Unadorned

Matthew 1:18-25
David A. Davis
December 18, 2022
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The annual Nassau Presbyterian Church Christmas Pageant is this afternoon at 4:00pm. If that Christmas pageant was based solely on the Gospel of Matthew, it would have few characters and not last very long. The director of a Matthean Christmas pageant seeking to have folks strike a lovely pose with the Christ Child would not have much to work with. The story of the birth of Jesus in Matthew is rather unadorned.

The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place this way. Mary and Joseph were engaged. She discovered that she was pregnant. Joseph was trying to figure out the right thing to do. One night he had a dream. God told him not be afraid. The child in Mary’s womb is of the Holy Spirit. Marry her. She will have a baby boy. Name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. This all is taking place, God said to Joseph in the dream to fulfill what the prophet proclaimed: a virgin will bear a son and they will name him Emmanuel- God is with us. Joseph woke up with a clear plan. They got married. Mary bore a son and Joseph named him Jesus. That’s it.

No Zechariah. No Elizabeth. No baby John the Baptist. No annunciation. No Magnificat. No manger. No barn. No animals. No shepherds. No choir of angels. The only angel was only in a dream. I’m not even sure that counts as far as angel sightings go. No Mary pondering and treasuring all these things told to her. No Magi…yet. No Herod…yet. Who would invite him to a birth story anyway. No light that the darkness will never conquer. No Word made flesh. Christmas unadorned. They got married. She had a son. He named him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. They shall name him Emmanuel-God is with us.

When the Christmas story comes unadorned there is little to capture one’s attention other than the Child Jesus. The Christmas story unadorned is not quite a one person play but it does play out on the bible’s stage with a barren set and not a lot of dialogue. Not a lot of lines to memorize. Name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins. Emmanuel-God with us. To say that the birth of Jesus told in all of its pageantry is full of distraction is really unfair to the gospels. For all those other characters provide a unique lens by which the reader/listener encounters and thus interprets the Child Jesus. Elizabeth’s devotion and care. Mary’s bold faithfulness. The shepherds wonder. The adoration of the Magi. The divine proclamation of the heavenly host. When it comes to interpreting or understanding or preaching the birth of the Christ Child. Matthew just has fewer conversation partners for the reader, the listener, the preacher. The lens is narrow. Not much is said. Jesus will save his people from their sins. Emmanuel-God with us.

A few weeks ago, I came upon an article in the New York Times Magazine that I found a bit strange. It was long form essay about the writer’s visit to “the quietest place on earth”. You might think it was some remote place in creation. No, it was a story about an echoless chamber in an old recording study in Minneapolis that people travel to just for the experience. A scientist named Stephen Orfield has built an anechoic chamber that removes as much noise as possible. According to the writer, a library reading room might be at 40 decibels. The anechoic room is close to 0. The point of the article was that the only sound one hears is the sounds of one’s own body; like the heart beat, breathing, even blood flowing. I stopped reading when the writer became a bit self-absorbed in their own experience of 15 minutes in the room. It was an early quote from the scientist that struck me as he described hearing the noises of one’s own body. “In the anechoic chamber” he said, “you become the sound.”

When Christmas comes unadorned, you and I become the sound. When the gospel conversation partners about this Child Jesus are nowhere to found, the lens, the interpretive work is left to the followers of Jesus. The gospel reader, the gospel listener, those who attend to the story of the birth of Jesus in Matthew become the sound of Christmas. Yes, with words. Yes, with song and praise. But even more, even more important, more compelling, is that you and I are called to be the sound of Christmas with the faithfulness of our lives. Providing a lens, providing an interpretive angle on Christ Jesus, offering a live Nativity that tells of the birth of the Messiah who saves his people from their sin. Emmanuel-God with us. The Gospel of Matthew and the timeless call for you to tell of the Messiah with the pageantry of your life.

Years ago in seminary I had a part in Thornton Wilder’s play The Long Christmas Dinner. It is a one act play that is set at the Christmas dinner table of the Bayard family. The play spans 90 years and multiple generations of the family’s life in the early 20th century. Children who are born enter stage right, family members exit stage left, some to move away, some to die. Throughout the play members of the family age right there on stage before the audience. While there are some funny parts, the play is hardly a comedy. Where there are some very sad parts, the play is not a tragedy either. It tells of real life and every member of the family had a part to play.

A long Christmas with everyone having a part to play. That’s sort how I have come to view celebrating the birth of Jesus in the Body of Christ. A long Christmas where over the decades disciples come and disciples go, children are born and saints go on to join the great cloud of witnesses. God help us if it is more like a comedy, our witness to the birth of Jesus. We certainly know it is not a tragedy when on the 4th Sunday of Advent we can proclaim “Christ is Risen”. But it is real life and when it comes to the birth of Jesus, who saves his people from their sins, Emmanuel-God with us, we all have a part to play.

Each Sunday in Advent, I have turned to Howard Thurman for my own inspiration, some content to offer in the sermon, and one of his poems to conclude. Howard Thurman, who died in 1981, has been described as an American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, and civil rights leader. He was on the faculty and Dean of the Chapel at the distinguished HBCU Howard University in Washington DC and later a faculty member and Dean of the Chapel at Boston University. In 1944, Thurman started an intentionally integrated congregation in San Francisco called “The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples.” It has been said the Dr. Martin Luther King carried Thurman’s book “Jesus and Disinherited” with him during the struggle for Civil Rights. Some friends and colleagues of mine today wonder if that might be a bit apocryphal.

In his book The Mood of Christmas asks about the symbol of Christmas and then offers an answer. “It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding. It is the cry of life in the newborn when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live. It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.”

Howard Thurman on Christmas unadorned. Christmas and real life when folks like you and me have a part to play. Where godly devotion and care is found in the aide at the bedside who lovingly watches over one of the saints soon to go to glory. Where bold faithfulness comes in young people who dare to believe God still calls people to a life of servanthood and giving back where hearts are set on making difference in this world God has made. Where the wonder of shepherds arises in the broken soul who rediscovers the grace of God in life and affirms through tears that God’s grace never left in the first place. Where adoration and love of the Christ Child inspires those whose gift to him is to tirelessly work for justice and to believe his righteousness is an ever-flowing stream. Where the divine proclamation of God’s glory comes not from the host of angels but from those who refuse to let death have the last word, and cling to the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, and rise each day knowing that right is more confident than wrong, and go to bed each night reminded of the promise that God’s goodness is more permanent than evil and God’s light will never be conquered by darkness.

Christmas unadorned. Christmas and real life when folks like you and me have a part to play in the very nativity of the Christ Child in the world today. 

The Work of Christmas

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.