The Nativity of Our Lord (24 December 2018)
JoAnn A. Post
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 own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
To whom does this baby belong?
From the first queasy evidence of Mary’s pregnancy, this question was on everyone’s mind, if not on their tongues: “To whom does this baby belong?”
Mary was young, engaged to be married, but not yet living with Joseph. The sketchy story that she had been visited by an angel (with no corroborating witnesses), that the baby she carried was “Son of the Most High” (LK 1.32) raised more than one eyebrow in her small town. And though we—because we believe Mary’s story—thought nothing of her three month visit with her old cousin Elizabeth, I wonder now if there was more to it than just a social call.
The village in which Elizabeth lived is unnamed in the biblical record. The sudden travel of a young expectant girl sounds shockingly like stories my mother tells about her young adult years, when local girls suddenly went on an extended visit to an Aunt no one had ever heard of before.
Was it like that? Were Mary’s parents ashamed? Was Mary sent to Elizabeth to protect her from the gossip, to hide her pregnancy? Because more than the fact of an unexpected pregnancy was the lingering question, “To whom does this baby belong?”
Tonight’s telling of Jesus’ birth sheds unexpected and troubling light on this question. Traveling on the whims of an egotistical king, forced to give birth in a barn with neither mother nor midwife to assist, Jesus’ birth gets scant attention in the narrative. One sentence announces the arrival of “the Son of the Most High.” Luke writes, “She gave birth to her firstborn son and laid him in a manger.” That’s it.
Jesus’ actual birth is apparently inconsequential to the larger story, because we still don’t know the answer to that question: “To whom does this baby belong?” There isn’t time to answer it.
Because as quickly as we learn of Jesus’ birth, we are whisked out of the barn; pulled through an interstellar wormhole from Bethlehem to a cold hillside outside the city. Unannounced and breathless, angels swoop down on unsuspecting shepherds with a song, an announcement, and an answer to a question we have been pondering, but which the shepherds had not asked. “A baby was born in Bethlehem tonight,” the angels sing. “A baby was born TO YOU.”
What? How did the shepherds get mixed up in this narrative? No one had suspected the shepherds. They were nowhere near Nazareth when Mary was visited by an angel. The shepherds were as related to Joseph and Mary as I am to Pope Francis. The only “little ones” they tended were lambs separated from their mothers in the cold and dark. How could the baby be born to them? Did that mean this baby belongs to them?
Mary endured months of shame, Joseph lay sleepless night after night, for this? After all that sorrow and confusion and whispered accusations, we learn that the baby Jesus doesn’t belong to Mary or Joseph at all, but to the shepherds. How can this be?
“To whom does this baby belong?”
How privileged we are to welcome another baby into our midst tonight. Much-loved Caroline flew all the way from Rochester NY to be with us tonight—to the barn-like structure in which her mother was raised in the faith, in which her parents were married. And now she is here with us—a gift from God from before she was born.
There is no question that she is Aaron and Catherine’s daughter, that she was born into families that love and cherish her. But tonight, in her baptism, a familiar question and its faith-filled answer hover in the air like angels.
Because as much as Caroline and all our children are loved, they do not belong to us. Children are a gift, to be sure, but a gift we cannot hold or control or tuck away to admire for another day. And in her baptism, Catherine and Aaron admit that. To us and to her and to themselves. Caroline is a gift—a child who will grow to be strong and kind and honest and faithful. But to whom does this baby belong? She belongs to us—we who long for a light in our darkness. And she belongs to God.
Sadly, only two days ago, Caroline and her family were at a funeral—the funeral of her great-grandfather Arthur. His death in this holy time echoes the angels’ announcement to the shepherds. To whom did he belong? In our living and in our dying, every baby, every child, every old man belongs to God. A gift to us to hold only for a time.
Jesus was born in a barn to parents who loved him. Jesus was also born to us. Jesus is the love of God in human form, wearing human flesh, given to us in a manner we could understand.
And on the night of his birth, angels sang that Jesus belongs to all of us—smelly shepherds, young parents, grieving families, ordinary sinners like you and me.
And, we who receive him are his brothers and sisters, children of the same God who sent him to us, the God who receives us when this life is done.
To whom do we belong? In our living and in our dying, we belong to God.
To whom does this baby belong? The angels answered that question centuries ago.
This baby, this Christ Child, this God-With-Us belongs to us. O, come, let us adore him.