Memories are a powerful force in the human psyche. They have the ability to trap and imprison, but they have also the ability to liberate and free. They have the power to make one weep in despair or grief and to laugh with the delight of a child. They have the power to shape and mold a life and in hindsight to help make sense of all that was and is, and even is to be. As we all know, it doesn’t take much to trigger a memory: a sound, a taste, a smell, an image, even just a word or phrase and suddenly we are back there as if it were happening this very instant.
I have one such memory that crops up in my mind and heart on a regular basis and it happens many days at Morning Prayer. Had I known it at the time, the event itself was to be a harbinger of things to come. As a memory it continues to delight and console, and even assure me.
I couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 and my mother and I were alone in the kitchen. I can’t remember what we were doing, but we were doing something together and we were talking as a 9 year old boy talks with his mother, or at least as this 9 year old boy and his mother did. I was puzzled and I wanted to know something. The burning question I had, had something to do with church. We had just come from church and it had been a Morning Prayer Sunday (and if you have been an Episcopalian for more than 30 or 40 years, you’ll remember those) where we had sung the Te Deum. What I wanted to know that day, and what had puzzled me was what exactly did it mean when we sang: “When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.”1 I knew what all the words in that phrase meant except one, and I wanted to know what was meant by the word “abhor”.
To my knowledge, this was the first conscious theological conversation I ever had with anyone, and clearly it was all downhill from there. Once a 9 year old begins to ponder the meaning of “not abhorring the Virgin’s womb,” who knows where they will end up at 54, perhaps in a monastery, preaching on Christmas Day!
Now, virtually every time we sing the Te Deum, even in its modern translation: “When you became man to set us free you did not shun the Virgin’s womb”2 I am 9 once more, back in that kitchen with my mother, pondering the Virgin Birth and the mystery of the Incarnation.
If personal memories are powerful, memories of God are universal and primal and they have the power to shape not simply individuals but the whole course of human events. And that is what we celebrate today: not simply an adult’s memory of a young boy’s puzzle over a strange word, but the memory God who could, and would and indeed does play an active role in human lives and in the history of humanity: “and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”3
Christmas is about many things for many people. It is about Santa and gifts; about families and feasts. It is about cards and cakes; about songs and shopping. But the truth underlying all of this is that at Christmas we remember that God chose to intervene in the lives of one couple and in so doing intervened in the lives of all people in the form of a tiny baby, born in an obscure village in the middle of an occupied nation.
This is our memory of God and it lives on in the hearts and minds of people today because if God could act in that way then, God can certainly act once again in our lives today.
As I have said frequently before, everyone loves a baby, but Christmas is not about babies. Christmas is about the myriad ways in which God makes a home: in our hearts; in our homes and in our world.
Mary and Joseph were not an ideal couple. Mary was an unwed, pregnant, no doubt illiterate teenage girl and it was probably an arranged marriage. Yet when God “tookest upon [himself] to deliver man: [God] didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb”. In spite of pious legend, Mary and certainly Joseph did not come from an ideal family, just look at the scoundrels, thieves, schemers, foreigners and adulterers whom Matthew and Luke tell us where in his family tree.4 Yet when God “tookest upon [himself] to deliver man: [God] didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb”. Bethlehem was not an auspicious town and I have spent enough time in pig sheds and chicken coops to know that the stable where Mary gave birth was not an ideal place for such an event. Yet when God “tookest upon [himself] to deliver man: [God] didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.”
When we remember the story of Christmas, we remember how God intervened in the life of one less than ideal couple, and we look at our own lives, we have hope. If God can work in the life of Mary and Joseph, then he can work in my life too.
When we remember the story of Christmas and we remember how God intervened in the life of one family, and we look at our own families, we have hope. If God can work in a family full of scoundrels, thieves, schemers, foreigners and adulterers who make up Joseph’s ancestors, then he can work in my crazy and crazy-making family too.
When we remember the story of Christmas and we remember how God intervened in the history of one town, one nation and he did it in the noise and smell and filth of a barn, we have hope. If God can be born in a barn 2000 years ago, then he can be born in the chaos, and violence and uncertainty of our world today.
What I did not understand when I was 9, but which I understand more and more at 54 is that it was not just Mary’s womb that God “didst not abhor”, but Mary’s life and her family and her world.
We celebrate Christmas year after year, not just because we love the food or the carols or the tradition but because year after year we are reminded that just as God did not abhor the Virgin, neither does God abhor us. It doesn’t matter that our lives, or our families or world are not perfect. What matters is that we make a space, not matter how small, for God in our hearts. When we do that, God will do the rest and Christ will once more be born in the Bethlehem of our lives and the mangers of our hearts.
Memories are a powerful thing and the memory of God taking human flesh and living among us is perhaps the most powerful memory of all, because it reminds us that just as God loved Mary enough to make a home in her womb and in her heart, so he loves us enough to make a home and a manger in our hearts as well.
Christmas is about memories, and the memory we celebrate today is the memory of God’s love. In the craziness of our lives, our families and our world today, remember one thing: that God really does love you and wants to make a home in your heart just as he made a home in that stable so many years ago.
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