We have heard it before. In fact, some of us have heard the Christmas story so often, that like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, large swaths of it can be recited from memory. Perhaps we can’t recite it word for word in the idiom of the King James Bible, but we know the story cold. If our inner Linus has not memorized it, we can certainly tell the story in our own words, and little would be lost. In fact, in telling the Christmas story in our own words, some parts it might even be embellished, the details highlighted, the emphasis personalized.
We all tell stories. We tell stories to convey information, and many stories are just that, information. We tell stories to amuse, and many stories are just that, amusing. However, we tell stories not just to convey information, or to amuse. We tell stories because stories have power. The most powerful ones are told over, and over again. It is those stories, the powerful ones, that we have in common. It is those stories, the ones in common, that are the most powerful. It is those stories, the powerful ones, the ones we share, that forge our common identity. They shape our corporate imagination. They foster our sense of community and belonging. It is those stories, the powerful ones, that change us, and in turn, are changed by us.
There is something to stories then, especially the powerful ones, that are transformative. These stories that change us, may not be about us, but we nevertheless find ourselves in them, or rather we find ourselves, and we find ourselves in them.
That’s what we are doing tonight. We are finding ourselves by telling a story. Indeed, we are telling many stories. That story, or those stories, are both, deeply personal, and amazingly universal for they have forged, shaped, and fostered us as individuals, even if we think they haven’t. It does not matter if you are a professed Christian, or a casual attender this evening, your life has been shaped by this story, even if you claim not to believe it. That same story is also amazingly universal. It has forged nations, shaped laws, and fostered education and the arts. In either case, a deeply personal story, or an amazingly universal one, the Christmas story is a story of discovery because through it, we find ourselves, and we find ourselves in it.
I spent a lot of time by myself as a child. It’s not that I didn’t have any friends. I did. And I’d hang out and do stuff with them on plenty of occasions. So that wasn’t the reason. I think I spent a lot of time alone, simply because I enjoyed my own company. I still do. I can occupy myself quite well reading, or working on some kind of project, or even working on something I enjoy. When I was living at Emery House, I could fill an entire day by myself in the chicken coop shoveling chicken you know what, or working with the bees, or weeding the garden, and be totally happy.
One of the things I remember doing as a child, was endlessly drawing maps. It must have been the year geography was introduced to the school curriculum, so was probably about grade 5 or 6. Sitting at my desk, in the family room at home, I’d draw maps of imaginary places. I’d use different colours of pencil crayons to represent different things: blue, obviously for water; green for forests; brown for mountains; yellow for prairies. (In my maps there was always lots of prairie! It was the one landscape I knew firsthand.)
Once I had my map completed, I would trace a journey through it, as my imaginary explorers moved from one place to another, discovering this newfound land of my imagination.
Since then, maps have fascinated me. That fascination was rekindled a number of years ago, on one of my first visits to the Middle East. On that visit I saw for myself what I had often drawn, a small piece of land at the crossroads of history. The sights, and sounds, and smells of Jerusalem are a daunting and exhilarating introduction to cultures and civilizations that come together, meeting, and passing through one another, in a small space. Africa, Asia, and Europe all meet there, creating a confusing and complex intersection of humanity. What I had spent so many hours drawing as a 9-year-old, I was seeing firsthand, as a 40 some year old.
It is that complex history, meeting at the crossroads of the world, which unfolds before us in tonight’s gospel. You already know the story, so close your eyes, and imagine the scene.
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.
There, over 1400 miles away, in Imperial Rome, a decision was made, that thew into turmoil the lives of countless women and men, whose lives were constantly in turmoil to begin with. Rome had occupied Palestine since 63 BC. Before Rome, there had been the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and countless others. After Rome, came still others. To control the route to Africa, Asia, or Europe, meant the control of the Middle East. The inhabitants of Jerusalem were familiar with foreign control. Mary and Joseph had in fact, spent their entire lives under the thumb of faraway Rome. Is it any wonder the people of Jerusalem and Bethlehem longed for freedom, for a saviour, for a redeemer, for a messiah, who would liberate them from foreign domination? This dream of freedom and liberation was deeply, deeply ingrained in them. It was the very stuff of their prayer, and of their Scripture.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
This dream of liberation and freedom was at the very core of their identity as a people.
I think that longing for freedom is something we understand today, in ways we never before imagined. Who among us, after nearly two years of lockdown, does not dream of liberation, of freedom, of release? We, whose lives have been turned upside-down, by something which, to begin with, we had no control over, long to be set free from the forces of death, disease, and worry, even if only to do something as simple as coming to Church on Christmas Eve. We long to be set free, for a saviour, for a redeemer, for a messiah. How much we are alike, we who long for freedom from COVID, and Mary, Joseph, and the people of Jerusalem and Bethlehem from Rome. Although nearly 2000 years separate us, we are so, so alike. This longing for freedom is now at the core of our identity, just as it was theirs’.
In many ways, that’s what Christmas is about. Sure, it’s about family, and feasting, and festivities. But at its heart, it is about a longing for freedom. Sure, it’s about carols, and ritual, and gifts. But at its heart, it’s about a longing for freedom. Sure, it’s about friends, and trees, and lights. But at its heart, it’s about a longing for freedom.
You and I long for freedom, just as did Mary, and Joseph. And freedom came to them, not by a mighty military army, but in the form of a baby. And freedom will come to us. That freedom came to them, not by a human claiming he alone could fix it, but in the cry of a dependent infant. And freedom will come to us. That freedom came to them, not through might, or power, or privilege, but in the poverty of a child, born in a stable, and laid in a manger. And freedom will come to us.
We long for freedom. And freedom will come. Freedom has come. Just as with Mary, and Joseph, and the people of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, freedom has come to us in the form of a baby, in the cry of an infant, in the poverty a stable and a manger.
Freedom comes to us tonight in Jesus, whom angels praise, and shepherds kneel before in wonder. Freedom comes to us tonight in Jesus, who comes in humility, dependence, and poverty. Freedom comes to us tonight in Jesus, who brings forgiveness, healing, and love.
All of us long for freedom tonight, freedom from death, disease, and worry. And if we open our hands, and our hearts, God will place in them the gift of freedom, in the person of the babe of Bethlehem.
All of us long for freedom tonight, and if we take it, God will place that gift of freedom in our arms, in the person of Jesus, not in might, or power, or privilege, but in humility, dependence, and poverty, that brings forgiveness, healing, and love.
All of us long for freedom. Mary, and Joseph, and the people of Jerusalem and Bethlehem did. And freedom came to them in the form of a baby, born in a stable, and laid in a manger. And freedom’s name is Jesus. We too long for freedom. And freedom comes to us in humility, dependence, and poverty. And freedom’s name is Jesus.
Tonight, freedom is born once again. And freedom’s name is Jesus, who brings forgiveness, healing, and love. All we need do, is reach out and take hold of this tiny, helpless baby, whose name is freedom, and God’s gift of forgiveness, healing, and love will be ours.
Merry Christmas everyone! God’s gift of freedom, whose name is Jesus, is yours this night. All you have to do, is reach out, and take hold.
 Luke 2: 1 – 5
 Isaiah 9: 4 – 5
There is a reason why we celebrate Christmas at the end of December, when the weather has turned cold, the days are short and the nights are long and dark. There is a reason we celebrate Christmas at the darkest, coldest time of the year. There is a reason why we come out into the dark, cold night and make our way to churches and chapels, cathedrals and monasteries all over the world, on this night of all nights.
Our ancestors in the faith knew why, because they knew something about night and about darkness. They who lived in a world lit only by fire, knew that the world, at least at this time of the year, was indeed a dark, cold place. They knew something about the dark. They knew, as we probably don’t, how easy it is to get lost in the dark. They knew, as we probably don’t, that there are indeed things to be afraid of in the dark. They knew, as we probably don’t, that danger lurked in the darkness of the night.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking in Harvard Square with my brother, John Oyama, and we were talking about the Christmas lights (or holiday lights!) that are strung across the streets, on lamp poles, in shop windows, and on the gables of houses here in Cambridge and in so many places across the States and beyond this time of year.
“Isn’t that interesting” and “why do they do that?” we were saying to one another. If we were to ask the public works department, and shopkeepers, and you who are householders, “why do we adorn our life and livelihood with lights at this time of year?” we would undoubtedly hear a great variety of explanations, the lowest common denominator probably being, “It’s a tradition,” or “It’s our custom; this is what we’ve always done.” Which is true… mostly.