The snow is falling in Allepo, that city in Syria which has been fought over for many months. The temperatures are very low and it is bitterly cold. Its streets have been savaged by the bombs that have fallen on it. Many people have, over the last few days, been moved from the city to tented villages, far from the homes and the city that they once knew. Families have been bussed out to unknown destinations, old people lifted and carried by strong young men, young children have been wrapped in thick blankets to keep them from being cold. They are fleeing from the violence of these many months, when the killing machine of war rained down bombs on their city and the bare essentials of food and water and shelter were denied to them.
The parallels between this and the Christmas story are very stark and real. In the Christmas story, people are also forced to take to the road to satisfy their conquerors. Likewise they also are forced to travel in the dead of night to unknown destinations where safe lodgings do not wait them, but they will be forced to scramble for things that are offered to them. They also will be crammed into places and towns exactly like these tented villages that cover barren landscapes. Uprooted from their land they too face an uncertain future, forced to leave their homes where they will be at the mercy of an unscrupulous king who will do everything to keep his position even to killing children in order to hold onto power, in the same ways as the powers of our own day don’t seem to care what their campaigns of war are doing to the weakest and most vulnerable. .
The terror and the loneliness and the sense of danger stalks the present time as it did in the Christmas story.
Joseph and Mary know what it means, like the men and women of our day, to be forced onto the road. They knew what modern day victims of war know, arriving in an unknown place and finding little or no help. They knew what people know in our own day being caught in the middle of a power play and being sacrificed like worthless pawns. They knew the terror of the night where they flee to places of safety from soldiers who wish to do them harm.
It is in these circumstances that the Christ child is be born. Not in a safe place, not in a time of plenty, not in comfort. We cannot help but ponder and wonder at this. Is this not the very meaning of why Christ comes into the world, he comes to embrace what it means to be a human being for so many? A woman reviled because she is with child, a father who takes in a pregnant woman, a couple driven out of their home, a couple who are homeless at the time of this child’s birth, a child who is born in poverty, a family caught up in violence, a family that flees for its life, a family that lives as refugees. Is the mystery of Christmas not exactly about this? God embraces the most vulnerable, the poorest, the most abandoned, the outcast. He comes to embrace them, to be one like them, to share the burden and to give the sign – that God is with them, truly with them, God is with his people, among his people, has become one with his people.
We know that this is not the end of it. This will be exactly what will become of this child. He will find himself in the throng of sick people, abandoned people, people who have lost their way. He will completely identify with the poor on the cross, the abandoned, the rejected, the ridiculed, the tormented, the reviled.
God will give a sign. Here is the sign, a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. The most vulnerable and helpless thing of all. This is the sign he gives that he cares for us, because he comes down from heaven and accepts the lowliest of places, the poorest of spots, the most insignificant of places to be born. In the story of his birth he says that he cares for the family forced on the road, cares for the people fleeing from violence, cares for the homeless, cares for every human being in dire circumstances – cares for all human beings. He gives the sign that he is born as one of us.
In the mystery of being born into the world God embraces everything of what it means to be human, our frailty, our loneliness, the sense of danger, the difficulty of life on the edge and redeems it, lifts it up, rescues it, wins it back. In the outstretched arms of the tiny child of Bethlehem he embraces everything, gathers everything in of what it means to be a human being, every joy and every sadness, every difficulty and every triumph. In the tiny hands of this child of Bethlehem he holds it all.
This is the reason why we find ourselves in this Church, marking this day, singing these hymns, gazing into this crib. It is this unfathomable mystery that God could come in this way, could allow himself to be with us in this way, could permit himself to be treated in this way. And in the end he could only do this because if he loved us, loved us with an infinite love.
Here is the sign he gives to you and me, to those who know him and those who don’t know him, to those who elieve in him and those who don’t believe in him, to those who care and those who don’t care: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.