In my sermon a few weeks ago, I shared a little bit about what Christmas was like with my family when I was growing up. To me, it was always a magical time. I told the story of how my brother and sister and I always had to wait at the top of the stairs with our mom while Dad went downstairs to “get his camera” – I still remember the thundering sound of our feet on those creaky old stairs with their ugly brown carpet as we raced down to see what “Santa” had brought us.
My parents always made Christmas special. My mom in particular had a way of making the holiday magical – it seemed like our house was always full of cutout Christmas cookies and felt Christmas crafts and the sound of Christmas carols. And on Christmas Day, we would all gather at my grandma’s house – a whole motley crew of cousins and aunts and uncles, all celebrating and feasting together. It was perfect.
When I was nine, my mom died, and Christmas at home was never the same. We still had Christmas at Grandma’s house with the whole extended family and all our family traditions. But it wasn’t perfect anymore, not with my mom’s face missing around the table. And things have continued to change. Now, we’ve even stopped going to Grandma’s on Christmas Day. For several years now, it’s just been the four of us on Christmas – with no traditions to follow away from our extended family or from the time when we were a family of five. We’re in strange new territory, still trying to figure out what the perfect family Christmas should look like.
Mary and Joseph have wandered into very strange territory in our gospel reading for this evening. They were already on the strangest of journeys; the lives that they had probably planned out for themselves had been completely disrupted by angelic visitors and by the news that Mary – a teenage virgin – would give birth to the Son of God. Not exactly the way anyone expects to spend their holiday! But now, on top of all this, the powers that be have decided that a census must be taken – right now! – probably so they can more efficiently tax everybody. And so, with Mary about-to-burst pregnant, she and Joseph suddenly have to make the arduous 90-mile journey to Bethlehem – up and down mountains, across the desert, and through dangerous woods – all on foot – just so that they can be counted.
Now, Mary was a pious and deeply faithful young woman. She was told by an angel that she would conceive and bear a child who would be God incarnate. And while you or I might have responded to this news by saying, “God’s gonna do what now??” Mary simply said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary had agreed to be the gateway for God’s coming into the world. And so I can easily imagine that she had a vision for what that event would look like. I imagine that she had plans to make the whole thing as special and as magical and as perfect as possible. I don’t imagine, however, that Mary’s vision in any way involved a dank, dirty stable, 100 miles away from home, in Bethlehem.
But in that dark, smelly stable, far away from friends and family, the glory of what God had done shone out all the more brightly. Nothing had gone according to the plans I imagine Mary and Joseph had laid out – their plans for a perfect, serene, hygienic birth were lost to the chaos of last-minute travel, booked up hotels, and the frenzy of a terribly timed delivery. But what God had planned instead was so much grander and more wondrous than they could ever have imagined. God bent the heavens to give a star as a sign to all the world of the miraculous thing that had just taken place: the God of all space and time and all creation born in flesh to walk among God’s people. Hundreds of miles away, magi to the east saw the star and came bearing lavish gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Angels appeared to shepherds in the fields with blinding, heavenly light to announce the joyous news of Jesus’ birth, and they soon showed up at the stable as well, “glorifying and praising God for all they had seen.” God’s plan for how this birth would go was so much greater and more glorious than anything Mary or Joseph could have ever dreamed of as “perfect.”
God’s idea of what makes for a “perfect” or “magical” happy holiday is almost always different from our idea of perfect – it’s usually weirder – and it is always better. And sometimes God calls us on strange journeys, calls us to step out of our comfort zones, so that we can experience more fully the glory and joy of the unexpected wonders that God has in store.
I think this is certainly what has happened with my family in our Christmas celebrations. There have been no angels or shepherds – and certainly no wisemen so far – but each year we seem to find a new and different way to celebrate the birth of Christ and to delight in our time together. This year, we went to see the Book of Mormon in Lincoln and ate a holiday feast of Jimmy Johns sandwiches in a hotel room – and I think it’s honestly been one of the most perfect Christmases we’ve had yet.
So don’t worry if things aren’t perfectly how you imagined they would be this Christmas season – if holiday plans haven’t come together the way you hoped, or if you’re not where you wanted or planned to be in life right now, or if you’re missing a face or two around the table. If you’re sitting here just trying to hold it together and pretend that everything is wonderful and magical when it isn’t, take a breath, and just be still for a minute. And remember that whatever imperfection or darkness or disappointment you’re dealing with right now, it’s the kind of stuff that God stories are made of. It’s when we are pulled away from our ideas of how things “should” be that God comes nearest to us. That’s when God can most clearly show us that whatever idea of “perfect” we may have in our minds, it can’t even touch what God has planned.
So this year, I invite you to embrace the imperfection and the holiday chaos. Let go of the pressure to make things perfect and open yourself instead to experience the wild and holy mystery of Christmas Eve: a child has been born for us – God made flesh among us – authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” Merry Christmas.