In the Christmas Pageant, we’re brought face to face with two backdrops, two landscapes or pictures of life – the human and the heavenly. Life that is of the earth and life that is of the spirit. Why is Jesus called Emmanuel? What is the purpose of his coming to be with us? It’s much more than just “saving us from our sin.” A really smart, really powerful God could certainly figure out how to do that without actually coming and being with us.
But Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. God choosing to move into the nitty-gritty, daily grind of our daily lives. Making the ‘stuff’ of our daily lives, the places where we work, we live, we love, we pay taxes and we die – making those places full of meaning and purpose. Through Jesus, God has chosen to live and move, to make his home among us. God has moved into our neighborhood and into our very existence and into every area of our lives.
Joseph and Mary were traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem to participate in a census. Just like we participate in our country’s census when we fill out the form. That census or accounting includes (1) where you live (2) what your occupation is (3) How old you are (4) Whether you’re married or single, etc., etc., etc. This isn’t a bad thing. All countries do that. It’s just that in Jesus day when communication was slow census taking would last for many days; you had to travel into your family’s home town and register.
Everyone had to go to their designated area, kind of like we’re assigned a polling place to vote. But it was a long trip for Joseph and Mary. Traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem would be like us traveling from El Cajon to LA to register – on foot! That would be a trip of over 130 miles each way, probably walking, which is how most people traveled back in Jesus time, a trip that could take maybe a week, going and coming. And Joseph and Mary were traveling especially slowly.
A census is not all bad. It’s simply the civic way of getting a handle of who, where, how and how many people live in specific areas of the country, a necessary accounting for all governments, even today. So that’s the secular, the ‘human’ backdrop of what was going on. Now let’s look at this picture from another view. Let’s call this the heavenly view. The setting with the barn and the manger, outside of town, and in the open fields nearby, with shepherds and sheep, farmland. And, then you have Mary and Joseph setting up, and the baby is born. He’s probably put into an animal trough with straw or hay, what we always hear of as the manger.
And over this manger you have this unusual bright shining star. You have shepherds listening to angels singing in the skies. You have wise men traveling great distances from the East, perhaps India, coming in with horses or camels loaded with gifts. This is the special picture of Christian tradition, the picture that brings heavenly meaning to a very human situation – people traveling, a couple having a baby. You have the manger scene with stars overhead, shepherds, wise men and angels, cattle lowing in the night, and an awesome wonder and quietness. A picture with heavenly meaning set against the secular or human backdrop of something as mundane as the taking of a census.
Think about it – the whole world measures historical time by how long before and after the birth of Jesus something happened. We live almost 2000 years after the birth of Jesus Christ. He has come into the world to bring peace, to bring hope. And, that hope is for you and for me. Jesus lives today. He lives in our hearts. He lives to intervene for us, to help make your life have sense and purpose and meaning.
That’s what Christmas is. The heavenly story is still there, the one that gives meaning to our human story. The secular backdrop is still there, too – census-taking, business-making, sheep-herding, inn-keeping, gift-giving. But the story that gives our human lives heavenly meaning, that Jesus Christ has come into the world to show us that God is with us, born as child in a manger, but living among us still – that story is still real today 2,000 years later.
Come away, come away, and come today to Bethlehem.
Come adore on bended knee, one whose birth the angels sing.
Come away; come away, from your noisy celebration, to a place of quietness and peace.
Come with wonder, come with awe. Take your place among sheep and cattle.
Sing with joy, praise God, for the time of promise has come. Sing the good news of Emmanuel: God-with-us! The Christ has come!
Come away, come away, come today to Bethlehem.
(A Litany for Christmas Eve, from Bread for the Journey, Ruth C. Duck, ed.)
The Reverend Dr. David Madsen