Christmas Eve, St Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany, CA. Luke 2:1-14
This past Friday, I took a walk around my neighborhood at sunset in a section I’d never walked before. And there, tucked in the midst of several blocks of homes, much like St Alban’s is, there is a synagogue. And probably like many folks in Albany who don’t know about St Alban’s because they don’t stray far off Solano, I was unaware that this synagogue existed in my own neighborhood, until this past Friday.
At first glance, I thought the building didn’t see much activity, if any. A porch light shone on the steps but there were no lights on inside. There was one sign and it told me only the name of the congregation Chochmat HaLev – the name means Wisdom of the Heart.
As I walked up the sidewalk along the side of the building, I realized it was Friday and the sun was setting and there should be people buzzing around the property, preparing for a Shabbat service. But it was deserted. Then, as I approached the side door of the building where a porchlight shone from the ceiling of an alcove, I saw it.
Lying across the porch blocking the double door was a simple bed. A few layers of foam with a couple of blankets and a square blue throw pillow. Someone at the synagogue had prepared a place for a traveler, a person without a home.
It wasn’t much, really. It wasn’t a four-poster bed. It wasn’t a soft, downy mattress with lots of pillows. It wasn’t even a cot in someone’s guest room. It was just a few layers of foam with a couple of blankets and a square blue throw pillow.
A place for a stranger to lay his head. A soft bed waiting, welcoming… intentionally made for someone without a home. It wasn’t much. But as I stood there looking at it, it somehow felt opulent.
We’ve heard the nativity story before, from much better storytellers and interpreters than me. Mary and Joseph traveled from where they lived to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem. Mary’s labor started and they had to find a place to rest, a place where Mary could give birth. Anything would do. And they were given permission to bed down in a stable because there was no place at the inn.
It’s hard to imagine less opulent, less hospitable circumstances for the birth of this child. For unlike the bed lying in wait on the porch of the synagogue, the preparations for Jesus’ birth were anything but intentional. Mary and Joseph were traveling. There was no room indoors for them and no one had laid a bed out for them in expectation of their arrival.
Is this how the light of Christ is supposed to be welcomed into the world? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Perhaps a better question is, is this how the light of Christ IS welcomed into the world? And the answer is… yes.
For the light of Christ comes to us regardless of preparation, regardless of whether we think we are worthy or ready, regardless of what we think is our ability to receive this blessing.
There we are… shopping for gifts, wrapping presents, baking cookies, trimming trees, buying that last minute quart of eggnog… tending our flocks. We function, plan, accomplish, achieve goals, cross things off our to-do list. Often, these are good, necessary things – taking care of ourselves and the people we love to the best of our ability. Yet this is when it happens, when we are tending our flocks. This is when the light of Christ is born.
Perhaps we stop to take look at the beauty that surrounds us, for no reason other than it just occurred to us to do so. Or maybe we catch another person’s eye and laugh at the absurdity of a situation we both find ourselves to be in. Perhaps we just take in a nice, long breath and feel how the oxygen feeds our cells. It’s not much, when this happens, but it always feels opulent.
We suddenly realize that whatever we are doing is somehow less important than we thought it was. We see how connected we are. We are caught unawares as we go about our business and somehow instantly know that we are not, that not one of us is alone.
And despite what Good News this is, it can be terrifying. Just like it was for the shepherds, this message that we are not alone, that God is with us, can feel scary. Because it can be hard to hear that you don’t have to do anything to be loved by God. It can be hard to accept that you are good simply because you breathe. It can be hard to realize that the bed in the alcove of the synagogue has been laid out for you.
This is how Christ is born into the world. This is how God makes Godself known to us. This sudden, unexpected invitation to love that we happen upon on our walk through our own neighborhood. It isn’t much, but somehow, it’s always opulent.
The nativity story tells us that despite the lack of hospitality, the world is changed on this night when Jesus is born. Because on this night, the world is reminded that God is with us. God makes God’s home amongst us.
So, here we are, my friends. Here we are. The wait is over. Our only task now is to stop for a moment and take a breath, to rest in God’s invitation that is the Christ light. Because God is here amongst us, no matter what we have done or what we have not done. God is with us.
Breathe and rest in Christ – God is in our midst.