Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this about celebrating Christmas: “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.”
We didn’t think God’s glory would look like this, did we? At the beginning of Advent we longed for God “to tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1), and do another awesome deed that would make mountains and nations quake. When John the Baptist announced that “one more powerful than I is coming (Mark 1:7a),” we assumed God would act dramatically. We didn’t expect such lowliness, did we?
And nothing changed as this baby grew up. When St. Paul sums up the life of this baby, he put it this way: “though he was in the form of God, (he) didn’t count equality with God as something as something to be exploited, but emptied himself (Phil 2:6-7a).” The whole story of this baby, from infancy through adulthood, was the “glory of God precisely in his lowliness.”
Celebrating Christmas correctly will require us to lay down all our usual expectations and look for God’s arrival in the unexpected place. Sam Wells tells the story about his first Christmas in a small English church. He insisted on starting a midnight service. The service would begin at 11:30pm. He advertised the service everywhere in town. At 11:30 no one had shown up and he was in tears. Then at 11:32 the door creaked open and a couple in their 40s walked in. “Is it just us?” they asked. “I am afraid it is,” Sam replied. “Oh, good,” the woman said. She then went on to explain that they were divorced and their being together hadn’t gone over well with other people. They hadn’t been to church in a year. They decided to give this church a try, but waited until no one else had arrived before they dared come in. “Our lives are a mixture of love and shame. We feel we’re in the dust. We want to begin again.” Reflecting on that night, Sam says, “And there I’d been, two minutes earlier, cursing indifference. And there was God, making glory from the dust of the earth.”
Celebrating Christmas correctly will require new eyes that see God in the lowly, every day, unimpressive places of life. We saw God’s glory last Sunday night at Dinner Church in our Parish Hall. Bluegrass and barbecue wrapped up in a communion service in which I spilled wine all over the table. Everyday folk gathered around everyday tables, all power, honor, reputation, and vanity left aside. We saw God’s last Saturday as three hundred families picked up gifts and turkeys as part of Inter Parish Ministries Adopt-a-Family Christmas. As we welcomed these families, we welcomed the God who arrives in those struggling to make ends meet.
As we prepare to celebrate Christmas this coming weekend, let us turn our attention to the lowly places where God is even now coming to be with us.