My friends, I have bad news. It’s Christmas Eve, and the baby Jesus appears to be missing.
You know how a lot of churches set up their nativity scene during Advent, and leave an empty space for the baby Jesus in the middle? Everyone’s there: Mary, Joseph, the token shepherd with his token lamb, the three magi, all pointed toward that empty space in the middle, just waiting, waiting, patiently and peacefully, for the baby Jesus to appear?
Well, I did that with my heart this year. I filled my spiritual life with carols and colors of red and green and gold; with pine-scented candles and brightly-wrapped packages; and I aimed them all at this empty space in my heart, and waited for the baby Jesus to come and fill it, and to flood my heart with the joy and peace and delicious anticipation of Christmas.
But it’s Christmas Eve, and that space is still empty. There is a baby-Jesus shaped hole in my waiting heart, and I don’t think he’s coming to fill it. I feel no pregnant expectation, no sense that the uninhibited Christmas joy I used to know is just around the corner. All I feel was that emptiness, surrounded by this glitter of bright things that, when I was a child, told me that something wonderful was about to happen, but now that I’m grown up, just makes the emptiness starker.
As you can imagine, this sucks with particular intensity when you’re supposed to be writing a Christmas sermon for tomorrow. Those people in the pews are going to want a message of hope and happiness, and dammit, I want that for them! I want to preach a message about a chubby-cheeked baby God that fills them with warm fuzzies, and for that to be enough. But it hasn’t been enough for me, and if I preached those words, I suspect that they would be as empty as that space in my heart.
And on top of that, I find myself staring down John 1:1-14, the most un-Christmas-y Christmas story in the Bible. John’s gospel clearly doesn’t jibe with the chubby-cheeked baby angle. In John 1, there is nary an angelic chorus nor woolly baaaaa to be heard. No Mary. No Joseph. No magi. Just…
…the tremendous clash of two spheres of reality, one divine, one mortal: a clash contained in an unquenchable light, an immortal creative force that John calls THE WORD.
Great. Thanks, Lectionary.
Look, the thing is, I suspect that I’m not the only one here dealing with an empty, baby-Jesus-shaped space in my heart. But maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe that emptiness doesn’t mean that I, that we, did Christmas wrong. I’ve been thinking about John’s gospel, and now I wonder if that emptiness doesn’t mean that we’ve outgrown a certain VERSION of Christmas.
Because: we live in a world of pain and confusion, of broken promises and relentless sin against God and one another; a world of war and sickness and doubt and death, and too often, way too often, Christmas feels not like the day when we remember who came to heal our brokenness, but a day to pretend that none of that brokenness is happening.
We pretend that the peace and goodwill we actively generate on December the 25th are enough to redeem the heartbreak and dysfunction that distort our relationships the other 364 days of the year. We even make the birth of our Savior a mirror of that pretending, and make believe that when the Word became flesh 2000 years ago it was sweet and starlit and silent.
I mean, look at our hymns. I read this blog post by the fabulous Jason Chesnut this year, and nodded along as he observed that we sing “Silent night, holy night” like the silence of that night wasn’t rent by the screams of a woman in the middle of a messy, non-epidural, first-century birth—like that can’t be holy, too.
We sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,” like Bethlehem isn’t today, right now, at this moment, a place of violence and conflict, surrounded by a massive wall.
We sing about how “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” like this infant has nothing to do with the guy who flips over Temple tables, and sobs in the Garden of Gethsemane, and cries out from the cross.
Maybe the reason the little baby Jesus hasn’t shown up in this nice little place I’ve made up for him in the middle of the Christmas I long to celebrate, the one where everything is fine, is because baby Jesus didn’t show up at that Christmas. He showed up at the one that happened in a broken world, the one that actually needed him.
If you, too, are feeling today a guilty sense of disappointment because you don’t feel the way you should on this joyful Christmas eve; if you can’t find the baby Jesus; if you too have a glittering empty space in your heart, I invite you to let go of your guilt and disappointment and try a new solution: nothing.
Because the baby-Jesus-shaped hole in our hearts is the mirror of the crucified-Jesus shaped hole in the tomb.
Jesus is not always where we last put him. The empty space, like the empty tomb, is a place to encounter the first flush of disappointment that Jesus doesn’t show up where or how we expect, and to encounter the joy of knowing that this is because Jesus lives, and brings us all to life.
The emptiness is not a failure, but a sign that God’s plans a so big, and so unexpectedly beautiful, that tombs and hearts cannot contain them. A sign that our pretending is unnecessary, because God’s love and redemption is enough for everything in creation. A sign that the most reliable place to look for Jesus is not in the place where you last saw him, but in the dirty gardener standing behind you and offering you a tissue.
Thanks be to the little baby Jesus.