Sermon Christmas Day Rev. Betsy Hogan
Did you have a nativity scene in your house growing up? We had a beautiful one – it was all Hummel figurines and my sister and I were barely allowed to touch it. I really think that the way in which we learned and experienced an appropriately Christmassy sense of awe and wonder was simply by watching, every year, as my mum unwrapped each precious and fragile figure and placed them in the stable.
But nevertheless, or maybe as a result, when I grew up and had my own home, the nativity scenes that made their way into our family traditions early on were all very emphatically unbreakable. One carved out of wood, a second delicately crocheted, and the last one actually made out of corn husks.
And they’re fine – they’re not glorious, but they’re fine – and they are all notable in one very special way.
None of them has a Baby Jesus. Three nativity scenes, three theoretical baby Jesusses, and we have no idea where they went.
It isn’t that they each disappeared once and were never seen again – they actually, each of those three baby Jesusses, used to disappear regularly. Sometimes three or four times each December. I’d find Baby Jesus tucked up in bed with Jack, or visiting the Teletubbies. Once he was driving a firetruck. Most of the time he’d just be somewhere Jack or Tom had been, like the washroom or the kitchen. And he’d be rescued and put back in the stable, only to disappear again shortly thereafter.
And I thought that this was just one of those weird things that clergy kids do. Steal baby Jesus out of his manger to play with him. No doubt because of the deep and abiding love for baby Jesus that their mother has surely taught them. Unless of course it’s just that at Christmas baby Jesus seems to be getting an awful lot of mum’s attention, so they think it’d be nice to get rid of him.
Either way, I thought it was a clergy kid thing. But it’s really not. It’s just a kid thing! Apparently baby Jesusses disappear ALL THE TIME. In normal houses too! And get found in pockets, and strange places around the house, and tucked up in someone’s bed ALL THE TIME. In fact, in the nativity set that we have here at St. Matthew’s, we had to get a new baby Jesus because the original one disappeared. Perhaps he’s gone to live with one of you?
I had no idea it was a thing. But apparently Baby Jesus goes missing all the time.
Of course, there’s always the option of chaining him down. I was recalling the Christmas reflections this week of Dr. Janet Hunt, who’s a professor and a minister in Illinois. And apparently there’s a church in Chicago that has a nearly life-sized nativity set out on its lawn, quite beautiful and lit up – but if you look closely at it you’ll see that Baby Jesus has been chained to the ground. Having gone missing numerous times, it transpires, due to merry pranksters.
Because I gather that’s also kind of a ‘thing’. If your outdoor baby Jesus isn’t chained down, he’s sure to take off. One church in Florida actually attached a GPS to baby Jesus, so they could find him each time he disappeared and bring him back.
And another Baby Jesus was anonymously returned to his owner eight months later, all wrapped up with a series of pictures showing what he’d been up to in the meantime – sitting on a bicycle, hanging out in someone’s kitchen, climbing a tree…
There’s some speculation, apparently, if you google ‘stolen baby Jesus’, that sometimes baby Jesus gets taken as a sort of Advent protest – he’s not been born yet, you see, so he oughtn’t to be there.
But I think it’s far more likely, at least in most cases, that it’s really just meant as a prank. And certainly when baby Jesusses go missing in our homes, it’s just because he’s special and tiny hands want to play with him.
Which is kind of awesome. And even though I know it must be annoying, if you have an outdoor nativity scene, to have your baby Jesus disappear at the hands of pranksters, I still can’t help but get all metaphorical when I hear those stories.
Because honestly, the REAL Jesus, he doesn’t just stay chained down in the manger. He can’t. We may wish he would sometimes, just lie there looking sweet and innocent and rosy and non-threatening –
But the real Jesus – one of my favourite contemporary Christmas poems is written by Luci Shaw. It’s called “As if Infancy Were the Whole of Incarnation”.
And in the second stanza she reminds us
Yet if we celebrate, let it be
that He is everywhere,
has invaded our lives with purpose,
striding over our picturesque traditions,
our shallow sentiment,
overthrowing our cash registers,
wielding His peace like a sword,
rescuing us into reality,
demanding much more
than the milk and the softness
and the mother warmth
of the baby in the storefront crèche…
We may wish he would sometimes, just lie there looking sweet and innocent and rosy and non-threatening –
But the real Jesus – he IS on the move, he IS getting up to things.
He’s tucked into pockets, he’s at dinner tables when we gather with family and friends, he’s sitting by hospital beds and he’s IN hospital beds. He’s serving up Christmas dinner at a shelter, and he’s grateful for the Christmas dinner at a shelter.
He can’t be just permanently attached to the manger because we meet him – we experience his presence and his love and his message of peace – all over the place. In every act of generosity and caring, and every moment of reconciliation, and every time we’re reminded that ALL people, no matter how humble or broken or worn out by life, are children of God. Are our brothers and sisters.
That’s what the Incarnation really is – not simply God entering the world in an infant, and permanently attached to his cradle, but God entering the world in the fullness of human life and experience. Untraceable by GPS, perhaps, but wholly beyond any efforts we may make to chain him down.
Not that I’m suggesting that we all go on some sort of baby Jesus stealing rampage or something. But if you look in your nativity scene and he happens to be gone? In some ways, that means Christmas really has arrived. Thanks be to God. Amen.