Principle Lesson (Christmas Eve): Luke 2:1-20
Do you get oranges in your stocking! We did – even when I was very little living in Cleveland, we got oranges in our stockings. Oranges at Christmas in Cleveland were quite the treat – a taste of the tropics amidst the cold and snow. Of course, when we moved from Ohio to Florida the traditional oranges in the stocking followed. Although I was only seven, I remember a few scenes from that first Florida Christmas quite clearly. One of the memories was of my mother, a few days before Christmas, frantic that she forgot the oranges, worried that she wouldn’t be able to find them on such short notice. It was our first Christmas in Florida, and she wanted it all to be perfect. And then, I can still see the glimmer of joy on her face, she remembered where we had moved!!! She casually pulled over the car to the side of the road where a young woman was selling oranges by the bushel on the side of the road.
At the end of the second world war, refugees abounded and were loaded into camps until the world could figure out what to do with the millions of displaced people. Refugee camps were filled to overflowing with children who’d lost their families during the war. In one such camp, in a village in central France, lived René. René was maybe seven years old – like me on my first Florida Christmas – and he could barely remember the family. They had all died at the hands of the Nazis almost three years before. By the time this story takes place, René had been living in the refugee camp for displaced children for over a year. A few religious sisters ran the camp but they could never scrape together enough money to properly feed or clothe or educate the children. But they did their best, and the children were indeed lucky to be alive. As it was, the children in the camp hardly noticed that Christmas was approaching until one of the nuns announced that a neighbor had promised to come by on Christmas Eve to drop off a sack of oranges. René had a vague memory of an orange, from a year or two earlier when a stranger had shared the last section of an orange with him. He remembered the taste as the orange squeezed precious juice into his mouth and as it dribbled down his chin. René spent the days leading up to Christmas Eve dreaming of having an orange of his very own – even a part of one. He thought about the smell of the orange, dreamed of peeling the orange, and carefully considered whether or not to devour each and every section of the orange all at once or whether he should divide it and save a section or two for Christmas morning.
When Christmas Eve arrived the children were so excited as the nuns did what they could to bring some Christmas cheer to the camp. When the neighbor arrived there was so much jostling for position that little René found himself at the end of the queue. He strained to see the treasure that awaited him and sure enough the aroma of oranges began to waft René’s way. As campmates danced their oranges around the room, René saw the neighbor’s expression begin to change. The neighbor looked so very sad when he began to deliver the shattering news to René that all the oranges were gone. The neighbor was trying to apologize when René shot from the room and ran all the way to his dormitory and flung himself on his bed and began to sob. In the midst of his grief little René didn’t hear the other children come into the room. As his body heaved and his sobs robbed him of his breath, he didn’t feel the tap on his shoulder.
It was the smell of orange that finally caught his attention. As René raised his head from his pillow, he caught sight of the little girl’s outstretched hand. On her palm lay a peeled orange, it was made up of a wedge saved from the oranges of the other children. When last saw Father René in 1999 he was dying. He told me this story and still maintained that that was the most beautiful, tangy, juicy orange that he had tasted in his fifty-three years since of savoring an orange on Christmas Eve.
Today we celebrate the incarnation of our God! We celebrate the moment that God condescends to become like unto us – thus lifting us up to live into the image of our creation. Today we celebrate the incarnation not just wrought from love but of Love itself. We celebrate the very one who we claim spoke creation into being entering into that same creation and taking on flesh. We celebrate the incarnation of the Word of Love that lies at the very heart of all that is.
The incarnation of love that the nativity parables point to is the same love encountered in Jesus during his ministry. Yes, in Jesus – in this radical, freethinking, boundary-breaking, justice-seeking, peacemaking, wound-healing Jesus – we discover the icon of the God who is love in ways that shatter our understanding. In our experience of Jesus, even death cannot rob us, even pandemics cannot hold us down. That’s why the Christmas parable is so important in our annual celebrations of life. Everything about the Nativity parable points us to the reality of the divine in everyday, fleshy stuff of life. In the simple birth of a child, in the poverty of a people, in the struggle to be free, in our quest to love and to be loved in the world, it is here that the divine takes on flesh and dwells among us. Wherever we are connected in relationship to one another, as (we might say) we “love actually,” there is divinity incarnate and the Word enfleshed, the anointed essence of life itself.
When I was a kid, when it came time to cast the Christmas pageant, shepherds ranked pretty low on the list of desirable parts. I was always a shepherd – mostly because I didn’t take direction well. The most coveted role, of course, was Mary. After that, I expect that the three wise men get top billing, because you get to wear fancy robes and a crown, and got to bring gifts to the baby Jesus. The angels and even the boy who got pressed into service as Joseph, while they weren’t quite at the rank of the wise men, had some star power.
As for the shepherds, we get to wear bathrobes with blankets over their heads. (You can thank Linus here). We had no crowns and no wings, no gifts, and no grand songs to sing. There were just blankets and bathrobes. While the angels hang out in the heavens, broadcasting the good news, the shepherds hang out in the hills with sheep and the dogs. There’s nothing too exciting about these roles, except that Luke seems to think that they’re important. So, there they are, shepherds watching the sheep by night.
Step into the story, if you can, and share in the shepherd’s vigil. You are watching the sheep, making sure that none of them wanders off or gets snatched by a lion when the silence of the night is broken, interrupted by a heavenly song and a great light. What you hear in this song is the good news that in the city of David, the Savior, Christ the Lord has been born. Consider for a moment that the news comes first, not to the palace of the king or the wise or the wealthy, but to a group of shepherds sitting on the margins of society. It’s just one more reminder that the ways of God often turn our expectations on their head.
As we come tonight, let us remember that not only did good news come to the shepherds, but the news they received tells us that the Creator of all things chose to be revealed to us, chose to come to us, as one of us, as a baby born in a stable. In telling the story, Luke continues as he began, with Mary’s song about God’s preferential option for the poor and God’s willingness to bring down the high and the mighty. This is the news that the shepherds have been called upon to proclaim to the world.
The news is the orange, pieced together, a gift to displaced and hungry people. It’s news that demands “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” ringing out on the lips of angels and shepherds both. As we return to our homes today and celebrate Christmas over the next twelve days, gathering as we shall around trees to open presents, may we remember who it is we have come to remember and honor – the gift of God, God’s very self? May we also remember that this is only the beginning of the story. Jesus doesn’t stay in the manger – lest his cuteness lull us to sleep and cause us to forget the purpose of his coming. That purpose: to reveal to us God’s work of transformation in the world, a task God in which God has invited us to share.
Therefore, as we come today to the Table and share in the Lord’s meal, may we bear in our hearts this news: Although the journey begins in a stable it will lead to a cross, and from the cross to the resurrection. May this be the message the shepherds bring to our hearts this Christmas Eve: that even in the midst of a pandemic, we can taste and see that life is sweet and good, and if we let it, its tangy, sweetness can explode in our mouths and dribble down your chin. Let the feasting begin as we celebrate that once again Christ is born and dwells among us and that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow after that, LOVE will be born again, and again, and again.
Oh, and maybe share a section with someone who needs it. Happy Christmas!