What does Christmas look like? That’s a simple question. It looks like the manger scenes on my desk, on my nightstand, in the living room, in the church narthex, and eventually the pageant on Christmas Eve in the sanctuary. If you were to ask most people at church, they’d say, “Christmas looks like the events of Luke chapter 2”. Some manger scenes are more elaborate than others. Whether the camels are cardboard or real, they all share certain commonalities. Baby Jesus is in the center. In the pageants, sometimes, Jesus isn’t real. Personally, I prefer a living baby to portray Jesus. Nine times out of ten Jesus will be a baby doll. This year, on Christmas Eve, our baby Jesus will be played by young Grady. Go, Grady! It’s a big year for Grady – being born and playing Jesus.
Grady won’t be in a manger. Like most babies (Jesus included) he’ll probably want to be held. The holding responsibilities fall to the next central character, Mary. Mary and Jesus are in the center of the frame. Surrounding Mary and Grady (I mean, Jesus) is a painted a backdrop giving the appearance of being in a barn. At the very top of the display is a plastic star. The three wise men will arrive well in advance of the Epiphany (in about 3-4 minutes) after following our heavenly star. Did I mention Joseph? Joseph doesn’t say much. Joseph has only been to a few rehearsals and isn’t entirely comfortable with his part; as Joseph should be.
The shepherds are an unruly lot. The average age of the shepherd is around four. They are keenly aware of their need for granola bars, orange juice, and when the angel should arrive. Like the original shepherds, their hands are always messy. They roam the fringes of the sanctuary in search of someone called “Noel.” Is this not how Christmas looks? Yes. Christmas also appears more significant than we allow ourselves to imagine. Even though we are playing our small part in retelling this age-old drama, it seems vitally important to the larger Christmas story as a whole. If we don’t do our bit, how will the entire grand event continue?
The events in Luke 2, which we call Christmas, also points to the Christmas beyond Christmas. Christmas doesn’t end at the manger and Advent doesn’t stop when the shepherds arrive. Christmas keeps moving toward something more substantial and expansive. The manger, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, point us toward God’s more massive Christmas. What is God’s larger Christmas?
God’s more massive Christmas is in Isaiah 12:1-6. This is as much Christmas as any manger, star, or wise man. This is what we’re supposed to see and how we’re supposed to live beyond the stable. Remember, Christmas isn’t solely for the observing. We are not passive bystanders watching someone else’s story. Ultimately, we need to do something with Christmas. Live this joy, good news, and song in such a way that our lives become different. Isaiah gives us a clue on what and how to live Christmas.
You will say on that day:
I will give thanks to you, O LORD,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.
2 Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the LORD GOD * is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the LORD,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.
5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known* in all the earth.
6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal* Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
That is what Christmas looks like. “I will trust and not be afraid”. We see it embodied in the actions of the Holy Family. Christmas is comfort where anger once rightly dwelled. Christmas is the incarnation of love through song, “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously, let this be known in all the earth.” God’s love becomes tangible through the purest form of human expression. With joy, we come to our salvation. This is Christmas. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? No, I don’t think you do. It’s not the nativity scene. The manger points us here, to Isaiah.
Christmas doesn’t look like Bethlehem. Christmas is a life imbued with joy, gratitude, love for others, and a love for God. Yes, I see glimpses of the Christmas vision in the manger scene and pageant. I also see Christmas beyond the barn, in Isaiah’s world, among the community I call home.
Richard Lowell Bryant