And is it true? The choices of lessons for Christmas Day approach that question in two ways. St. Luke tells us the story, a story we've heard year by year. Because we are so familiar with the tale, its truth may not engage us anymore. Yes, it's a beautiful story. A young girl gives birth to a baby in a cave used to house farm animals. The child is placed in a feeding trough. We don't know whether Joseph was able to find a midwife to assist in the birth. We do know that they took shelter in the cave because there were "no vacancy" signs on the doors of all the inns, the motels of that day.
Bethlehem was full of visitors because a politician far away had decided on a census, a way to establish how many people there were in an area who could be taxed and what property and income they possessed. In this case, people were not counted where they lived; they were sent back to their ancestral hometowns. Beneath the story runs a tale of oppression, of people at the mercy of a tyrant, a people enslaved by conquerors. The story has a familiar ring to it even today. Dress it up with tinsel, with poinsettias, shining stars and angels if you will, but this is a story of oppression and vulnerability, of injustice with little mercy.
And is it true? It is certainly familiar. It rings true enough. Perhaps its telling again today may inspire us to show mercy and act kindly toward those in need. But the truth of this story lies deeper. It isn't just a morality play, or a docudrama. So another choice for looking at the gospel today takes us deeper, much deeper. And that's when things get complicated. We may, perhaps, accept the politics of the story, but can we get our heads around the theology of the story?
The word "theology" can be off-putting. We want a simple faith, even though we don't like to be thought to be simple ourselves, and theology sounds complicated. Yet the first fourteen verses of St John's Gospel, Chapter One, is anything but simple. It teaches that the baby born in a cave among farm animals is God the Word, the second Person of the Trinity.
And is it true? If we have much taste for a God, what we want and think we need is a powerful God. True, we want a god who is kind to us. God can be rough on those we don't like, but must be compassionate to us. Yet Christmas Day reveals a vulnerable God, a helpless God, a baby God. It shows a God who needs parents and friends, who needs protection and care. What an extraordinary idea! This is a God who calls us to love him, even though he can't do a thing for us except gurgle, smile, and even cry. Here's a God who keeps us awake at night and yells for food.
Certainly any mother knows how wonderful it is to love and be loved by a baby. Even the hardest heart may be melted by the sight of a radiant mother and her baby. Christmas Day challenges us to see that sight, it calls us to allow our hearts to melt. We are called not to receive, but to give. We are called to give our hearts and love to God the Son, God the Baby, receiving nothing more, or less, than love's reward. For love is a doing, a giving, a surrendering, a merging. It breaks down our walls of separation, our pride and bitterness, our self-assuredness and pretended autonomy. Christmas teaches us that before we receive from God we must first give ourselves to God unconditionally, come what may. And so God challenges us to see him as a baby, a dispossessed baby born in a cave and placed in a food trough.
John Betjeman, the English poet, wrote a poem called "Christmas." Here is the last verse of that poem. Listen to it and take it to heart, and then give yourself to Jesus the Baby as he comes in Bread and Wine:
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.