In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In “those days…”
I wonder when “those days” are supposed to be.
I have “those days.”
Those days when everything seems to be amiss.
Those days when it appears that love has hitchhiked to the next county and isn’t coming back; when loneliness has set in to the point that darkness seems like it will never leave.
Those days when the world has turned all around to the point that up and down are no longer real directions because I don’t recognize where I am in life, let alone which way is positive and which way is negative, which way leads to life and which to death.
In “those days…”
In those days of Jesus’ birth there was peace. Pax Romana, we call it, the “Roman Peace” brought on through imperial domination.
Rome won all the wars. It forced people to be peaceful…according to the Roman definition of “peace” which sometimes involved people being hung from crosses or eaten by wild beasts for sport. Not exactly a Christmasy sentiment…
In those days of Jesus’ birth counting people was the task at hand. How many are here? We have to have the numbers if we’re going to assess how much people are worth, after all. Your taxes were directly dependent upon your citizenship and status.
In those days people’s worth and wealth were directly connected.
That, in many ways, doesn’t only sound like “those days”…it sounds a lot like “to-day.”
Luke’s beginning to this most memorable reading sets us squarely in place. I imagine he’s expecting us to land in the first century when Quirinius is governor of Syria.
But it also sets us squarely in “those days.” Those days when it seems like there’s nothing left to us and everything is going cold. Where we try to force ourselves into a peaceful state, only to fall back into darkness.
Much like the cold of Christmas Eve night. Much like the darkness of Christmas Eve night.
I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s worth repeating, Christmas Eve reminds me a lot of our other big late-into-the-evening-I’m-so-sleepy-why-am-I-here? service: The Easter Vigil.
Because this, too, is a vigil.
The Easter vigil is where we await the resurrection, where God brings life out of death.
But Christmas Eve is a different sort of vigil.
Instead of waiting for resurrection, on Christmas Eve night we await a death.
Now, I know that might be surprising to hear, especially because Christmas is all about babies being born and cookies frosted and ringing bells and warm feelings.
But, trust me: this waiting for a death is a good thing.
Christmas Eve we keep vigil, waiting for the Emmanuel, the God-with-us, once again, so that “those days” can die.
Those days when we feel unloving and unloveable. Those days when we feel we aren’t worth it. Those days when we fear that our lives are purposeless, that our existence is accident, that our only hope is in our hands or in our emptying bank accounts or in…nothing.
Those days when we try to force peace upon our lives but fail as we’re devoured by the beasts of greed, fear, anxiety and hung on the cross of our ego…
On Christmas Eve we light a candle, we celebrate the silence of the night as “those days” gives out one last gasping breath and we remember that those days are gone if the Nativity story is true.
Joy to the world. Joy to you and me. “Those days” are gone.
God rest ye merry gentlemen and gentlewoman, “those days” have only the power we allow them to have because their real power is gone.
We wish you a merry Christmas because “those days” are impotent.
So forget about whether or not the Nativity is factually real in all its glorious, romantic detail. Theologically it is real in the most true sense of the word!
Because in “those days” God saw fit to show humanity, show us, that we have purpose enough for God to take on our form and show love. That we are deliberately and wonderfully made in our existence. That our hope is not in our hands or our emptying bank accounts, but in the hands of the small babe on that night when heaven was emptied so that the earth might know the fullness of God’s love.
Christmas Eve celebrates that those days are gone, and new day has begun. A day full of God’s grace shown in the smallness of kicking legs and infant cries; a grace so vulnerable that even you and I can approach it with the assurance that it does not harm but only helps.
Such is God’s nature; such is God’s grace.
That night, light a candle to the death of those days. And as we pass that flame from one candle to the next, we’ll create new light with all of our waxy ends, reminding us that the darkness of those days is dispelled on Christmas Eve night.
The night of the newborn baby.
The night of the new light.
The death of “those days.”