Recently I discovered that I can grow a beard. It happened by accident. I got really busy last semester and didn’t shave for about two weeks. It came in, several people complimented me on it, but it was really scratchy and itchy and I ended up shaving it off. Still, the question lingered in my head, and so this fall I tried again. The scratchy and itchy phase came, and then I had to deal with the mess of trying to maintain it. I got one of those clipper things and asked my buddy to show me how to use it. We put a sheet on my chair in my room and, an hour later, it looked like a bomb went off. I clogged up the sink with the hair. I eventually found a barber: his shaky hands with a straight razor scared me, but I cleaned up pretty nice when my parents came to see me two months ago. I look a lot more like my uncle and my father. The big test came when my mother saw it: thank goodness, she approved. Still, the whole experience caused me to reflect about new life, this part of myself emerging, my own uncertainty that I felt about it, how it caused me to change my routines, enlist the help of others, tolerate a certain amount of discomfort and mess. Could I be comfortable with this new life in me and could the people around me be comfortable as well?
I brought home a beard for Christmas. What change colors your experience of Christmas this year? Perhaps you went away to college for the first time and now have come back a different person. Or you brought home a military uniform or a seminary collar, a sign of a new vocation. Maybe you moved out, moved away, or got a job, became a working man or woman. What change might your family be experiencing this Christmas? A new addition, like a child or a significant other to welcome into the family. Change can be a very messy thing. I wonder if you experienced anything like what I did: you rejected it at first, ignored the encouragement of the people around you, until you finally let it alter your routine, perhaps with some comical results along the way. Did this new identity take a while to not feel right: the awkwardness of being in a new place, making new friends, wearing new clothes, playing a new role? And how did the people around you react? Did they let you change or did they continue to treat you the same way?
Change can be a messy business, and sometimes we can want to run away from the messy parts of life, but God doesn’t. In fact, I believe that God is more comfortable than we are in the midst of the mess, because we have a God of life, and let’s face it, life is messy. In today’s gospel, Mary and Joseph are experiencing a lot of changes. Poor Joseph—we heard about him last week. He took the plunge to listen to the dream, and he drags his pregnant wife home to meet his family and fill out some government paperwork. I bet those census people are just as friendly as the TSA. Southwest Airlines lost my luggage yesterday too. On a direct flight. Even still, I wonder if he had second thoughts, especially as the journey grew long and wondered over and over again: how am I going to explain this to my family? Where are we going to stay? When is she going to have the baby?
I do not have a baby, but I am at the age, in my early thirties, when all of my friends are having babies, and from hanging around them, I have learned two things. Babies are wonderful, amazing, sacramental signs of God’s presence. At the same time they have turned the lives upside down of all of my friends who have had them. Which is why my bleary-eyed friends, who usually look like they haven’t slept in three days when I go and see them, are happy to hand the baby off to me for an hour. Change, the change I’m talking about, turns your life upside down. Going away to college, joining the service, entering the seminary, graduating from college and getting a real job, entering into relationship with a significant other, especially when you bring him or home for the first time, having your kids go off to college, having your kids move out, being ordained a deacon. None of these are nine to five events that we can contain: all of these events reshape our lives in a radical way, from the root.
These situations offer us grace, for sure, but in many cases this grace comes with a sense of loss. Change can be difficult because of what it calls us to let go of, especially around this time of year. That family member who is no longer present, that child who is no longer a child but a grown up, that family routine that has been shattered by the arrival of someone new. And the chaos and the grieving lead to some awkward moments, some of which might be just as awkward as when Mary and Joseph showed up at the inn. Joseph had been promising her a warm bed for the past three hours, and there is no room. Just then, Mary looks at him and says, “I’m going into labor.” It’s like when you go out to meet your son’s new girlfriend who has come home for Christmas, and not only does the conversation fall flat—what does he see in her?—but you smell the cookies burning in the oven. Or when you gather everyone around the dinner table and you are all conscious of that person who’s not present but no one has the courage to say it.
“I proclaim to you news of great joy,” the angel says to the shepherds. The true meaning of Christmas is much deeper than it’s better to give than to receive. We gather here this night to celebrate the Incarnation: God’s entry into the farthest reaches of the world, in all of its awkwardness, difficulty, and messiness, in the small and large challenges. Moreover, when God shows up, God brings life. Don’t be afraid, the angel says to the shepherds, don’t be afraid of the small glimpse of life that you find in this dark night. Don’t be afraid, the angel says to us, in the midst of the complexities of our lives, our families, and our worlds. You may have to look hard and put up with a certain amount of difficulty and awkwardness, but God is present even here.
You know it took all semester, but I finally found a barber that I trust with this beard. He looked at me after working on it for a while: have you been trying to do this yourself? We have a lot of work here. But ever since then I can’t stop stroking it. Instead of itchy and scratchy, I kind of like the way it feels, even though it’s a little scary because it means I’m older.
For you too, you might like the way that your son has changed, or discover the quirky sense of humor of that new girlfriend, or see an added maturity in that family member that has become a new parent. Even as you mourn the loss of a loved one, you may come to imagine him or her celebrating with you in heaven, sense his presence in a new way, and have the courage to tell stories of years past, what a character she was.
We still have a few more hours of holiday shopping left, and wouldn’t this be the greatest gift of all this season: to celebrate the Incarnation, embrace the God present in the mess, this God that brings about new life in ourselves, one another, and our world?
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you, who is Christ the Lord.