I suppose, if we were to think about it, the whole enterprise of Christmas could be seen as a great exercise in making room, and, for the most part, the whole culture cooperates. TV and radio stations have been making room for and programming since the beginning of November. As children you can bet we made room in our schedules to watch “ ”— I will confess that I learned our passage from Luke primarily by listening to Linus recite it. As an adult, I now have an annual appointment for 10:00 Christmas Eve morning to listen to the Ceremony of Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge on public radio. We make room for those experiences that tell us: It’s Christmas!
Many of us have to figure out how to make room in our budgets for Christmas—for gifts, entertainment and travel. The average American family spends about $743 on presents, the Gallup Poll tells us, though 30% will shell out more than $1000. We have to make room in our budgets in order to see an expression of delight on the faces of those we love.
And if we travel, we have to figure out who will make room for us when we get there. Will it be the Holiday Inn? Or the pull-out couch at Grandpa’s house? We make room for entertaining guests… remember Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig rolling up the carpets and sweeping away the extra furniture to host their ball for their employees. The whole enterprise of Christmas could be seen as a great exercise in making room.
And so it was for the couple at the center of tonight’s drama, Mary and Joseph. It’s not always easy to make room for a baby. Even the most enthusiastic, well-situated, intentional parents can find it a daunting challenge. And here we have an unexpected pregnancy, at the very end of which a woman is forced to undergo an uncomfortable journey, and when she arrives… there is no room for her, despite her obvious need. She beds down among animals, where, at least, she can be warm and bring forth her firstborn son with some measure of privacy and safety. They find room, the couple, the baby, among the livestock.
Making room for the baby.. Christmas is a great exercise in making room. That counts for the spiritual experience that is Christmas, too, for the room in our hearts and in our lives for this blessed babe, the Christ child born in Bethlehem. A medieval Scottish lullaby puts it this way:. Christmas invites us, urges us to find a way to make
O my deir hart, yung Jesus sweit
Prepair thy creddill in my spreit!
And I sall rock thee in my hart
And never mair fra thee depart.
[O my dear heart, young Jesus sweet,
Prepare thy cradle in my spirit!
And I shall rock thee in my heart,
and never more from thee depart!]
“Prepare thy cradle in my spirit,” the singer prays, longing to receive the Christ Child in an intimate gesture of care. But what do we mean by that? Sometimes I worry that we mean the same thing Ricky Bobby means in “Talladega Nights,” when he prays his odd table grace to “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” It is tempting to want a Jesus small enough to hold in our arms, who can’t confront or challenge us, who can’t tell us things we don’t want to hear. Who can’t remind us why he is here to begin with. It’s tempting to want a Jesus for whom we don’t really have to make that much room.
But here’s the thing: what we celebrate at Christmas is nothing less than the grandest gesture of compassion and love imaginable: God enters into humanity. God, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, loving, just and good, chooses to throw in the divine lot with stumbling, fumbling, not-too-quick-on the uptake, us. God chooses to be with us in all the messiness, uncertainty and pain of fragile human existence… and just to drive home the point, God comes, not in power on a cloud with an army alongside, but in the most fragile, most tentative state of newborn infancy. All-power comes to us in complete powerlessness.
This is what we Christians claim about Jesus, whose birth among us we celebrate tonight. We claim he is the very love of God made flesh among us. And that truth about God, perhaps, begins to point us in the direction of how we might begin to imagine making room for God, for Jesus, in our own lives. Jesus comes to us in the grandest gesture of love and compassion we can imagine. And so, perhaps, making room for God, involves our own beginners’ attempts at learning how to make room for others.
We make room for God when we open our hearts and our hands to those in need. We make room for God when we decline to judge people, or to assign motives to them, but instead show them grace and love. We make room for God when we practice the hard art of forgiveness, or the arduous tasks of releasing anger, and jealousy, and resentment. We make room for God when we get outside the concerns of our own little worlds—my interests, my family, my circle of friends and acquaintances—and gain an interest in those whose lives we know nothing about, even those we might consider our enemies.
You may already know the story I am about to tell you. But some stories never grow old. On Christmas Eve 95 years ago, British, French and German troops faced one another across the World War I battlefield of Flanders. A brief truce had taken hold in honor of the holiday, and as the troops settled in for the night, the sound of a German soldier singing wafted across the field. “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” Others joined in. When they had finished, the French troops and the English troops responded with their own Christmas carols.
Eventually, the men from both sides left their trenches and met in the middle. They shook hands, exchanged gifts, and shared pictures of their families. Informal soccer games began in what had been “no-man’s-land.” And a joint service was held to bury the dead of both sides. The generals, of course, were not pleased with these events. Men who have come to know each other’s names and seen each other’s families are much less likely to want to kill each other. War seems to require a nameless, faceless enemy.
So, following that magical night the men on both sides spent a few days simply firing aimlessly into the sky. Then the war was back in earnest and continued for three more bloody years. Yet the story of that Christmas Eve lingered – a night when the angels really did sing of peace on earth.[i]
The soldiers on Flanders Field, for a few days, managed to make a cradle in their spirits for the Child whose birth we celebrate. They made room, ever so briefly, for something greater than even global hostilities: for the love and peace they knew instinctively God would smile upon. That is what Christmas is: making room in our hearts, in our lives, in the whole wide world for compassion, and love, and peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Jim Wallis, Sojourner’s Magazine, “Christmas in the Trenches,” 2002.