Not so very long ago, a young woman, let’s call her Dora, short for Doreatha, which comes from the Greek phrase “gift from God.” Dora spent most of her childhood dreading Christmas. Christmas in Dora’s family was a volatile affair. Dora’s father never needed much of an excuse to drink too much. Most of the holidays were consumed by the fallout from his excessive drinking. After far too many devastating Christmas Eves which ended in tears, Dora figured out that the best thing she could do to protect herself from the trauma of her family’s gatherings was to stay away from home on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, Dora was blessed with friends from church who regularly welcomed her into their home each Christmas Eve. Beth and Michael had three small children the youngest of which, little Sophia, was Dora’s goddaughter. With her family of choice, Dora new exactly what to expect on Christmas Eve. First a trip into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree, which they would trim together before sitting down to a traditional feast, followed by Michael’s dramatic reading of the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke. When the children were safely tucked into bed with dreams of, well not so much sugarplums dancing in their heads, but rather visions of packages which would magically arrive whilst they slept, Dora and Beth would slip out quietly to attend the Christmas Eve candlelight communion service.
Well, one Christmas Eve, Dora found herself alone in the house trying to amuse her goddaughter Sophia, who was very, very, unhappy. Her parents had decided that the unusually cold weather, together with the deep snow, made the conditions far too severe for a three-year-old to trudge through. Sophia and Dora were given the task of getting the living room ready to receive the Christmas tree. Sophia was not pleased at all about being left behind. But it didn’t take long for the boxes of decorations to catch her attention. All through the Advent season, little Sophia had been learning the Christmas story. As they tackled the sorting out the decorations, Sophia began to regale Dora with her own version of the Christmas story. As they unpacked the shepherds, wise guys and angels, Sophia told Dora how: “Once upon a time, before they had picture books or televisions, there wasn’t anything fun to do, because there was no Santa to bring anybody any presents. And there weren’t any cars, so Mary who was going to have a baby, had to ride on a donkey and Joseph walked because he had longer legs. And they walked and they walked all day long until it was dark and then, when they got where they were going, they were very hungry, but there wasn’t any food, so they went into a stable, where they talked to the animals until they weren’t hungry anymore. It was dark but they weren’t afraid because there was a big star shining up in the sky so they could see what was happening. And soon it was time for a big surprise. But not the kind of surprise that Santa brings, this was a really big surprise.” Sophia’s eyes lit up as she told Dora about this big surprise. She said, when the animals fell asleep, “then the baby was borned.” Sophia asked Dora, “Do you know who the baby was?” Dora played along, asking, “Tell me, who was the baby who was borned?” Sophia climbed up onto her lap and whispered into Dora’s ear: “The baby was God!” With that, Sophia jumped down and began to dance around the room. Rarely is the good news told with such earnest appreciation for the amazing surprise.
When the huge pine tree was finally trimmed to a size that would actually fit into the living room, they all set about the task of decorating. But it wasn’t exactly the idyllic scene that Dora had imagined it would be. Sophia and her slightly older brother and sister fought over who put what where on the tree and things went downhill from there. Sophia was not impressed when her brother gleefully told her the details of the Christmas Eve menu. The idea of roast goose. The idea of roast goose with all the trimmings was outrageous to little Sophia, who only knew one goose and she was called Mother Goose. How dare they cook a goose! Sophia refused to eat anything at all event though her father told her that lots of people eat geese at Christmas time.
After the rest of the family had filled themselves without remorse, they settled down in the living room expecting Michael to read the Christmas story. But that year, Michael suggested that old Zeb should read the story. Zeb was an old duffer who lived down the road. Zeb was in his nineties and had no family of his own. Zeb didn’t get out much anymore, so Michael had collected him in the afternoon, so that he could watch the kids decorate the tree and no one had the heart to take him back to his lonely house. So, Zeb had stayed for dinner; goose was in Zeb’s opinion a fine Christmas feast! Zeb carefully read the gospel story and then stuck around as the children opened one of their gifts before heading off to bed.
Beth and Dora began to get ready to go to church. Dora was just putting on her coat, when little Sophia came down the stairs dressed in her Sunday best. Dora asked Sophia where she thought she was going, and little Sophia didn’t miss a beat as she announced that it was “time for church.” Her mother told her it was time for her to go to bed. Undeterred, Sophia asked Dora to help her find her shoes. Her mother explained that little girls had to go to bed on Christmas Eve and get lots of rest so that they could get up early and open up all their presents in the morning. Sophia insisted that, “everyone has to go to church on Christmas Eve whether they liked it or not.”
Dora told Sophia that she was just too young to go to church on Christmas Eve. But, if she was a good girl, she would take her to church in the morning. Sophia just smiled at Dora and Beth as though they had no idea what they were talking about and then she went into the hallway to look for her shoes. Dora went after her and tried to explain that there wouldn’t be any children at the late-night service. Despite Dora and Beth’s best efforts Sophia was determined to “see the baby be borned.”
Beth was beginning to lose her temper with her daughter and she loudly proclaimed that Sophia was just too little to stay up so late. Sophia argued that if the baby Jesus could go to church she could go because she was much older than any tiny baby. Unable to argue with Sophia’s wisdom, Dora helped her goddaughter put on her shoes and Beth bundled her up in her coat.
Old Zeb, who had been quietly watching all this, asked if there was room for one more. Dora looked at his wheelchair and explained that the whole thing might just be too much for him. She suggested that they drop Zeb off at his home on their way to church. Zeb wined just like Sophia when he said that he would really like to go to church this year. Dora insisted that the service would be packed and that the church wasn’t really equipped to handle his wheelchair. Besides, the cold night air might not be too much for him. It might make him sick. Zeb said that he would rather get sick and die in church than just drop off at home alone in front of the TV. Little Sophia told them all not to worry because she would take care of Zeb, and he could sit with her. So, Dora and Beth bundled Zeb up against the extreme cold and struggled to get both their passengers safely tucked into Dora’s car.
Behind the wheel, Dora couldn’t help wondering what was happening to what was supposed to be her perfect Christmas Eve. None of this was going according to plan. By the time they arrived at church, the parking lot was full. So, they had to park on the street. As Dora struggled to get Zeb out of the car and into his wheelchair, Sophia urged her to, “hurry up” because she wanted to “sit up front near the baby Jesus!”
When they finally reached the entrance to the church, someone was waiting for Dora. It was the last person that Dora ever expected to see anywhere near the church. Her father smiled at her in the way that told Dora that he had indulged in his usual amount of Christmas cheer. He gave Dora a big hug and announced that he had come to church for her, “Isn’t this a nice surprise?” There she stood, on the verge of having her family secret revealed to the good people of the church. So much for her dreams of a perfect Christmas. Dora was being led by a child who should be at home in bed, pushing and old man who was probably going to die from the cold and trying hard to pretend that she was actually happy to see her father, who looked a little too merry for his own good.
Before Dora could object to her father’s presence, Sophia took him by the hand and proceeded to march him into the church and right up to the front of the church. In all her years of attending the Lutheran church, Dora had never ever ventured up to sit in the front row. She looked longingly at her usual spot in the back of the church. But Sophia was proudly leading them to the front row. Sophia wanted to be as close to the baby Jesus as she could get. Dora had no choice but to push old Zeb in beside her Dad. They were quite a motley little crew and Dora was convinced that none of them, except perhaps Beth actually belonged there in church. Sophia was too young and far too fidgety. Zeb was too old and too shabby. Her Dad was too drunk, and Dora was too frightened. All Dora could do was worry that Sophia was going to distract people or that Zeb was going to get sick and possible die right there and then. But most of all Dora was afraid that her Dad would be exposed as a drunk in a midnight choir. It was anything but the perfect Christmas Eve that Dora had hoped for.
As the congregation began to sing, O Come All Yee Faithful, Dora looked up at the nativity set that had been carefully arranged at the foot of the altar. She remembered how enthusiastically Sophia had announced that, “the baby that was borned was God!” We simply do not expect to find God in the muck and the mire of a stable. Somehow the setting is all wrong: far too ordinary for the CREATOR of ALL that IS and ever shall BE. A manger is too common to embrace DIVINITY. Straw is too abrasive to caress the SOURCE of ALL BEING. The animals, stink too much and are far too noisy to be tolerated in the presence of the ONE who is was and ever more shall be the LOVE that we call God.
Perhaps only the angels’ song is up to the task of heralding the birth of LOVE among us. The rest of the cast of characters are not fit for a night that is supposed to be perfect. Shepherds are too crude, the carpenter is too rough and as for the mother of the child, well she is too young for the task. Who in their wildest dreams could have come up with a story as mad as this? Who could have been so audacious as to suggest that the ONE we call God comes to us as a helpless child?
Long before the preacher ever got around to proclaiming how perfect a night Christmas Eve is, Dora began to realize, just how full of wonder Christmas Eve actually is. Sophia couldn’t take her eyes of the baby Jesus and in no time at all she lay sleeping in Dora’s Father’s arms. Old Zeb sang like a man who knew that he might never get another chance to sing on Christmas Eve. As for Dora’s Dad, well he may indeed have had too much to drink, but he did come to church in an effort to please his daughter and he sure didn’t let her down. From somewhere in the recesses of his own childhood memories, Dora’s father reached back to his days in a long-ago choir to find just the right notes to sing praise to the ONE who is LOVE.
Suddenly, in the midst of such a motley heavenly host, Dora remembered just how much she loved her Father despite his imperfections, because after all her Father loved her despite her own imperfections. Filled with LOVE, Dora raised her own voice in praise of the LOVE that is born over and over again and again and again. In the words of Sophia, a perfect baby is borned and that baby is God.
Christmas is the time to do the baby and yourself a favour and forget about all your carefully made plans or best intentions. All that really needs to be done is to reach into that imperfect nativity scene and take the baby into your arms. At Christmas, God who is LOVE, comes to us and blurs the distinctions between the sacred and the ordinary. Let the boundaries that limit our vision fall away. Let the baby that was borned, be LOVE born in you. May the HOLY ONE who IS LOVE continue to live and move in, with, through, and beyond you and yours during these challenging times. Shalom, dear ones. Shalom.