Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Friday, December 24, 2021

YEAR C 2021 christmas eve

Christmas Eve, 2021
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There is always so much one could say each year about these Christmas readings.  But every year, on Christmas Eve, I get stuck on a word.  Just one word, whether from the readings or from somewhere else.  A few years ago it was angels, and a couple years back it was drains, and last year it was tradition.  This year, I can’t let go of the etymology of the word “manger.”  I know, you’re all pins and needles, right?

But let’s start with the shepherds.  After the terrifying appearance of angels, and the glory of the Lord showing about them, they are told, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  That’s the sign.  Aren’t you struck by how . . . ordinary that sounds?  I mean, other than the manger part, it’s just  . . . a baby.  After that stunning display in the nighttime sky where they are scared out of their minds, you’d expect the shepherds might get to hear something like, “This will be a sign for you: Giant squids shall climb out of the ocean and devour the Roman oppressors!”  But no.  Sorry shepherds.  Your sign will be a baby, wrapped in cloths.  And,  well, lying in a manger.

When I was a kid, I thought the manger was like the whole structure that Mary and Joseph were standing under.  Like I thought that whole scene was called “a manger.”  And then there would be a little cradle-looking thing that Jesus gets put into on Christmas Eve.  Of course, come to find out, the whole nativity scene is called a creche, and the thing Jesus is lying in is the manger.  And it’s always a cute little spotless porcelain or wooden thing, with some blankets flowing over the sides.  But that’s not how mangers work.  Not in the real world.

I was recently talking to a couple pastors who grew up on farms.  And they were both saying that the two things about mangers is, 1.  they’re usually really big, and 2.  they’re always really disgusting!  At best, you have a whole lot of cow slobber in there.  At worst . . . well, I won’t elaborate.  The point is, for most of us, the word “manger” conjures up something quite different from the reality of what a manger actually is.

And now these days, when I hear the word “manger,” I still usually picture a little feeding trough that looks like a window box on legs.  But this year, I’ve also been thinking about how we got the word manger, the etymology of the word, as I said.  (This is the pins and needles part.)  The starting root is from Latin, which is manducat.  When it gets into French, we get mangeure, and eventually in middle English it becomes manger.  There’s an interesting relation between “manger” and the word “mandible” from the Latin word for chewing.  And, of course, anyone who grew up like I did in a Italian city is familiar with a grandmother’s must-be-obeyed command mangia!  The point of all that is, as far as word origin, there’s a very strong connection between the manger and eating.  

But let’s go back to that other aspect of the manger . . . the messiness of it.  Humans can be sloppy when we eat, which is why we have napkins and placemats.  Still, once we graduate from our high chairs, we learn to be a little more refined in our eating.  Animals have absolutely no reason to get beyond the stage of a one year old with a birthday cake.  Animals are messy.  A manger is pretty gross.  2,000 years ago—without running water—a manger would be extra super gross.  And that’s what Jesus gets for a crib.  A disgusting smelly mess.  Goodnight little baby Jesus.

So, taken altogether, we have the shepherds being told to look for a sign, which will be a baby—nothing special—wrapped in cloths—nothing special—lying in a manger—nothing special.  That’s the sign?  Nothing special?  Look for the most important event in the history of the world, and you’ll know you’ve found it because it looks like nothing special

The sign they are too look for—a baby wrapped in cloths—is the most common thing imaginable, and you’ll find him in the most messy setting imaginable.  Which is just so incredibly perfect!  Because it reminds us that Jesus is at home in our world, at home in our lives, at home in our hearts.  Starting at the moment of his birth, Jesus shows up in the simplest ways in all the messy places where we think he is too good to be found.  Where we would never go looking for him.  Where it would take an act of God and angels to make you even think to look for him.

We want Jesus to remain pure and spotless and spiritually set apart.  But that’s not how babies work, and that’s not how God works.  In order to meet us where we are—to really know how things are—Jesus is born into our world, just as helpless as any other infant, wrapped in whatever cloths might have been laying around, and laid in a manger which was last cleaned who knows when.  That’s how God enters our world.  Vulnerable, risky, and messy.

And this is all a very good and fitting reminder for us right now, as we head toward the end of our second year living in this deadly, divisive, seemingly never-ending COVID pandemic.  Like Mary, we are exhausted, and frustrated, and scared.  And God shows up in the messy unease of our unpredictable lives; God joins us in the dark places that scare us; God shows up even when we don’t want God to show up!

And this leads me back to thinking about the etymology of that word “manger,” and the connection to eating.  If you’re looking for a sign that God is with us, still among us, well we have the same sort of sign the shepherds received.  Something as completely regular and unremarkable as a small piece of bread, placed in the manger of our ordinary hands.  Maybe the last place you’d expect to see God show up is in palm of your very own hand.  And maybe it takes us joining with the angels in singing “Holy, holy, holy,” to help us know where to look.

But God shows up—and God keeps showing up—in the sacrament we receive, in the love and friendship of our family, friends, and neighbors, in the unexpected kindness of people we don’t even know, and in the yearly celebration of the birth of the Christ child: the surest reminder that God has not given up on this world, and that God has not given up on you.  Jesus is still with us, right here with us, in the regular, ordinary, messy reality of our lives.  

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.  Thanks be to God.

Merry Christmas!

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