Christmas Eve 2021
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
December 24, 2021
Once again, as last year, we don’t know if we can go home for Christmas. Or at least, traveling to see loved ones over the holidays certainly seems fraught, thanks to the emergence of the most recent Covid-19 variant, Omicron. It’s not as bad as last year, but we have the same questions. Will I be able to spend Christmas with family and friends? Will I get sick or will someone else and suddenly all my plans must change?
For many of us, Christmas is about traveling. Whether we’re going to see others, or others are coming to see us, we share sympathy with Mary and Joseph traveling the seventy hard miles from Nazareth, their home, to Bethlehem; or with the Wise men, the magi, who travel from distant places to see the Christ child. For many of us that great World War II song, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” has real resonance.
I have made the long pilgrimage to the original Bethlehem, to the very place constructed to celebrate Jesus’ birth, the Church of the Nativity. It is a gigantic structure built on ancient, probably Third Century foundations, surrounding the site, a cave of sorts, which tradition holds to be the birth site of Jesus. Both times I’ve been there it’s been under construction, but it seems like no matter when anyone has been there, Bethlehem itself is always under siege—It has always been a political hot-spot and nothing has changed. The actual site of the nativity is off to the left from the main sanctuary. It almost feels like it was stuffed in the basement the way we do our Christmas creche out here in the crossing when it’s not Christmas. Despite the garish trappings, at least for me, there was no sense of wonder.
But that’s actually alright. Because while the birthplace is a real place, that’s not where the Christ child is now.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a great image from the Book of Revelation. It is Revelation chapters 4 and 5, where we readers and the narrator are transported to the throne room of God. The throne room is surrounded by jewels and precious and semi-precious stones; there are 24 elders on 24 thrones, wearing royal regalia; there is thunder and lightning and so on. It’s almost as beautiful as St. Stephen’s sanctuary. In fact, our sanctuary is very much designed with that in mind, with our beautiful organ music simulating the thunder and our candles the lightning and our jeweled windows the jewels of the heavenly throne room.
Revelation says that four living beings surround the throne of “the Lion of Judah, the Root of Israel”—those four living creatures are actually represented in the Gospel windows to your right: one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a flying eagle, and one like a human being, just like in Revelation.
And then we see there, between the throne and the elders, not the Lion of Judah at all—but a Lamb! A Lamb, we are told, standing as if it had been slaughtered; and to that Lamb they sing the honor and glory of God; to that Lamb they sing, “YOU are worthy.” It is the Lamb who will take the throne; it is The Lamb who will rule heaven and earth. The Lamb is worthy.
That glorious image of the throne room of heaven takes earthly form in the little town of Bethlehem. The four heavenly creatures that surround the throne are replaced by the earthly shepherds and by Jesus’ humble parents, Joseph and Mary; the Lamb on the throne is now the baby Jesus lain in a manger, because there is no room for them in an inn. But the angels sing “Glory hallelujah” over this humble scene, because this is the throne room of the Lamb on earth, as surely as what we see in Revelation is the throne room of heaven; and the infant Christ is the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, the Lamb who is worthy. It reminds me of William Blake’s first Song of Innocence: “Little Lamb who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee? You are called by his name…. I a Child and thou a Lamb, we are called by his name.”
Heaven manifested on earth. God answers the great biblical question, “Is God among us or not?” with a resounding, stupefying, enigmatic but wonderful “yes.” Jesus is Emmanuel, which means “God among us.” Yes, God is among us. God has transported God’s throne room to earth and this is what it looks like: humble parents who’ve travelled a long way for some government’s bureaucratic nonsense, who couldn’t find a room in a hotel, who have their child in a barn, attended by the poorest of the poor. The living incarnation of God, now in flesh appearing, is a vulnerable, helpless baby. This is the throne room of God on earth. This is what God’s kingdom looks like on earth.
This is our hope—that the weak and vulnerable be uplifted and honored above all, that vulnerability and meekness and childlikeness and humility would reign on the earth; and above all, above all, that God would make God’s home on earth, with us, with us human beings, frail, vulnerable, fallen as we are, that God would meet us at our point of deepest need, of ultimate vulnerability, and say, “I am here, I am with you. I am Emmanuel, God among you. I have made my home here.”
Christmas is indeed all about traveling. It is about God traveling to earth, God making God’s home on earth, God among us, wearing our skin, bearing our burdens, traveling our road. God is here, amidst all the glory and frustration, hope and fear, joy and tragedy, of the world where we live. In Christ, God has made God’s home with us.
We are already, always, home for Christmas.