Christmas! It's a time we celebrate. The harvest festivals have edged into a "last hurrah," in the face of the long cold nights of winter. The season's images (in the north at least) include a warm hearth, lights decorating home and streets, rich foods, and gifts wrapped up brightly to be even more special.
The church, too, is decorated with pine boughs and bright red poinsettias, with elaborate manger scenes, Christmas pageants, white and gold paraments. And Christmas Eve services are often a "dress up" occasion.
The Feast of the Incarnation is justly celebrated with the best we have to offer, with gold and exotic spices.
Yet sometimes I think that we might instead put out tattered altar cloths, and light only the barest stub of a candle. When I think of the Christmas stories that affect me the most, they're not tales of glory and bright shiny things under the tree – but of the glory and radiance that shine forth when love comes to dwell in seemingly unlikely places.
They may be sentimental images. When adversity throws strangers together and they discover in it a blessing. When an unexpected kindness becomes a saving moment of grace. When the rich and powerful are humbled at receiving a gift from one who is poor or outcast. When generosity breaks down barriers and food and stories are shared. When a long-lost soul finds their way home. Perhaps you have been part of moments like this in your life.
These are stories of Presence, when the holy breaks into the ordinary.
The New Testament icon of the season is the Word made flesh, the living God come among us, as One of us. As the apostle marvels to Titus, "the grace of God has appeared" (Titus 2:11, NRSV). And this is not simply a good show, but God showing up, "bringing salvation to all." God's appearance changes the world. Grace changes the situation we're in. It schools us in new ways of seeing, believing, and being. And these appearances of holiness in our lives become "the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (2:13).
Jesus came into the world not at the top, but at the bottom, and while you may justly see the glory of God in the immensity of creation and the grand things of human artistry, we do better to look in the forgotten corners of the earth and of human community. For God has always been in the redemption business: bringing light from darkness, calling unlikely people to remarkable things, hearing the prayer of slaves and foreigners, leading captives homeward.
Like us. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that all our finery is fleeting. No one is that far from being told there is no room for us. We all have our manger moments. But by the grace of God, the blessing appears not only in the "best" place or to the "best" people – but in the right places and to the right people, the very ones ripe for redemption.
May the grace of God dwell in you this day, and shine forth forevermore.