Just before worship last Sunday I discovered a beautiful poem about Mary becoming pregnant by God’s spirit. The scriptures for Sunday’s service were all about Mary and so I read the poem at the beginning of worship:
Know that the wheeling heavens are turned by waves of Love:
were it not for Love, the world would be frozen, stiff.
How would an inorganic thing transform into a plant?
How would living creatures sacrifice themselves
to become endowed with spirit?
How would the spirit sacrifice itself for the sake of that Breath
by which Mary was made pregnant?
For me this is a surprising poem because, while I believe it captures the beauty of the mystery of Mary’s divine conception of Jesus—and by extension, communicates much of the wonder of Christmas—the poem was not written by a Christian. It was composed something like 750 years ago by a Sufi Muslim poet named Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad, who wrote under the penname, Rumi.
While for Christians it may be unexpected to find a beautiful and powerful expression of the Christmas mystery penned by a Muslim, such a surprise is entirely in keeping with the Christmas story.
Even though we read them only once a year, the stories of Jesus birth that are recorded for us in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke can—if we’re not careful—become so familiar to us that they lose the element of surprise that really is central to what the stories are all about.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
It’s good news, to be sure, but here’s the rub: the Christ Child, the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace was born unto us in a stable. He was homeless. As homeless as the folks who will sleep tonight in dingy sleeping bags seeking shelter from the rain and wind beneath the freeway overpass where 680 becomes 280 when it meets 101; not long after Jesus’ birth the family became fugitives, escaping the death squads of King Herod. They were migrants who crossed the desert into Egypt just as many people cross the deserts into the United States today in search of safety and a better life.
And as we contemplate the story of Christmas we need to ask ourselves if the Son of God were born to us today would we believe it? Even if the angels invited us to go meet the Messiah while we tended our flocks by night, would be go into Bethlehem to meet a homeless child who had been born in a stable? Even if we saw his star rising in the East, would we travel to bring gifts to the child of transients?
This is the challenge of the Gospel: are we willing to be surprised by the Christ Child? And who among us can truly say we are? Most of us prefer a predictable religion, and that’s why, I believe, God’s spirit remains alive surprising us at Christmas.
Take, for example, the Christmas Carol, “O Holy Night.” In English, it’s a great hymn, but the song we sing is only a very loose translation of the French, which, translated more literally goes like this:
Midnight, Christians is the solemn hour
When God as Man descended unto us
To erase the original stain (sin)
And end the wrath of his Father.
The entire world trembles with expectation
In this night that gives to us a Savior.
Fall on your knees, await your deliverance.
Noel, Noel, here is the Redeemer,
Noel, Noel, here is the Redeemer!
The ardent light of our Faith,
Guides us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Conducted the Magi there from the orient.
The King of kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your grandeur,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
The redeemer has broken every shackle
The earth is free, and heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was once only a slave
Those who had been chained together by iron, love now unites.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude
It is for every one of us that he was born, suffered and died.
Stand on your feet, sing of your deliverance.
Noel, Noel, sing of the Redeemer,
Noel, Noel, sing of the Redeemer!
Beautiful words. A wonderful expression of what Christmas is all about, and they were written by a socialist wine merchant, a secularist who had been part of the anti-church movement during the French civil war. According to the story he wrote the poem while traveling to Paris, and when he got to Paris he sought out a musician friend of his who liked the poem and set the it to the tune we love so much. That composer was Jewish.
So one of the world’s best-loved Christmas carols was written by a secularist and was set to music by a Jew, and for that reason it captures the spirit of Christmas. It’s a surprise.
At Christmas God comes to us as an outsider. Jesus was born away from the political and religious establishments of his time. His first followers were shepherds and pagans. It took more than thirty years before anyone with anything like social respectability was let in on the secret that Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph, the carpenter was the Christ, God with us, dwelling in human flesh.
And I suppose that’s bad news if you feel entitled to the benefits of God’s grace and to the tenderness of God’s love; if by right of your birth you feel as if God must come to you, or if you feel as if you’ve earned the largess of God’s favor. If so, the Christmas story may come to you as a disappointment.
But if, like me, you’ve ever felt undeserving of God’s love, if you’ve ever doubted the truth of what you hear at church, if you’ve ever been misunderstood, ostracized, left out, passed over, ignored in a time of great need and even greater sorrow, then the Christmas surprise is wonderful news.
Jesus comes to us at times and in ways that are unexpected. We don’t have to become presentable. We don’t have to have all of our beliefs in line. Jesus doesn’t wait until we’re perfect or even all that good. Christmas is now. Christ is born today, and if we’re not ready, that’s to be expected. Mary wasn’t ready, nor was Joseph. The Shepherds weren’t ready, nor were the Magi. The only preparation necessary is a willingness to be surprised, to hear the voices of angels, to watch for the rising of Bethlehem’s star, and to be prompted by the Spirit—often in unexpected ways—to make your way to the place where God dwells with humanity in the form of a beautiful, homeless child.