All Wrapped Up, by Pastor Fred Kinsey
“Wrapped in swaddling clothes,” that’s the phrase I learned growing up. Mary wrapped her first born son in swaddling clothes. Now we say, “wrapped in bands of cloth,” which is a more accurate translation, but much less poetic, don’t you think? Jesus, Mary’s gift by way of the Holy Spirit, is wrapped in the traditional human birth clothes of the time, and laid in a lowly manger.
I’ve always liked this mixture of sacred and secular, mystery and merriment that is Christmas time. The Christmas Eve service, intertwined with presents under the tree and various eggnog concoctions with family and friends you haven’t seen, for far too long. Searching for the true meaning of Christmas each year, amidst a flurry of activity we always plan to avoid. God in human form.
And so, the beauty of Luke’s Christmas story is a mixture of a wonderfully surprising gift, given to an unsuspecting world, born suddenly, on the road, in a lowly back-room of a no-vacancy inn, while shepherds are blinded by heavenly light being visited by an army of joyful angels.
The places are real, Nazareth in Galilee, and Bethlehem, the House of Bread, in Judea. And the religious-political contrasts loom large. Syria, wrestling with Rome over Israel’s bondage as a client state, and Emperor Augustus, the ruler and restorer of a new age of Peace through a power politics of take-no-prisoners, who’s totally unaware of Jesus, the nascent Prince of Peace, all tightly wrapped in bands of cloth by his unwed teenage mother, and his soon to be absent father, Joseph. Heaven bends to earth; earth lifts to heaven.
Last week, my partner Kim came rushing home breathless from the office, after I told her that the gifts she had ordered for her family in Rhode Island had just arrived off the UPS truck. ‘Can you help me wrap these,’ she said, throwing off her coat and looking for the wrapping paper and scissors? ‘If you help, we can still get them to the post office before closing time,’ she exclaimed! ‘It’s our last chance to get ‘em there on time.’ ‘Sure,’ I said. But I was thinking how unfair it was that she hadn’t considered the important thing I might be doing – though in reality, it was only an email that, could easily wait. Still, wrapping presents furiously in an effort to make the deadline, I had to use all my might to keep my cursing well hidden under my breath. I knew, as I wrapped, that this should be more fun, if I could just get in the Christmas spirit. But I had a hard time unwrapping myself from my own self-importance.
A pastor friend told me about this new Christmas gift, “Elf on a Shelf”. Actually, it’s been around for a half dozen years or more. So apparently, the Elf on a Shelf – which has sold more than 2M book and toy presents – sits quietly on your shelf all day… watching, observing, making mental notes on everything you do, and then at night, flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa on ‘who’s been naughty and who’s been nice!’ I’m sure it’s a perfectly cute children’s gift, but when I first heard about it, to me, it just sounded creepy! Someone watches everything you do in your home and reports back to the higher-ups!? Call me Edward Snowden, but isn’t this a bit intrusive? What if he caught me swearing under my breath wrapping those presents with Kim? The tattle-tale Elf seems to leave little room for redemption and making a new start. There are other times that aren’t nearly so stressful, but Elf on the Shelf only visits during December.
The present that is Jesus, the Christchild born and wrapped into our world this night, is that we learn God is not a distant far away God, like an aloof or judgmental parent. But God enters the fray we’re in, living here in the material world. We can almost smell the animals and hay Jesus was born into, see the blood and struggle of the birth, feel the shocking poverty of the rustic shepherds.
Jesus, the bread of life, born in Bethlehem, the city of bread, is tangible to us, tasty and fulfilling at Communion’s thanksgiving meal.
Jesus, God’s Son, grows in stature as a full human being, initiating and incarnating God’s holy life-giving mission. And so, he celebrates with all, gathering rich and poor, meek and powerful, LGBT and straight, black, brown and white, around the banqueting table. He comes to heal our inequities, and restore God’s justice and peace.
Christmas is the celebration of this incarnational intertwining of earth and heaven, sacred and secular, Christmas cookies and Christmas Communion bread. We love each of them. With Jesus, redeemer of the world, the difference between them has become blurred, as one infuses the other. As Pastor Michael Lindvall has said, “the problem, is not so much that [living in a material world] we like [material] stuff too much; rather it’s that we don’t like it enough!” I know that sounds funny he goes on to say, but how often do we throw things away instead of repairing, restoring or repurposing them? “The real soul danger [for us] is not in liking things too much, but in not cherishing and caring for what we have been given already. God has gifted us with this world and called it good, very good. And into that world, God sent Jesus “to claim it, bless it and transform it.” (The Christian Century, 7/13/10)
Christmas is definitely the most wonderful time of the year. And gift-giving – well, it just refuses to die. Sometimes we get carried away and overspend or forget what gift-giving is all about. And we need to re-learn the surprise of the divine in the ordinary.
Jesus is our “wrapped” present. Wrapped tightly in bands of cloth, his swaddling clothes, is our loving liberation. And so we wrap our presents – thoughtfully, or in a holiday rush. But the present Jesus brings, is not based on if we’ve been “naughty or nice.” Jesus is not an Elf on a Shelf. God sends Jesus to us when we are still in sin, and when the world has already been lured into following the power-politics of false leaders. And God points to a little new-born child wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger, with grubby shepherds the only witnesses, his first believers. And God says: Despite our grubbiness, and our flaws and failures, I give you this Messiah, this Reconciler, the Savior and Prince of Peace. Jesus, Mary’s gift by way of the Holy Spirit, is wrapped in the traditional human birth clothes of the time, that we may unwrap ourselves from our own self-importance, and re-wrap our lives in the incarnate gift born among us.
It is this divine act of love and forgiveness in human form, by which our lives are transformed, and we are filled with a power we have never known elsewhere. This is the bread of life. This is the Bread of heaven. How can we keep from singing, and how can we keep from celebrating?!