There’s a story I think of often that comes from a former priest of mine. At the start of his ministry, he had an opportunity to go to Greece and visit with a respected monastic elder on Mount Athos. After describing to the elder all that he had done and hoped and planned to do, the monk smiled at him and said simply, “It is a good beginning.” This story has stuck with me through the years and I often think about what it means to make ‘a good beginning.’ And I couldn’t help but think of it again as I was reflecting on the Christmas story again this year.
But, if Christmas is a ‘good beginning’, we have to ask ourselves the question: What is Christmas the beginning of?
Certainly, it’s the beginning of a human life, of the baby who would grow up to be the great teacher, healer, and wonderworker Jesus of Nazareth, whom we as Christians believe is the fullest revelation of God to humanity. But if we think about it in human terms, the Christmas story is not a good beginning for a human life. Jesus is born under a cloud of suspicion and gossip; Mary had run the risk of being an unwed mother and Joseph bore the stigma of one whose fiancée carried a child not his own. Jesus is born in colonized territory, under the thumb of a foreign power, with his own people religiously and politically divided about how to respond. He is born displaced by the whims of foreign officials, born in a manger far from home so the family could be counted in the Roman census. His birth is greeted not by the smiles of midwives and family, but by shepherds — essential workers of their day, necessary but looked down upon as being dirty, unskilled, and vulgar. And soon, Jesus’ family will be forced to flee their homeland as refugees, dependent on the welcome and hospitality of strangers in Egypt. By human standards, this is not a good beginning at all.
And yet, in that topsy-turvy way of God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ birth is good. It is good because it means that God is with us in the midst of our messy world and messy lives, and it is good because it means that there is hope — so much hope — even in the darkest times. Why is it good? Because, if our Scriptures are correct, Jesus represents a fresh start, a new beginning for all humanity, not in spite of all of the messiness, but because of it and through it.
Jesus’ birth is a good beginning for those who live under the heavy cloud of rumour and whispers. Jesus’ birth is a good beginning for those who are sneered at by respectable folk for doing the right thing. Jesus’ birth is a good beginning for those not born with the right connections and backgrounds. Jesus’ birth is a good beginning for those excluded and looked down upon for the work that they do. Jesus’ birth is a good beginning for those who are forced to flee the places and people they love. Jesus’ birth is a good beginning for all of us because it doesn’t care at all about the ‘normal’ divisions our ‘normal’ way of being in the world creates — divisions of class, gender, race, education, and so on. — the new way begun in Jesus cuts across them all; it welcomes everyone and invites us all in to participate in God’s renewed humanity , a new humanity governed by humility, service, compassion, empathy, grace and love.
Paul wrote about this new way of life in terms of taking off an old set of clothes and putting on a new set, or of dying to old ways of living and being born into new ways. Today, we might think of it in terms of a new operating system: a new programming on the back end, a new set of connections and goals which direct our whole lives. Whereas the ‘old operating system’ wants us to ‘keep up appearances’ and ‘keep up with the Joneses’, the new OS values integrity and genuine connection over superficial propriety. Whereas the old operating system views those with different experiences from our own as threats and dangers, the new OS urges us to welcome everyone in from the margins. Whereas the old operating system values comfort, the new OS values justice. Whereas the old operating system reinforces the status quo in the world, the new OS insists that we can do and must do better, for everyone.
If you prefer your metaphors lower-tech, yesterday morning I came across a beautiful image for the new beginning of Christmas in an ancient hymn by St. Ephrem the Syrian. He imagined St. Anna, the Virgin Mary’s mother according to tradition, bending over to kiss her grandson’s head. His skin upon her lips purifies her lips just as the burning coal had purified the prophet Isaiah’s lips, enabling him to speak nothing but the truth to his people. In the same way, so should our encounter with the baby Jesus this Christmas purify us too: purify our eyes, burning off the scales that prevent us from seeing the world as God sees it; purify our ears so that we can hear the groaning of the world still awaiting its salvation; purify our lips so that we would speak only truth, words which build instead of tear down; purify our hearts that we might love with God’s undivided, humble and merciful love.
No matter what analogies we may prefer to describe it, living in this new way is our calling. But it is also not easy. We’ve been trying for two thousand years and the world still looks much as it did back when the angels first appeared to the shepherds announcing an era of goodwill. People in Joseph and Mary’s positions are still whispered about, ridiculed, and turned away; people like the shepherds are still disdained and mistreated. The old habits we learned under the old operating system die hard. But Christmas is always an invitation to step back into God’s new good beginning, and make our own beginning anew, year after year.
This Christmas, may we all know the love of God. May we all feel welcomed. May we all feel seen and heard. May we begin again to share this love, this life, with everyone around us. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray and live, Amen.