Fourth and final Sunday of Advent: hopes and memories crowd hours of every day, all inching toward the promise of midnight on Christmas Eve. And at the heart of it all, pressed between the parties and the promises, rests the reality of Christmas: birth and family, new beginnings. For a moment all the worst of the world is suspended, and there is a sense that ever-elusive peace on earth may actually be possible. For even the most doubtful, there is that flicker of possibility. Maybe that is the real gift of Christmas: the chance not to simply see ourselves as we are, but as we could be, as we were meant to be.
The story details the tangled web of human insitutions that shaped reality when Jesus was born: the demands of the Roman census, the expectations of Hebrew customs, the very kindness that characterizes humanity. No one of us is born without those, and yet each of us shares the experience of being birthed. The simplicity of that dares us to be more to one another, to recognize the sameness of how we became human beings is to begin to realize the need for compassion and empathy for one another.
The questions about Jesus’ divinity cannot obscure the simplicity and meaning of his messages. Even a skeptic like Thomas Jefferson came to the understanding that Jesus was a great teacher of common sense. And that offers meaning centuries, millenniums, after his birth. Secularization has denigrated relgion and faith, but the story of Jesus’ life provides something that mattters. Conveyed through the Gospels and letters of the New Testament, Jesus’ teachings provide guidelines for negotiating the realities every human being is faced with throughout their lives. Even now, where Alexa can address every query, the Gospel and the message of Jesus’ life is about how to practice kindness, how to approach challenges, how to survive the landmines of social status, how to love one another.
As the fourth and final Advent candle is lit, it is clear that the birth of Jesus and the holiday celebration of His birth are distinctly different. There is a profound simplicity in the Gospel re-telling of the story. It sparkles with wonder about a dark night and a brilliant star, angels and their voices. It resonates with life, richly addressing the strongest and weakest among us, mirroring human structures and softly opening to the divine. It is a story that entices and enthralls because it is a story that belongs to all of us on some level. Jesus took the same route we each know so well. The gift of His presence is the truth of Christmas. Somewhere, beyond the ribbon and wrapping, the myths and the music, there is the profound message of Jesus’ life: that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to that world, and His Son preached “Love one another as I have loved you.” We have only to listen to find ways to bring that message to life again and make “Peace on Earth” a possibility.