My sermon for Christmas Day – with thanks to Revd Dr Janet H. Hunt (Dancing with the Word) for suggesting the theme and for several quotations.
Now that our children are grown up, we don’t try quite so hard with our Christmas decorations. Yes, we have a tree, and we always get a real tree – I guess because my family had a real tree when I was a boy and you know how Christmas traditions tend to stick in families. Or perhaps it’s because Mary Ann comes from the Philippines and the only Christmas trees there are artificial, so a real tree is really something special.
Anyhow, whatever the reason, we have a tree. And we always have two other things. Above our front door we have a star shaped lantern. Every home in the Philippines has one of these, whether it’s a humble construction of cane and tissue paper, or a more extravagant affair with flashing lights and bright colours. In fact the province that Mary Ann comes from is famous as the home of the star lantern, or parol, as it’s called in the Philippines. The main roads going into the cities are lined with little shacks where the parols are both made and sold. All lit up, at night time they make a beautiful display.
And the third decoration we have also comes from the Philippines, and that is a nativity scene. We bought ours from a craft fair a few years ago and it is slightly unusual. All the figures are turned from different types of wood and they are simple and abstract rather than ornate. Not only are there all the usual suspects – shepherds, wise men, the ox and ass – and, of course the holy family – but there’s a stable with two doves on the roof, a couple of palm trees and above it all, a star. In the Philippines they call a nativity scene a Belen, which is simply the Spanish word for Bethlehem.
We also have a nativity set in the church – can you see it? Let’s check if everything is there…
A couple of weeks ago I was at an event in a church hall, where there was a very nice tree and a nativity set. But something didn’t look quite right – what was in the manger? Instead of baby Jesus, there was a little piece of paper with a face drawn on it! What has happened to baby Jesus, I asked. Oh – he’s gone missing, they said.
This reminded me of a conversation I had back in the summer. As you may know, we had a couple of week’s holiday in Texas where three of Mary Ann’s sisters live. One of the places we stayed was San Antonio, which has a large Mexican community. While we were in San Antonio we visited the Mexican market, which has a lot of different kinds of handicrafts, including some beautiful nativities. One of these shops had a sign requesting people not to handle the figure of Jesus. I asked the shopkeeper why. Because people keep stealing Jesus! She said. Isn’t that a strange thing? Why would people want to take baby Jesus?
Well I’ve been doing some research, in other words, I searched the internet and I discovered this is a very common phenomenon. There’s even a page on Wikipedia called ‘Baby Jesus theft’.
One of the most blatant thefts took place last year when the crib was taken from a large nativity in Birmingham City Centre. As reported in the Daily Mail, to add insult to injury, in place of baby Jesus the thief left a tiny garden gnome. But the real home of ‘Baby Jesus theft’ is the United States, where large outdoor displays are common and removing baby Jesus is regarded by many as a prank. A slightly tongue in cheek article in the Guardian reported:
“Over the past month, pranksters have nabbed dozens of baby Jesus figurines from public and private displays across the US. A nativity scene in suburban New York, a hospital in Wisconsin, ten crèche figures in a single Pennsylvania county and a Catholic church outside Boston were just some of the victims of Christmastime mischief.
“It is unclear if such thefts are on the rise, as federal law enforcement officials do not track crime in the manger. Most of the stolen items have little monetary value but mean a lot to the churches and Christmas observers who display them.”
But, the article reports, churches are fighting back:
“To help victims recover their infant saviours, a New York company earlier this month offered to install GPS tracking devices inside nativity figurines… to help churches… find purloined pieces. BrickHouse Security said its product was used to recover a baby Jesus taken from a Florida church lawn.”
Other owners have resorted to more obvious methods, including the nearly life-size nativity in downtown Chicago where Jesus is physically chained to the floor.
But the good news is that, just as Jesus sometimes mysteriously disappears, so he sometimes mysteriously returns. Perhaps some perpetrators were struck with remorse, though a more theological reason has been suggested. In Clintonville Wisconsin, baby Jesus disappeared from different three Lutheran churches, only to reappear on Christmas Eve. One theory is that the thief had some religious objection to Jesus being displayed until the day Christians celebrate his birth.
And after ten figurines suddenly turned up in the front yard of a home in Pennsylvania, a state police officer said: “They think it’s a prank, but it isn’t a prank to some of these people… “Plus, it’s just wrong to steal the baby Jesus.”
Now it seems to me that this phenomenon of the missing baby Jesus has something to say to us as we celebrate his birth.
On one level, we might say that this is a symbol of the way that Jesus is very often absent from the modern celebration of Christmas. Taking Jesus out of the Christmas scene? Isn’t that what people have, in effect, been doing for years?
In the last verse of the hymn ‘Cradled in a manger meanly’ we sing:
And to those who never listened
To the message of Thy birth,
Who have winter, but no Christmas
Bringing them Thy peace on earth…
In actual fact, people do have Christmas. They have the tree and the cards, and the trimmings and the turkey and the presents. It’s Jesus they don’t have.
We all know the slogan ‘putting Christ back into Christmas.’ The slogan implies that Jesus has been taken out of Christmas. (After all, you can’t put something back unless it’s first been taken.) Baby Jesus has gone! He’s been stolen! Just like that first Christmas in Bethlehem, there is no room for him.
But there is another way of looking at the empty crib, and for this perspective I am very grateful to Rev. Dr. Janet H. Hunt (who blogs at Dancing with the Word). She writes:
“Now I don’t stand in defence of anyone who would take Jesus from his rightful place in the manger — even if they do so on theological grounds. And yet, you and I who hear the Christmas Gospel once more in the days to come do so knowing that the real Jesus can’t be kept in the manger by means of chains. And the real Jesus? We don’t need to attach a GPS unit to him to be able to track him down. You and I encounter Jesus all the time in all sorts of places, although to be sure, perhaps often in unexpected ones.”
Where is Jesus to be found? Dr Hunt continues:
“We discover him again whenever and wherever we are moved by the truth that Jesus was born humble and poor and that God still has the most tender of places in his heart for those for whom Christmas dinner will be hard to come by this year — and for whom a decent meal any day of the week might be only a dream.
We see Jesus in all kinds of places: whenever we recall that God loves deeply those who, like Mary and Joseph, are in danger of having no warm, safe place to sleep tonight.
And yes, we see Jesus once more whenever we recall that Emmanuel, God-With-Us, can still be seen embracing those who grieve, who suffer, who struggle the whole world over.”
Actually I think I would state this a little more boldly. For I wonder whether Jesus has to be set free from the manger, so to speak, if we are to find him in the world. You see, the danger of the Christmas story is that it is so familiar, so precious, so dear to us that we never want to leave the stable and we don’t want Jesus to leave the crib. We are much more comfortable with a nativity story we can sentimentalise than a passion story which ends in a messy death on a brutal cross. We are much more comfortable with a baby in the manger who, according to the carols doesn’t even cry, than adult Jesus, who said things to provoke and challenge and divide opinion. It would be lovely if we never had to pack up the nativity set and Jesus could just stay a baby in the manger. But Jesus, like all babies, has to grow up, and make his own way in the world.
So despite all those missing figurines the real Jesus isn’t lost. He hasn’t been stolen or taken away. Indeed, perhaps those who have indulged in ‘Baby Jesus theft’ have done us a favour. For Jesus is no more to be found in an empty manger than, at the end of his life, he was to be found in an empty tomb. So I want to suggest that the empty manger is not so much a sign of Jesus’ absence, but Jesus’ presence with us.
Because Jesus isn’t far away, indeed he is very near. As Janet Hunt observes:
“Jesus is as near as the next act of generosity shown to someone for whom a moment of kindness will make all the difference — sometimes for the rest of their lives. Jesus is there in every act of selfless sacrifice offered for another. Jesus is right here in our own hearts changed by God’s great love for us that we would be among those who risk and give and love this world and all who inhabit it.”
So, she suggests, enjoy the manger scene, with its crib. Wonder again at this holy story, and know that it is good news for you. But as you do so, remember that we can’t change Jesus chained to the ground, or even keep him in the manger. For in wondrous and unexpected ways “Jesus will keep breaking free and making his way into the world, into your life, into your very heart.”
And if, after hearing this sermon, you might be thinking about stealing baby Jesus? Well, there’s no need. Jesus is already yours.
And that is a truth that doesn’t need to wait until Christmas Day.