Searching for a Nativity

You may listen to Mother Tackas' sermon here.

For many years now, I have been searching for a nativity. I’ve never had a nativity set of my own, and I have yet to find one that I really like. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for. When I was a child, my family had a very simple white ceramic nativity that my mother had made. It was quite small, with just the figures of Mary, Joseph, Jesus lying in the manger, and one angel keeping watch. This nativity always seemed very pure and precious to me, and we put it out year after year even after the baby Jesus lost an arm somewhere in his journey to or from the attic in the Christmas boxes. Now my grandmother also had a ceramic nativity set, but hers was far grander and more ornate, in bright, bold colors with tall, intricately-painted wise men and shepherds and all. And I like both of these sets, but I’m not sure which kind I’d like for myself? Do I want something rich and romantic and Renaissance-y, like the crèche here at Saint Mark’s? Or do I want something simple and minimalistic? Or what about something rustic and hand carved, like the olivewood sets from the Holy Land? I just don’t know! I know I can certainly cross some nativities off my list, like some of those I’ve seen floating around the internet this week – the supercute “kittycat” nativity, for example, or the set that depicts Mary and Joseph as emperor penguins. I can do without the Irish nativity where everyone is decked all in green; I can definitely do without the nativity made of carved butter, or – the worst! – the all-meat nativity, with a manger made of bacon that cradles a tiny swaddled sausage. One hopes that the sausage is turkey sausage at least….

Well, one thing is for certain – in my search for a nativity set, I will almost certainly end up with a set that depicts the nativity stories from both the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew. I’ll want a set that has Luke’s shy shepherds and singing angels…and Matthew’s wise men from the East that I can move closer and closer to the cradle as we approach the Feast of the Epiphany just like we do here in church. I’ll want it all – the shepherds and the wise men and the stable and the hay – even though Jesus was probably really born in a cave and laid in a hewn-out stone drinking trough and even though the shepherds and wise men don’t actually appear in the same story in the Bible. Doesn’t matter – I may not know what I want my nativity to look like, but I know that I want everybody to be there. I want the whole story – the whole picture.

But is this really the whole story? Do the nativities of Luke and Matthew really show us the complete picture? And the answer – somewhat surprisingly – is no. Because there is another nativity story, here in the prologue to the Gospel of John. You have to search for this nativity, you have to dig around for it a bit, but it is most certainly there. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” There is the story of the nativity in John’s language, spoken in poetry, clothed in mystery. But how does this story add to our image of the nativity? What does John’s nativity look like?

Well, first of all, it’s big. Really big. It is the entire universe, in the beginning, black as pitch and without form, where the earth is “wild and waste” and darkness moves over the face of the deep. And into that darkness, God speaks a Word, a Word that has always been on the tip of God’s tongue, a Word that is God. “Y’hi or” (because in our nativity God always speaks in Hebrew)….and suddenly and miraculously, there is light. There, in the center, one single flame, burning its way into the darkness, even though the darkness, which is always so self-absorbed, doesn’t even notice that something new has been born. And that light continues to burn, bright and steady, as the years go by and the scene in our nativity changes from a garden to a wilderness to a promised land, as prophets and kings and mothers enter our nativity and leave it again, as a temple is built there and is destroyed and another built in its place. And in the midst of all of this, the light burns, with a constant, and faithful, and righteous light. Sometimes men and women walk into the center of our nativity, point to the light and say, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” and “Behold, a virgin shall conceive!” Sometimes others pay attention to them and sometimes not. And still the light burns. Until finally, after centuries of shining into the darkness, the light in the center of our nativity is surrounded by other words and other lights, as the glow of the angel Gabriel settles around a young girl named Mary, and he speaks to her words of promise and hope and challenge: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” And the light shines on a woman with bowed head who says, “Be it unto me according to your word.” And the Word is made flesh and grows in her womb, and is born this day in the city of David, Christ the Lord.

This is the nativity of John – a nativity so enormous that it encompasses the entire universe – every shining star, every nebula and supernova. It is a nativity so complete that it shows us the entire scope of history, down to each prayer, each breath, each blade of grass. And yet, for all of its cosmic immensity, it still leads us to the same place, to a tiny, simple manger – to God’s choice, God’s infinitely mysterious, inexplicably generous choice to take on a human life to redeem you and me. This is the magnitude of this morning, this is what we kneel before at this crèche – a nativity that is precious but also powerful, beautiful but also terrifying, simple and pure and majestic and mighty. This is the nativity of John, of Luke and Matthew, of Mary and Joseph and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and in this nativity we find what we’ve all been searching for, the eternal Word made flesh, God among us, a babe in a manger, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs

Christmas Day 2011

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 27, 2011 .