No matter my level of Christmas cheer, there is a moment in every Christmas pageant when I am instantly filled with joy. Whatever the reason, every year, when small children dressed in angel wings run up to the stage and shout to the frightened shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth!” a huge smile lights up my face.
The children of course, aren’t actually angels. They are ordinary children who fight with their brothers and sisters. Their haloes are crooked. Their wings get into the eyes of the angels behind them in line. Some years they push and shove and jockey for position. They are holy and ordinary in an entirely charming way.
According to the Gospel of Luke, God used angels prominently in the incarnation. An Angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, to invite her to bear God’s son. And, of course, The Angel of the Lord and a band of angels appear to shepherds in the fields, announcing the arrival of the Messiah.
Biblical angels don’t belong on earth. They are not sweet and cute like our pageant angels. They are huge and winged and shiny. They belong to another kingdom, where glowing with the Lord’s presence is less terrifying. Nevertheless, angels broke through whatever space/time barrier separates us from heaven. They burst into our reality, terrifying the humans that witnessed their majesty.
The host of angels came to us in an unusual way. They did not swoop in to a group of priests, or at the temple, or even to the King. The host of heaven revealed itself to ordinary shepherds. The transcendent broke into the ordinary.
This juxtaposition of divine and ordinary is the heart of the incarnation.
God could have remained in heaven, relating to his creatures via a distance. Instead he chose to become a creature. He chose to be limited by gravity and time and flesh. He traded the infinite for the finite. He became ordinary.
This collision of the divine and the ordinary can’t help but change what it means to be an ordinary human.
In this Gospel, when Mary first is confronted by the Angel Gabriel she exclaims the Magnificat, a hymn that marvels at how God turns everything upside down. Mary has a deep understanding that in choosing her, an ordinary girl, to bear God into the world, God is changing the rules completely. He lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry. The ordinary becomes sacred. The insignificant become significant.
The angels are not announcing a Jesus who is visiting as a tourist, taking in the curiosities of having skin and feet and limited points of view. The angels announce that everything has changed, our categories are irrelevant. The holy is here, born to an ordinary girl.
My husband picked up a nativity scene at Ten Thousand Villages this week that depicts the Holy Family as a Peruvian family riding a bus. I love it because it captures the heart of Christ’s birth in a modern context. If the incarnation happened now, Mary would probably be the kind of girl who rode a bus. She probably wouldn’t be American. She certainly wouldn’t be rich. Mary would be an ordinary girl.
News Anchor Megyn Kelly grabbed media attention this month when she insisted both Santa and Jesus were white. This is easy to laugh about, but it shows how people who have power—white Europeans and Americans—through art and media have remade Jesus in our image. He becomes more Swedish than Middle Eastern. We subtly imply that holiness has to look like us. We are fine with Jesus being ordinary, so long as he is our kind of ordinary.
Theologian James Cone has written that “God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know that they’re not nobodies, they’re somebodies.”
God came to earth and made nobodies, somebodies. God came to earth to make the ordinary holy. God came to earth so that children of every color and nation could be in relationship with him. God’s incarnation in Jesus makes holy our ordinary experiences, whatever our skin color or our income.
Andrea Elliot of The New York Times has written a series of articles exposing New York City’s homelessness problem, by following one child—a middle school girl named Dasani. The story is incredibly bleak. Dasani’s parents are terrible money managers, their room in a homeless shelter is shared by mold and rats, no one in the family feels safe. But the story is also incredibly powerful because by shining the light on Dasani, we get the rare opportunity to get to know a young, poor girl. The Marys of our world don’t get screen time. You just don’t write thirty page stories about a girl like that. But Elliot captures this girl—her drive, her desire to do well in school, her hunger, her exhaustion, the love she has for her family. Elliot focuses our attention on a single girl, and reminds us that children like Dasani should matter to us. Children like Dasani matter to God.
Our outreach team works their tails off to provide for families around Christmastime not because it is a sweet thing to do, but because they know that we are the hands and feet of Jesus. By buying Christmas gifts and packaging up Christmas hams and vegetables we are shaking our fists at the powers in the world that tell us that there are some people who don’t matter. By walking alongside our neighbors in need we are proclaiming that their lives are holy. When we celebrate Eucharist in a nursing home or a prison, we are proclaiming the power of God’s love for ordinary, even marginalized people. When we travel halfway across the world to make relationships in Nzali, Tanzania, we are celebrating that all humanity is united by one miraculous birth two thousand years ago.
Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, your life is holy. You may think you don’t matter. You may think you are too young or too old, too rich or too poor, too jaded or too tired, but God has chosen to make your life holy. And your life isn’t just holy that hour a week you spend in church. Whether you’re washing the dishes, or walking the dog; typing up a report at work or in the middle of a boring meeting; on the phone with a friend or going for a run—your ordinary life is sacred. Because before those angels burst onto the scene, the God of the Universe quietly became an ordinary human being. A human being who presumably had chores and a job.. A human being who had sore feet and stomach aches and who cried and laughed. Jesus was one of a kind and he was just like us. Jesus was completely divine and completely human.
Jesus was born and he lived his life and he died and he was resurrected for you. And for the woman who cleans your office, the man who delivers your mail, and the women who made the shirt you’re wearing today. Jesus was also born for people you will never meet, whose lives are so different from yours you cannot comprehend their experiences, as they could not comprehend yours.
It seems unlikely that any of us in this room will have the gift of a visit from an angel to wake us up to the miracle of our humanity. So really all we have is moments like these—prayers and candlelight and hymns we’ve sung a hundred times. We gather together to remember who we are, and whose we are.
And this is who we are. We are people who remember a poor girl who was brave enough to let God in. We gather with her at the manger and marvel that the very God who created the universe now has tiny baby toes. We tremble as we consider the risk he’s taking. He takes this risk for no good reason other than his love for us.
And so we become his, completely ordinary, completely holy, completely humbled.