- Parish House
The Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield
My mom was a very modest person. No two-piece bathing suits for her and not even that many sleeveless dresses during her lifetime. Thus, it was that only when she was in the hospital for her last illness that I saw the unblemished skin of her back, skin that had never been darkened by exposure to the sun. For an 86 year-old it was surprisingly good looking, unwrinkled, peaceful, if the word “peaceful” can indeed be applied to skin. It had not been roughed up by the abrasions of 86 years of daily life, unlike our hands and feet and faces.
You know how it is with such skin. It is sensitive to touch. It is in some way aware of what is around it. It has not been hardened by continued contact with a rough world. It has an innocence, or dare I say a holiness. Such skin is what covers babies all over, a certain covering of vulnerability in an often harsh world.
That reality may be as much a reason as any as to why we celebrate Christmas by announcing the birth of a child. At some level we are desperately hoping for a world that is not so hard and callous, but instead a world in which sensitivity and vulnerability and innocence are the norm. That is what infants are the sign of, and the Christ child in particular, holiness taking the form of flesh.
The lessons from Holy Scripture on this day reflect our hope. There is the presence of an infant with brand new skin. The entire manger story is one of a set of parents’ vulnerability in a world that is harsh beyond the participants’ ability to control it. And, yes, there is the language of peace proclaimed by messengers to certain shepherds. And then there is the language of Isaiah, which calls a child that is being born…whether it might be a king of Judah or a yet more distant king we do not know for certain…but Isaiah calls such a child the “Prince of Peace.” Our lessons make for a sentimental Christmas.
But Holy Scripture also reflects the reality of this world lest we get too sentimental and forget why words such as “peace” are necessary. In Luke, the set-up for the story makes it perfectly clear that the people in control have and, yes, indeed, often exercise the power to uproot the poor from where they live for the purposes and interests of those in power. Forcing people from their homes and sending them somewhere else disrupts lives and keeps the poor…well…poor. And Isaiah hits the nail on the head when he confronts the very real problem of marching armies, soldiers in their boots and uniforms at the command of leaders who demand victory. In case you missed it during the reading of the first lesson, Isaiah says that one day the boots and uniforms of the armies will be burned as fuel for the fire.
I associate a soldier’s boots with callused, marching feet. I associate battle fatigues with camouflage behind which to hide. What I find hopeful about the imagery of the prophet is that Isaiah is saying to faithful people that one day there will be no thick soles that let one person trample over another, no defenses behind which people can hide and thus make them unaware of and unaffected by the surrounding hurt of others. It is judgment exposing all things. What I find hopeful about the story in Luke is that one day the dispossessed will be the focus of adoration and awe, not fear and hatred. It is humility triumphing over all things. The prophet and the evangelist want the calluses and the attendant callousness gone. They want the defenses behind which we hide ourselves burned up. They want peace in its fullest sense.
It is why Isaiah can then describe the new world as the world of a child who is the prince of peace. The child’s skin is sensitive and uncallused. The child has no power to trample over others. It is a world in which people are not inured to war and oppression.
And that image works five hundred years after Isaiah when Luke tells us that the world as God envisions it is a world composed of people who live like infants, in which the most vulnerable are accorded respect, just as when shepherds travel to a manger to see the most vulnerable and freshest part of God’s creation. Isaiah and Luke are speaking to you and me and calling us to task in our relationships with our family and neighbors and co-workers and fellow citizens, the aliens in our midst, even our enemies thousands of miles away. They envision a world in which God is intimately present, not absent.
At some level we come into a church on Christmas because deep down in our hearts, whether we are eighteen or eighty years old, we yearn for vulnerability and intimacy in a world that so often lacks it. We have had enough of warfare, both between nations and inside our own selves. We yearn for messengers of peace. We long for the day when we will feel comfortable inside our own skin, when we will feel holy and cared for and innocent, and realize that the people around us are feeling the same. That is part of what it is like for God to dwell among humans.
That is what it is going to be like when the kingdom of God finally comes to fruition. Isaiah had a vision of it, and Luke told a story of what it is like. And we tell that same story again, year after year. For in telling it, one day it will become true when people finally realize that it is a better way to live than we have lived so far. Tell the story about what the world can look again and again until it actually come to pass, and our gospel will indeed become good news of great joy for all the people, just as the angels promised on a cold winter’s night. Amen.