Christmas Eve 2016
On this holy night we gather to begin again the story of our redemption. It is a story so wonderful that, as the psalm for this night says, the very heavens and earth, the seas and the trees of the forest shout with joy.
The joyous shouting reminds us that this story of redemption is not for humans alone, but for all creation. Earth and sky, stars and planets, mountains and valleys, and all creatures great and small are affected by the wondrous events of this night.
It is fitting that creation plays a prominent role in the Christmas story.
There is the star that shines so brightly over the stable. There is the donkey that carries the pregnant Mary on the long road to Bethlehem, the animals that share their stable home with the infant Jesus, the sheep that surely are also startled by the sudden appearance of the heavenly host of angels, and later the camels that the wise men ride to greet the newborn baby.
And so, it seems appropriate this night to tell a modern-day true story about a cow, a story in which a four-legged creature teaches us something about the meaning of this most holy night.
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When a mother cow gives birth she usually goes to a remote corner of the pasture, far from the other animals in the herd. After the calf is born, the mother cow licks and nurses her infant, and they stay alone together for several hours.
When they finally return to the herd, the mother steps back and presents her child. And one by one, the other cows come to greet the newborn with a gentle sniff, welcoming it to the herd.
Several years ago, on a cold, rainy, spring morning, an artist named Susan Mangam noticed that one of her pregnant cows, Gramma, did not show up at the barn. Susan went to look for Gramma and found her in the woods, along with her newborn calf.
Not wanting to disturb the mother and child, she stopped several yards away from them. And then, a piece of magic happened.
“Gramma looked at me,” Mangam writes. “She sang that low sweet sound, stepped back , and presented her newborn son to me.
“Never before had this happened to me – this sacred ritual of infinite courtesy. And after I, on my knees in the mud, had joyfully caressed the new life, and Gramma and he were heading back to meet the others, I thought, ‘I’m a cow!’
“No,” she concedes. “Gramma and I know differently. I am not a cow. But I’m no longer an intruder. I am one with them!”
For a brief moment, the barriers between animal and human are let down, and in a sacred ritual of infinite courtesy, mother cow and human woman come together to rejoice at the wonder of new birth.
* * *
On what was probably a cold, dark night about 2,000 years ago, another human woman gives birth to her first child in a remote stable. For the first hours after the baby’s birth, the woman and her husband are alone with the child, cleaning him, nursing him, caressing him, wrapping him in cloth.
And then, a piece of magic happens.
In a field far away from the mother and child, an angel appears to a motley crew of shepherds. The glory of God shines forth from the angel, lighting the field and terrifying the poor shepherds and their sheep.
But this messenger from God tells the shepherds and their flock not to be afraid. The angel has great and joyful news of the birth of a baby, who is to be their savior, their Christ and Lord.
Then, in a sacred ritual of infinite courtesy, the angel invites the shepherds to go and see this child. The shepherds to immediately with great haste to Bethlehem, and find the mother and baby still alone in the remote stable. And Mary presents her newborn son to them.
We can imagine the shepherds, on their knees in the mud, joyfully caressing this new life.
And in that moment, the barriers between God and humans are let down, and we rejoice together at the wonder of this new birth.
For a moment, as we look with the shepherds at this God in human flesh, at this newborn infant lying in a remote manger, we may be tempted to think we are God. But we and God know differently. We are not God.
But with the birth of this child, this baby who is Christ the Lord, we are no longer intruders. God’s own self has been born among us, and in a sacred ritual of infinite courtesy, we have been invited to greet the newborn, infant God.
The joy of this birth is that with it, God is one with us. And so even today we call this child our Lord Emmanuel, which means our Lord God with us.
After the shepherds greet the newborn baby God they return to their fields. But they return as different people from the ragtag crew greeted by the angel.
They return with the knowledge that God is one with them. And this knowledge causes them to praise and glorify God, and changes they way they treat those around them.
* * *
On this magical night, God’s act of infinite courtesy is extended to us, as it was to the shepherds 2,000 years ago. We, like the shepherds, are invited to greet the newborn child, to give him a gentle sniff, to kneel in the mud to caress him with joy, to welcome him among us.
The challenge of Christmas is how we respond to this gracious invitation to partake in the sacred ritual, this letting down of the barriers between God and humans, this binding together of heaven and earth.
If we allow it, God’s gracious favor will make all the difference in our lives. It will change us, and as we extend it to others we meet, it will change the world.
As we go forth from this church tonight – as we return to our fields, to our homes, to our work or school – we, like the shepherds, should go rejoicing, glorifying and praising God.
We are not intruders.
God has joined our herd.