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Do Christmas Wrong

The only way to do Christmas is to do it WRONG.

There was a big church in New York City that planned their children’s Christmas pageants months ahead of time. The pageant was the highlight of the Christmas Eve service. One year they recruited Timmy to be the innkeeper.

Everyone loved Timmy. And for the perfectionists of the world—which Upper Manhattan has no shortage of—Timmy was probably an interesting casting choice for the innkeeper. Timmy had Downs Syndrome, and the role of innkeeper has one line.

Mary and Joseph came down the center aisle of the church. They, of course, where on their way to Bethlehem to register in the census. They needed a place to stay, and they found the innkeeper. At this moment, everyone in the congregation began to lean in. There were mouthing the line trying to be helpful. The choir director crossed her fingers. Wives elbowed their sleeping husbands.

“There’s no room in the inn,” Timmy said. Perfect!

Everyone took a deep sigh of relief. He nailed his line.

Then as Mary and Joseph began to saunter away looking dejected, Timmy blurted out: “But you can stay with me!” (1)

The only way to do Christmas is to do it WRONG.

There was a young pastor in the Church of England. He was serving a church of about 30 members. When his first Christmas came around, he remembered something from his own childhood: The midnight communion service.

He went to the church council and said, “We need a midnight communion service. It will be the best thing we’ve ever done!” They looked at him a little cock-eyed and said, “Why?”

He shared that it was his most vivid memory of church as youth. They signed off on it, and he papered the surrounding neighborhood with 3000 posters, which read Christmas Eve Midnight Communion Service! The service would begin at 11:30 and they would break the bread at the stroke of midnight.

In Sam’s own words:

11 p.m. came. No one there.
11:15 … still no one there.
11:25 … still just me, the bread and the wine.
11:30 … I tried so hard, so hard, to stop a tear beginning to roll down my eyelashes.

Sam hid his face in his hands feeling deflated. Finally, there were rustling at the door. He looked at his watch. At 11:32 the door opened. A man and woman in their 40s—whom he had never seen before—walked into the church.

“Is it just us?” they asked.

“I’m afraid it is,” he replied, totally humiliated.

“Oh, good,” the woman said. “We waited to see if anyone else would come, and when we thought we’d be the only ones, we walked in.”

“What do you mean?” he said, gesturing them to sit down.

“Well,” she said, “It’s been a tough year. We haven’t been to church for over a year. We were frightened to come tonight, but when we saw we’d be the only ones, we got the courage to walk through the door. Our lives are a mixture of love and shame. We feel we’re in the dust. We want to begin again.”

The only way to do Christmas is to do it WRONG.

Whenever I read the Christmas story, I am just reminded of how wrong everything is. There’s nothing right about the Christmas story. The messiah isn’t supposed come into the world nearly forgotten—hardly noticed. The savior isn’t supposed to be born in a manger. The Creator isn’t supposed to take the risk of birth.

The shepherds are supposed to be watching their flocks, not welcoming the Christ child. The magi were supposed to find the new royalty at King Herod’s palace, not among the peasants.  The story is all wrong!

Whenever the Christmas story is celebrated and everything goes as anticipated, I wonder if we miss the plot of God becoming flesh. Because that story—the incarnation story of God becoming human—is sloppy and messy and wrong!

We are startled when see Jesus Christ in the flesh of Timmy. We are startled when we meet a distraught couple at Midnight starving for connection.  Just when you think Jesus isn’t going to appear, there’s Jesus again—breaking into time and flesh to say, “I love you. I am with you.”

That leads us to the possibility that Christmas is told best through imperfection. The only way to tell this story is to have our expectations tussled. It is only when something goes wrong that we see this birth story told anew.

More than a nativity scene or imperial decree, Christmas is a divine plot twist.  More than shepherds and magi and innkeepers, incarnation flips over every expectation and yearning within us. The Christmas makes sense not when we re-tell it perfectly, but when we see a divine plot twist happen in our lives.

* * *

It happened to me several Christmases ago. Two neighboring Presbyterians churches hosted a joint Christmas Eve service. I arrived on time, and walked up to the communion table. It was decorated with ceramic nativity scene. The Advent wreath was perked up with some fresh greens—you could smell them. Then I looked at my colleague Allen and asked, “Where is the bread and wine?”

He said a word we don’t speak into the microphone on nights like this. The grocery store was already closed. They were people in the church parlor having a fellowship hour. We look at each other knowingly and sprinted to the parlor. People were munching on sugar cookies, nut bread, and croutons.

We started grabbing everything we could! I’m pretty sure I grabbed some croutons off someone’s paper cocktail plate. We grabbed a loaf of fruit bread to break at the table. After a preaching a dialogue sermon together, we approached a communion table full of croutons and who knows what else. This required swallowing a significant amount of pride.

Allen offered the invitation to the Lords’ Supper. I was furious and embarrassed.  We were doing this all wrong. We were blessing trays of croutons. We had somehow lost Jesus and ruined Christmas.

“How fitting it was,” Allen said, “that we all had a role in preparing this meal together. Just as we all contributed to this table, we are all welcome to this table.  The body of Christ is here.“

And there Jesus was again. Right there on that table. There Jesus was again—born in each person gathered around that table. There Jesus was again—found when everything was going completely WRONG.

There Jesus was again making it right again.

The only way to do Christmas is to do it all WRONG.

Do you ever feel like you are wrong? You are the wrong person to receive a gift from God. You break you everything you touch. You don’t feel worthy. You are numb to the connections of the world and feel desperately alone even when you feel surrounded by crowds of people.

Perhaps, you feel that you have done something unforgivable—unimaginable to anyone else. Perhaps, the question “what’s wrong with me?” echoes through head while you try to sleep.

Sorry to break the news to you on such a holy night: If you think you are the wrong person, you’re dead wrong.  Jesus Christ was born for you.

Listen to what the angels sang to the shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

God loves everything that is wrong, and wants to make it right again. God comes to lift up the lowly and fill the hungry. God comes to penetrate the darkness with light. God comes to drive out violence with peace. God comes to bring joy to the despairing. God brings tenderness to the hardened.  God loves you so much that heavens are broken open, and God takes the risk of birth to be with us. God doesn’t do this just for bragging rights; God comes for you. You are the reason God is born in Bethlehem, and risks hunger, poverty, and violence. You are worth it to God.

The implications of this are quite surprising. You are a character in the Christmas story. You are the you that the angels sing about.  Ponder that. Now, I know Anne, Bob, Stacy, or Bill don’t get roles in the Christmas pageants.

But Anne, Bob, Stacy, and Bill—you and me—we break through in the Christmas story in some imperfect way. Usually, it is when we drop the carefully crafted vessels that we use to try to tell the story.

When these vessels break—when those actors get out of characters and show their true selves—when no one shows up at midnight except exactly who needs to be there—when the pastors forget the bread and wine—then we see the power of the Christmas.

We see that God loves to come to the wrong. Christmas is not a story of God honoring perfection by showing up; it is a story of God coming among the imperfect and bringing a sense of completion and wholeness. Perhaps, that’s holiness.

On some level, our inclusion in this story is strange. It didn’t meet the expectation. You and I—in our imperfection and need—make this story wrong. Thank God for that!

There is no right way to do Christmas except to do it WRONG.

That’s the Christmas plot twist.

God comes to wrong and makes it right.

Endnotes:

1. I read this story in a blogpost by MArian Wright Edelman accesisble at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/making-room-at-the-inn_b_5a3d5364e4b0d86c803c716f

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