When I was a kid, I rode the bus to school. Every morning, my sister and I would head down the hill to the corner of Blossom Hill Drive and Delp Road to wait for Bus 32 to arrive. The bus stop was a little spit of grass, between the fence line and the intersection, marked by a red fire hydrant. Growing up in Amish Country, like I did, most days, with the prevailing winds out of the west, the air was thick with the smell of cow manure wafting from the bucolic farms that still surrounded our rapidly sprawling community. It wasn’t a pleasant smell, as you might guess, but we were used to it, so most days, it wasn’t terrible. There were a few mornings, however, when the winds would shift and begin to blow from the north. Those days were the best days, as the smell of cow manure was replaced by the aroma drifting off the Wilbur Chocolate Factory. It didn’t matter how long we had to wait for the bus on Wilbur Chocolate days, we were glad to stand around and enjoy the scent of chocolate hanging in the air.
I’ve reminisced a lot about the differences between Wilbur Chocolate days and normal bus stop days as I’ve thought about how different Christmas looks and feels in 2020 than in other years, especially as it relates to the Nativity scene and the birth of our Lord. Most years, the manger we imagine is a Wilbur Chocolate, Norman Rockwell scene. We tend to romanticize the story of Jesus’ birth with images of quiet cattle resting and sheep gently nibbling on grass. The air smells of the sweetness of hay. Mary and Joseph, despite the long journey and arduous, first century, birthing process, are well groomed, in neatly pressed attire, ready to receive the shepherds as guests and, if that one Christmas song is to be believed, even willing to put up with a little drummer boy offering the only gift he could muster. Then there is the baby Jesus, no crying he makes, wrapped in swaddling clothes, tender and mild, and lying in the manger, aglow with the radiance of God’s glory.
In 2020, however, I wonder if we’re able to see a more accurate portrayal of the Nativity. A scene more like the one evoked by a tweet I saw earlier this week. “‘Infant so tender and mild’ suggests the existence of a spicy baby.” What if, instead of the sweet smell of hay, our noses were more in tune with Lancaster, Pennsylvania or Toddy County, Kentucky and the scent of animal… by-products? Mary, her hair matted from sweat and her eyes puffy from tears, is doing her best to hold it together, as she takes it all in, wondering what exactly she signed up for when Gabriel appeared before her nine months ago. Meanwhile, Joseph, unsure of exactly how to help, keeps watch from the entrance of the small cave cut into the hill. The baby, well, he might be quiet now, but we all know that won’t last long. Tender and mild, KFC Jesus will be Popeye’s spicy soon enough. The animals are restless, as the shepherds with their own particular aroma and colorful language, tell a story that is too fantastic to be believed. All of this comes before the three wise men bring gifts suitable for embalming and Simeon promises Mary that her son’s life story would ultimately be a sword that pierces her heart. It isn’t exactly the olive woodcut scene we’re used to, but there is a gift in the messiness.
Here’s what I love about Christmas. Whether the experience is cow manure or Wilbur chocolate, the truth is that God is there. The hardship of 2020 might have removed some of the misty romance from our Christmas celebrations, but the good news about the birth of Jesus is that God enters the darkness to bring light; God enters the messiness to bring restoration; God enters a fearful and violent world to bring hope and peace. Christmas doesn’t have to be a Hallmark movie set, ripped from the pages of Pinterest, smelling like a Yankee candle to be perfect. Instead, maybe the perfect Christmas is the messiness of opening presents over Facetime, while eating cookies that were shared via a no-contact-porch-drop, in a house that smells like dog because you haven’t vacuumed the couch in longer than you’d like to admit. It’s perfect not because it has all the right trappings, but because God has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.
Luke’s Gospel is clear that the first Christmas was far from perfect. Whether it was the Emperor moving people around like puppets on a string or that the only room available for Mary to give birth to Jesus was a musty feed barn, the circumstances into which the Son of God was born aren’t what anyone would have imagined. Yet still, the angels appear to the shepherds living in the fields, and proclaim good news of great joy for all the world. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” No matter the messiness of it all, the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One has been born for us, and the once dark world is now bright with the light of Christ.
We will probably remember 2020 as a year filled with cow manure, but today, the winds have shifted and the sweet aroma of hope is upon us. In the birth of Jesus, a light has shined on all who live in deep darkness. Through Christ, we are able to see past the hardships of today as we work to build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Through Christ, we are able to hope for and work toward a more compassionate world. Through Christ, we are able to hope for and work toward a more peaceful society. The winds of change are upon us this morning. God is here. May your Christmas be a Wilbur Chocolate day in a year of Amish Farms, for unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a savior, who is Christ the Lord. Merry Christmas. Amen.