Monday, December 24, 2018

Mary's midwife, catching the miracle: Sermon for Christmas Eve in Bethlehem

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2018

Dar Annadwa, Bethlehem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who is born here in Bethlehem this night. Amen.

A warm welcome to our honored guests and to our visitors from around the world! And a very special thank you to Pastor Munther Isaac and the local congregation of Christmas Lutheran Church for your hospitality. It is an honor and a privilege to be sharing a Christmas message of hope and joy with you tonight. 

A few days ago, it was announced that our neighbors down the street at Church of the Nativity have found a very modern way to deal with an age-old problem: they’re launching a phone app to manage the visiting crowds.
Now, it may sound strange to use an app to visit the birthplace of Our Lord, but if you’ve ever stood in that long line, waiting sometimes hours for your two minutes near the manger, then you understand the desire for such an innovation. There’s almost always a huge crowd gathered at Nativity Church, as Christians come from all over the world to kneel and pray at the spot where true peace was born, and where God’s love came to live among us.

But when it feels the entire world is packed into that tiny manger room with you, it can be a challenge to get into the Christmas spirit. In fact, it can be a challenge to move or even to breathe! Surrounded by so many other visitors, we might forget that the cave where Jesus was born was not a public space two thousand years ago. It was an intimate and sacred space, as all birthing rooms are.

Our brother Martin Luther imagined what that holy night and sacred space was like in his Christmas sermon from 1521, writing:

“There (Mary) is without any preparation, without either light or fire, alone in the darkness, without any one offering her service as is customary for women to do at such times. Everything is in commotion in the inn, there is a swarming of guests from all parts of the country, no one thinks of this poor woman.”

The young virgin Mary, giving birth alone in the dark, is a poetic notion, I suppose. But while I am certain there was no need for a phone app to deal with crowds lining up to enter her birthing room, neither do I think Mary was alone that night. Joseph was certainly nearby.

And because they had been in Bethlehem a few days already—and because Scripture tells us Joseph had family here—when the time came for the Christ Child to be born, there was most certainly someone else with them. 

And that someone was probably a midwife.

For sure, Mary’s midwife is not a standard piece of the nativity sets we use to decorate our homes during the Christmas season, but she does often appear in Ancient Orthodox and Byzantine icons of the event. Tradition names her Salome, and you can find her depicted in the corner or background of the manger scene. Sometimes she’s seen preparing something for Mary, sometimes she’s just observing quietly, and sometimes she’s giving the Baby Jesus his first bath!

While it’s true that Luke doesn’t mention the presence of a midwife in his account of the nativity, it’s not so hard to imagine that Mary invited one of the women of Bethlehem to be with her that night. It makes sense that there was another trusted person there—someone skilled in the practice of watching and waiting, of encouraging and comforting, and of catching in her hands the miracle that is every newborn baby.

Dear siblings in Christ, on this holy night in Bethlehem two thousand years later, we are the ones invited into sacred space. Like Salome, we have been invited into the birthing room with Mary!

To be clear, we are not doing the work of birthing the Savior and His light into the world. That is the work of God (with Mary playing a special part, of course!)

But neither are we invited into the birthing room as mere spectators. As we hear again the ancient story of Our Lord and Savior Jesus’ birth, we have the great privilege to accompany Mary through the night. We light candles and pray, and sing against the darkness of our human sinfulness, until the Light of the world is born, and the Dawn from on high breaks upon us. Like midwives—who are sometimes called “babycatchers”—our hands and hearts are open this night, ready to “catch” the miracle of God’s love, made flesh and living among us.

And then what? 

Anyone who has been present for the birth of a baby knows the experience changes you forever. Whether you are the parent or grandparent, the doctor or midwife, or a trusted sibling or friend invited into the birthing room, witnessing the moment when a new life enters the world transforms you. You are forever an integral part of that child’s story, as he or she is to your story.

And how much more transforming it is when that new life, that new baby, is the One who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace! 

What do you suppose life was like for Mary’s midwife Salome after the holy night when not only she, but the whole world, was changed forever? Did she continue to catch other babies? Did she become a preacher and teacher of the Gospel? What is life possibly like after you’ve stood near the manger, held the hand of Our Lord’s mother, and perhaps even given the Messiah his first bath?

Surely, hands which have held the Savior of the world will be active in caring for the vulnerable and the voiceless, building a just society based on dignity for all people.

Ears which have heard the Messiah’s first cry will be specially tuned to the cries of the poor and the refugee, the oppressed and the occupied.

Eyes which have seen the infant face of Emmanuel, God-with-us, will surely look upon neighbors, strangers, and even enemies as children of God worthy of love and mercy.

And a voice which has said with tenderness and joy, “Welcome to the world, little Child; welcome to the world, my Lord and Savior” will surely be lifted again, speaking against every form of injustice, prejudice, and hatred.

Of course, I’m imagining the post-nativity life of Mary’ midwife, but I’m also thinking about those of us gathered here tonight.

We who have come near to the manger, to see the One who has come near to us, have also been transformed. Our hands, too, have held a miracle. Our eyes and ears have witnessed something holy and beautiful this night. And now, like Salome, we have the privilege and the power to share that miracle of love with the world!

In fact, if all of us who are “babycatchers” this Christmas night,

If all whose hands and hearts have held the miracle of God’s love born among us,

If all whose voices have been raised to sing “He rules the world with truth and grace”,

would raise our voices together in joy on the day after Christmas,

we could even sing down the wall that surrounds this city, the city of Jesus’ birth.

Dear Christian friends, rejoice! Do not be afraid! For unto us is born this day a Savior, whose name is Jesus. He is the Babe in the manger. He is also the crucified and risen One. He is ascended into heaven, and he is coming again soon, to judge the world with righteousness. What a privilege and a joy it is that we—like Mary and Joseph, like the shepherds, and like Mary’s midwife Salome—have been invited to be integral parts of Jesus’ story and the story of God’s love for the world. 

Me, Rev. Mitri Raheb, Bishop Emeritus Munib Younan, Rev. Munther Isaac
Christmas Eve 2018 in Bethlehem

As you leave this holy and sacred space tonight, I pray you will go and tell it on the mountain, that Peace is born! Justice is born! Love is born!
Thanks be to God, Jesus the Messiah, is born!

Merry Christmas! 
Kul sane wa intou salmeen!
Frohe Weihnachten!

And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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