But what happens next?
After shepherds have returned to their flocks. After wise men return to their far off observatories in search of the next star. After the angels have packed up the the trumpets and the sheet music, what happens next?
After a house full of guests have come to celebrate the new arrival and gone on their merry ways leaving behind gifts and probably a terrific mess, we are left with simply this: a new baby, two terrified parents, and their whole lives ahead of them.
After one miraculous night comes the endless daily grind of diapers to change and sleepless nights and midnight feedings.
After the party comes the difficult, joyful, terrifying work of raising a child.
Some give this infant the name “Immanuel” – meaning “god with us.” The angels announce that he will bring peace on earth and goodwill to all people. But before any of this can happen – before god can be fully with us, before he can bring that peace on earth, he needs to learn to crawl, and then walk. Needs to be able to hold his head up and know how to feed himself.
This “god with us” needs care and nurture. And it is a care and nurture that comes from human hands.
The gospels skip over these scenes in the next several decades in the life of Jesus, and so you can understand why this is the part of the Christmas story that so often is missed. Underneath all the miracles and all the spectacle, this one truth is the astonishing, scandalous message of the Christmas story.
God chooses to be with us.
And God chooses to be with us first in the form of an infant. Helpless. Needful. Needing the nurturing, caring hands of humans to come into the fullness of being.
God, the all powerful and all knowing, needs human care.
I don’t know how or why you celebrate the season, or what you believe. For one moment this evening, I ask you to put aside the question of whether you believe in God or not, whether you believe this story or not.
Instead I ask tonight that you hold this image in your hearts and minds: A divine being in infancy, reliant on fragile and fallible human hands for survival.
Every single one of us has been in this position of need, although our memories on the subject may be a little fuzzy.
Before the end of this day, another half million children will be born into this world, some in far healthier conditions than the ones described in this Christmas story, and many more in as poor or even worse conditions than Jesus was. Each of us, however, is reliant on those same fragile, fallible hands.
There is a reason why the image of Mary and the infant Jesus remains one of the most powerful and popular among artists.
The image of mother and child, and the feeling that image instills, is a near universal one. It is a symbol of an essential and an unconditional love. It is no small accident that in both Hebrew and Arabic the word for “compassion” is closely related to the word for “womb.”
Compassion reflects the love and care given by a parent – the love and care needed by a child.
That need for care, for compassion, never ends.
Even as we age, we still need those loving hands from time to time.
Tonight, another half million souls entering this world are in need of that same love and care. Some will even grow up to be as reviled and despised as Jesus was in his own lifetime. Still, they will need that care. We all still need that compassionate hand.
Whose hands will they be?
This is the challenge given to us in the astonishing message of the Christmas story.
Immanuel comes, tiny and helpless.
God with us needs the care of human hands to survive.
And if the promise of Christmas, of peace on earth and good will to all people, is to come to it fruition, then human hands are still needed to nurture it into being. Our hands are needed.
Tonight we celebrate.
Tomorrow our homes will fill with guests and food and gifts. Given the surrounding population, it is almost certain there will be a few wise men and shepherds among us. No angels, perhaps, but certainly a horn or two. Definitely music.
Then Christmas Day ends. Our guest go home, the leftover are wrapped, the decorations and the music are stored away, and our homes are left a terrific mess.
The celebration of Christmas ends, and we are left with a challenge in its place: the image of god with us, an infant; the promise of peace and goodwill for all people; the need for our hands to do the work to make it possible.
Christmas has come. Christmas will pass.
But what happens next?