Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
One of the great yearly events of my childhood in Texas was the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. In my day, the entire Astrodome complex would be given over to the occasion—the rodeo events and the concert were in the stadium itself, much of the parking lot was devoted to carnival rides and games, and the attendant sales of crafts and food and overpriced trinkets were located in the display halls around the campus.
It was a revered annual event in the Houston area. On opening day, all the schools in the region would host “Go Texan Day” and the kids would be encouraged to come to school in boots and jeans and coyboy hats. (For some of us, this was not much of a change from every other day, but it was a quasi-religious observance nonetheless.)
Everyone who could go to the festival, did. You’d drive onto the lot and park in outer Slobovia, then walk the rest of the way into the fairgrounds. Every age, and color of skin, and largeness of hair (this was Texas after all) could be found there…from “who’s who” to “Who is THAT?”
As you entered the carnival area, the noise got louder, and the press of people around you got tighter. The lights on the rides and booths were closer and bigger and more overwhelming. And then, gradually at first and then suddenly in a full-frontal assault, you would SMELL it. The smell of people, and carnival food, and above all the animals.
This was the Livestock Show and Rodeo, after all. The animals were officially the point of the whole thing. The barns and pens occupied the central hall of the complex, and you knew well before you got there that you were going in the right direction. As clean and well-scrubbed and carefully groomed as both beasts and buildings were, the smell was still the smell of a barnyard. Feed and sweat and animal waste, all at once. You couldn’t NOT smell it; I carried the memory of it in my nostrils for days afterward.
I’m waiting for someone to write a Christmas carol about the smell of the stable in Bethlehem. I promise you, it did not smell like lilies and roses. It did not smell like incense. It did not smell like gingerbread and roast turkey and dressing and pine boughs in a wreath on the door. It did not smell like “Christmas.”
It smelled like a barn. It smelled like sweat and animals and excrement, in the middle of a carnival festival gathering with too many people and not enough room, and no one much paying attention at all. And that is where it happened. Right there, in the middle of the mess and chaos.
Into the sweat and excrement and crowdedness of a carnival, with only outsiders and animals to witness, God came to us. Into the crowds and smells and noise, God came to us. Into our lives of messiness and chaos, in our own flesh and blood and bone, God came to us.
In Jesus, born of Mary this night in Bethlehem, God comes to us, as us, with us. In the mess, in the chaos, in the stuff of our lives that is not at all “Silent night, holy night”, that does not smell or feel or look at all like Christmas, God comes and meets us and loves us there, right there in the midst of it all.
We have a God who knows us inside and out. For in creating us in God’s own image and likeness, God has known us from the beginning—the beginning of time and our own beginnings, each one of us. In coming to us, as one of us, God experienced the fullness of human reality—birth, finitude, sorrow and grief, joy and celebration, and even death. It is no accident that in our Nativity window here at St. Augustine’s, the image of the manger cradle is symbolized by a cross. Both cradle and cross are part of the story—we cannot have one without the other.
Christ comes as someone we can know and see, and yet we know and see only in part. Part of himself remains a mystery—unseen, concealed and yet thorougly completely present and included. So our lives are mystery—somewhat seen and known and understood, but seen and known and understood only in part, even to ourselves.
But in that hiddenness and mystery; in the chaos and messiness; in the smell and sweat and struggle, God comes. Even now, even tonight, in the places where only animals and outsiders might even be around to notice: God comes to us. Visits us. Loves us, as one of us.
Merry Christmas, friends.