Christmas Eve – December 24, 2020

Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-20

“In a Manger”

This Christmas I’ve been thinking a lot about food. I know that I’m not the only one. After all, we’re having a Christmas without parties, without concerts, without extended family gatherings, and without candles and carols in the church on Christmas Eve. Of the various things that we do at Christmas, the food seems like one of the few things that is left to make this a Merry Covid Christmas.

I don’t know about you… but at our house we’ve got gingerbread cookies, shortbread, and chocolates. Tomorrow we’ll roast a turkey with stuffing, and cook potatoes and sweet potatoes and lots of colourful vegetables. There will be cranberry sauce and gravy, and plenty of good wine. Dessert will be Christmas pudding that Nick made from my mother’s recipe, and we’ll be eating leftovers for days.

Of course, I’m a Christian minister, so I know that the real meaning of Christmas isn’t fulfilled in big holiday dinners, just as it isn’t fulfilled in parties or gatherings or presents or ornaments and lights. But as much as this Christmas may feel like we are fasting from so many things that bring us joy and comfort, I believe that God desires to feed and nourish us this Christmas with all that we need to sustain us through the coming months of continuing pandemic.

The Scriptures are brimming with metaphors to describe the spiritual blessings that come from God, describing them in physical terms that make them real and tangible for our minds and hearts to grasp. The major one for Christmas is the metaphor of the light shining into the darkness.

We celebrate Christ’s birth at the darkest time of the year in order to emphasize the wonder of God’s coming into the world as a human child. We proclaim the words of the prophet Isaiah that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” And we light our candles in a darkened church and sing about Christ who is the Light of the World, and the one who lights our way and directs our steps.

But this year, it was the food metaphor that I noticed when I read the Scriptures of Christmas. “The food metaphor?” you ask? Didn’t you notice it in the birth narrative from Luke’s Gospel account?

We heard, “[Joseph] went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Sometimes, when talking about the nativity story, I find that folks hear that term “manger” and they’ve come to understand it as referring to the stable with the animals. Jesus was born in a manger, they have heard, and so the assumption is that it is an old Bible word for the structure in which Mary and Joseph found shelter on the night their child was born.

But the manger is not the structure. It’s not the stable. Within that stable, or more likely the back room of a house where the animals were sheltered at night, there was a feed trough. That’s the manger. If you are a good Canadian who understands a least a little bit of French, you’ll remember the word “manger,” meaning “to eat” – spelled exactly the same way as “manger.”

Amy-Jill Levine, who wrote our Advent Book Study, puts it this way: “Mary places her baby where food is found; how appropriate,” she suggests, “for this baby will later take ‘the bread… saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’(Luke 22:19). By locating Jesus in the manger, Luke is anticipating the Communion story. [And even] more, the name Bethlehem [the town where Jesus was born] literally means ‘house of bread.’”

I must admit that I used to think of Jesus being laid in a manger as just pointing out the poverty, vulnerability, and need of the Holy Family. They didn’t have a fancy crib or even a little bed for him in a proper home, so they were out in the barn with the animals, and making do with a feed-trough lined with hay in which to place the newborn child.

But I expect that the Gospel writer meant to express much more than this when he had Jesus – the Son of God, the Saviour of the World – presented in the place where food is found. Jesus would also become the Bread of Life, giving his life for the life of the world.

And as much as we may look to our special Christmas meals and traditions for sustenance in this difficult season, Jesus is the only one who truly feeds us spiritually through his teaching, through his healing, through his friendship, and most astonishingly through his dying and rising.

Levine goes on to encourage us that “We should remember the manger in Bethlehem not only at the Last Supper, but also in connection to all the passages where Jesus shares a meal with others. [And there are plenty of them in Luke!] Luke depicts the feeding of the five thousand, meals with tax collectors and sinners including Zacchaeus, the three meals with Pharisees, the dinner at Emmaus, and the final meal of broiled fish.”

Just as at the Lord’s Supper, Jesus literally feeds the people. And as we break the bread and drink from the cup, we discover the deeper meaning too – that it is God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ that fills, nourishes, and strengthens us for our life and mission in the world.

A line from the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving comes to mind – the one we pray as we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. We pray, “As this bread is Christ’s body for us, send us out to be the Body of Christ in the world.” In other words, it’s not just a meal for our spiritual nourishment, but it is food that is intended to equip us to feed and strengthen others in Jesus’ name.

A few weeks ago, I was able to attend a special Zoom gathering with faith leaders from across Canada in conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The topic was “The Contribution of Faith Communities in a Pandemic,” and one of the speakers was Rabbi Debra Landsberg who said something that stuck with me.

She shared a well-known Jewish saying that I was later able to find on the internet: “Many people worry about their own stomachs and the state of other people’s souls. The real task is to do the opposite: to worry about other people’s stomachs and the state of your own soul.” Or as Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) used to put it: “Someone else’s material needs are my spiritual responsibility.”

We won’t have the opportunity to share in the Communion meal this Christmas, but I expect that most of us will do plenty of eating. As you share those special meals with your household groupings, I want to encourage you to remember Jesus, lying in a feed trough. Remember Jesus, the Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation. Remember Jesus whose life, death, and resurrection continues to feed and bless you through these challenging days.

And then let Jesus send you out to feed and bless others in Jesus’ name, considering someone else’s material needs to be your spiritual responsibility. You can do it with actual meals, dropped off for someone who is struggling without enough. You can do it with gifts to food banks and soup kitchens. You can do it with donations to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank or other organizations that help to feed people around the world who are suffering from hunger and need. You can do it through advocacy for a Guaranteed Basic Income, fair wages, and social support systems that do not allow anyone to fall through the cracks.

As much as we may miss some of our usual Christmas activities and traditions this year, the real meaning and joy of Christmas cannot be taken from us, no matter how many pandemic restrictions are required. Because a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. This child is Emmanuel – God with us. He is God’s love made physically present in the world. And he is the only Bread that can truly fill and satisfy our longings for life, and love, and meaning, and purpose.

May the child in the manger feed you this Christmas, and equip you to feed others in Jesus’ name.