In these weeks of Advent preparation, it has struck me that the Christmas story is the ultimate ‘Church without Walls’ story that we tell. We encounter a family for whom there is no room within the established community. They are a family looking for a place to rest. They are a family who find their place outside the city centre in a barn with the animals. And it is into this space that Jesus, God-with-us, is born.
For Mary and Joseph, life did not go as they planned. That first Christmas, if anything, was a disruption of their hopes and dreams. No one plans to give birth among the smell of animals. No one plans for their baby’s first bed to be a trough for animal food. No one plans to celebrate the birth of their first child cut off from family and friends in an unfamiliar place.
As I write this, COVID cases within our diocese are increasing dramatically. These cases are people we know. They are our family members. Our colleagues. Our friends. Families that were getting ready to celebrate are now preparing for days or weeks of quarantine and isolation. Communities that were already struggling are wondering when relief will come. This was not the Christmas we were planning this year.
And yet, what is the story we’ve come to know? That first Christmas was a sign of God’s transformative power coming into the world. Into the mess, into the chaos and the disruption, the Prince of Peace is born. This young mother and father use everything at their disposal to make the world comfortable for their newborn child. Soon others will gather around them drawn to the simplicity and love they encounter in this couple and the new baby boy. Shepherds, magi and townsfolk are drawn out of their ‘walls’ to come and be with this family at this privileged moment in their story.
Mary and Joseph were able to open their hearts in welcome to those they found gathered around them that first Christmas. Mary and Joseph didn’t let the disruption to their plans close them off from the Great Plan that God had for them. Mary and Joseph didn’t let fear of the unknown stop them from loving and being loved.
What might we learn this year in looking back at that first Christmas?
Might we discover that we are exactly where God needs us to be this Christmas? Whatever our plans were, might we discover something new in the disruptions and unmet expectations? Might God be calling us to love and be loved right where we are?
I look at my own family and the year that has been. Like many families, the challenges of lock-downs and home-schooling proved extremely challenging. Just as we were getting ready to reengage with the world around us, we find ourselves wondering just what the right thing is to do at a time like this. But then I think of that first Christmas and I imagine a simple Christmas with those nearest me. I picture myself slowing down and really taking time to listen to those God has put around me. This year, when many won’t be able to join our celebrations at our churches, I picture our home becoming church in the little part of the world where we find ourselves.
This Christmas, our Church will be wherever we are. Our celebrations won’t be limited to gatherings within four walls but will break out into a world that needs to share in the love of God that we carry within our life stories. Every family gathering to share a meal; every act of generosity and kindness; every care package delivered to a household in need; every carol joyfully sung; every neighbour greeted with a smile; every stranger made welcome – this is our Church without walls.
Mary and Joseph were able to transform the dwelling of cows and sheep into a welcoming home. This space became a ‘place of belonging’ for those who happened to be there. Perhaps we’ll create that ‘place of belonging’ just by slowing down enough to open our hearts to one another – that longer phone conversation with a family member or old friend – that moment of reconnecting with neighbours not seen throughout the year – that intentional gesture of charity towards those in need – that moment of realising that what I actually need this year is to simply be with Jesus in a new and unexpected way.
In this way, God is doing more than just breaking down the walls of our church.
God is breaking the walls of our hearts.