Let us Learn to Be Little

Merry Christmas! It’s always so lovely to see all your faces out there. 

I said this last year and I’ll say it again this year: you made it, here you are. Here we are, through another year of trials, personal and global. I pray maybe some triumphs too. To be a human being, just living a life, is an accomplishment. And there’s something about completing a year, then sitting in these pews, and singing these Christmas hymns together that recognizes this, and so never fades in significance. I’m so happy to see everyone.

It astounds me, reading these Christmas stories, that just six months ago, I and twenty three parishioners from St. James were in Bethlehem, where the birth of our Lord took place. Our prior trip to the Holy Land in January 2020 was right before the Covid lockdowns, and then this recent one of course shortly before the horrific Hamas attack and all that has followed. But we made it there, and are more grateful now than ever to have done so. 

Our prayers tonight are with the people of Israel and Gaza and the West Bank and with all those who in this country are grieving and suffering as a result of what happens there. The world is small where the three Abrahamic faiths are concerned. We have no choice but to learn to share it. I pray this coming year we might get better at it--there, here, and wherever we all are so privileged as to live side by side. And it is a privilege.


Humility is a theme of this night, as it was of that first Christmas.

The pilgrim site for Christians in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world dating to the Christian emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It reminds me just a little of St. James in that it feels like a barn, with its wooden rafters high overhead. You know I love the feeling of this church at Christmastime. Some churches seem like they were built for Christmas night.

And so it is certainly with the Church of the Nativity. In that part of the world, though, the tradition is that Jesus was born not in a barn--that came along later in the Western church--but in a cave. When you’re in Bethlehem you immediately understand why. Throughout the limestone landscape are natural underground caves which today, and for centuries, have provided shelter to families, and animals. These were their barns. Homes then and even still are built right over these caves, for sturdy built-in cellars.

The Church of the Nativity was built over such a cave, the one that tradition said Jesus was born in. Today it’s almost impossible to see it in its original form. So much ornamentation has built up like layers of soot on what was once a pristine holy site: golden icons with saints’ faces peering out as if from another world, hanging glass lanterns, ropes with tassels and dark velvet curtains, all this obscuring the bright limestone that lies underneath. Our pilgrimage guide, discerning our group was not moved by the hour-long line to touch a gold filigree star marking the spot where Jesus may have been born, took us across town to a cave where we could still see exactly what it would have looked like 2000 years ago, without all the pious additions.

But what I really love about the Church of the Nativity isn’t that spot, but its second most famous feature: The tiny door through which you have to enter to get in. You can only get into the church by ducking down and wedging through what’s known as the Door of Humility. 

It wasn't built this way. The large main door of the church was, during the Crusades, blocked up to prevent an enemy army from entering the church. But however it got to be like this, it stayed. And so, to enter the church where our Lord was born among us “in great humility” as one of our Advent prayers says, you have to stoop down, and become, Small. 

To enter and understand this story requires such a posture, too. That’s why it’s easy for children. This is their holiday, it takes them no effort to understand it. They’re small: most of them can just walk right through the door of understanding. For the rest of us, grown up and prone to pride and self-aggrandizement, it takes constantly reminding ourselves of our real stature before God and each other.

I love these lines from a Christmas sermon by theologian John Calvin from the 16th century. He’s the father of Presbyterianism, and takes a more grim view of human nature than we’re used to in the cheerier English tradition we come from, but we’ll forgive him that, on this night when humility is called for. And he has a point.

After explaining how Christ humbled himself in the act of being born on earth, Calvin then turns the lesson on us. Christ humbled himself, so [quote] “Let us learn to be little in order to be received by [Christ]. Humans do not need to empty themselves in order to be of no value. For already by nature they will find such poverty in themselves that they will have good reason to be thoroughly dejected. But let us know what we are like so that we may offer ourselves to our Lord Jesus Christ in true humility--and so that he may recognize us and acknowledge us as his own.”

The doorway to Christmas, to entering its meaning, is small. We have to crouch, and make ourselves little, to get through it. Humility is the key to entering into tonight’s story, and into all that is important in this life. Relationships. Family. Life with neighbors and strangers … God. You cannot understand any of this, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God, unless you become as a child; unless (to quote Calvin) we learn to be Little.

Perhaps if we all were a little bit smaller in our own minds, there’d be more room to live in peace with each other, side by side. Certainly more room for God, and for this holy Christmas night.  In great humility our Lord came to live and die among us, and if he can be humble, so certainly should we be. Let’s let fellowship and humility guide us in the new year. 

Merry Christmas, and Amen.