A little while ago I watched a video that demonstrated a new approach taken by a group of therapists working with young people living with level three autism. At first, it seemed to me that the approach being taken was somewhat strange.
One young man got so disturbed when the therapist came into the room that he started walking quickly up and down the room, twisting and untwisting a piece of string, refusing to acknowledge her presence. It would have been hopeless trying to communicate with him. So the therapist also picked up a piece of string and started twisting and untwisting it. When the young man made a noise, so did she; when he began to do something different, like banging his hand on a table, so did she. Very slowly, over two days, the recordings of their sessions showed that a relationship had begun to form – when the young man glanced at the therapist she glanced back at him – eventually he smiled at her, and she smiled back. Finally, the point was reached where the therapist could initiate some contact, and the young man would respond with a smile. He was starting to trust her.
Apparently, when someone with autism feels they’re being bombarded with too much information – if there’s too much going on at the same time – to stop themselves panicking they withdraw into themselves, stick to doing only what is familiar, and don't acknowledge anything going on outside. But if, after a while, they begin to notice that somebody else is also gently engaged in the same familiar actions and rhythms - slowly the autistic person begins to recognise that here is a part of the outside world that isn't fearful, that isn't threatening. Here is someone doing the same things that I do - When I do this, someone answers - I'm not powerless. And gradually communication begins: gradually a relationship starts to grow.
I don’t think we need to be autistic to know what this is about. Perhaps most of us have experienced this from time to time. When we’re locked into our own nightmares and we don’t know how to get out, the only thing that’s going to help is if somebody joins us in there, if somebody takes the risk of being there with us and going through the same thing we’re going through.
I don’t know about you, but for me it seems like there’ve been a few road-blocks this year on the road to Bethlehem. Literally as well as figuratively. Our world doesn’t seem to have learned a thing from two thousand years of hearing the Christmas message of peace and goodwill year in year out. What’s Christmas got to do with uncontrollable wildfires threatening homes and lives and destroying ecosystems from California and the Amazon to Indonesia and Australia? What's Christmas to Torres Strait Islander communities watching as rising sea levels overtake their houses and gardens? How is Christmas being celebrated this year amongst the hardship of famine and civil war in Yemen or in the perennial misery of Gaza? Has anything even changed for the forgotten Rohingya people?
How does Christmas help any of that – let alone the not so cute image the Western world offers of conspicuous Christmas over-consumption? Might there be a credibility gap between what we tell ourselves at Christmas time that it’s all about – and what we see in the world around us? The sheer bad temper of the last-minute rush seems to drown out any lingering strains of ‘peace on earth and good-will to all’ that you’ve been hearing all week. Sometimes the problems aren’t exactly earth shattering but they still cause some stress, like the last minute shopping for the gift that somehow got overlooked.
And then there’s the family celebrations, and you want to make a meaningful connection with family members you maybe haven’t seen for a while, or maybe there’s been some things said that can’t be forgotten, and not everyone in the family is talking. Things start to get a bit frayed. Emotions get a bit frayed. Relationships break up – sadly, it really is harder to find a room for the night in a women’s refuge around Christmastime – and if you’ve got to deal with the hard facts of domestic violence or unemployment or a credit card that’s getting out of control, at the same time as you’re hearing the Christmas message in every department store that loving your kids means spending more money – at Christmas time when expectations are so high – if you’re by yourself or you’re not living in a picture-perfect family or you’re waiting for a medical diagnosis – it can be the hardest time of the year. If there’s a credibility gap between the lifestyle the glossy magazines tell you should be having, and the one your reality check tells you you’re actually having, then the closer you get to Christmas the wider it gets. There can be some road-blocks on the road to Bethlehem.
But the thing about Christmas is, it’s like one of those children’s pantomimes where the actor’s pretending to be deaf and everybody in the audience is yelling, ‘no, look behind you!’ – because when you really think about it all the characters in the Christmas story are like signposts, whether it’s the shepherds or the angels or the wise men it’s like they’re all yelling, ‘no, look over here!’ – and at some point on Christmas Eve whether we’re ready for Christmas or not, they get our attention and we find ourselves looking at a baby in a crib – even though at some level we’re still thinking about the road-blocks. Which ever way we look, whether it’s up into the sky or over the horizon, we see these larger than life characters all yelling at us, ‘it’s not the road-blocks, it’s the baby!’ These characters have got one job to do, and that’s to get us here on time, to Bethlehem, whether we’re ready or not.
So, what is it with the baby? How do you tell the woman whose defacto has beaten her up the week before Christmas, and she’s piled everything into the stationwagon, and the kids as well, and she doesn’t really know where she’s headed to, how can you tell her that this baby two thousand years ago matters? How? Because the meaning of the baby and the meaning of Christmas is that God is right here with us. That’s what the name Emmanuel means. God is with us. In our grief, in our mixed-up-ness, in our selfishness and our fear, as well as in our love and our pain and our laughter, in all the stuff of our everyday lives – God is with us. God is born among us, God does all the same things we do. And just in case we don’t get the point, this baby also bangs into the same road-blocks that we bang into. This baby is born to parents who live in poverty. This baby doesn’t make it to hospital on time to be born. This baby is going to have to be whisked away in the middle of the night and smuggled across the border into another country to escape the authorities. This baby is going to preach the way of peace but die the death of a common criminal. If this baby really is God-made-flesh then it means that God is committed to going the distance with us, that God isn’t out there somewhere running the show from a safe distance. God-made-flesh isn’t born into a fairy-tale world of cotton-wool snow and Santa Claus, God-made-flesh is born right in the middle of the great and gripping darkness that we sometimes call the real world, and that’s the good news. That means that it’s OK to take the risk of living compassionately and loving wastefully because whatever happens the future is going to be in God’s hands. The God who made all things will be right here with us.
And that’s the good news. That while we’re wrapped up in our fears and our self-preoccupation, while we hide from our real selves in the darkness, God quietly creeps in beside us as a baby: who is born, who grows up, and lives a perfectly ordinary life just like ours, eating, sleeping, working, partying, loving, hurting, grieving.
God-made-flesh does what we do, feels what we feel, speaks our language; and slowly we learn that this is a God we can trust, and that we needn't be afraid.
And when God-made-flesh begins to do new things, shockingly different things like healing and forgiving, turning tables and the world upside-down, dying and rising again - when God-in-Jesus begins to tell and live a radically different story, the new story of the kingdom of God, then maybe we don't need to panic and run away and hide in fear. Because maybe we’ve learned we can trust this God.
In Jesus, tonight’s vulnerable baby lying in an animals’ feed-trough, God shares our life in order that we can share God's life; God embraces our fears and frailty, in order that we can embrace God's faithfulness and love. Because God has become flesh among us, inhabiting our familiar world, becoming part of our story, because of this, we can dare to receive and embrace our unexpected roles in God's new story - whether as angels or shepherds, inn-keepers or pilgrims - and God can begin to draw us out of ourselves, mend us, call us, and make us back into who God always intended us to be.