“They found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”
We know Christmas as a birth story. But we’re so focused on that manger, we can miss that it’s an adoption story, too.
Our traditional Christmas reading from the gospel of Luke gives us all the drama and detail of the birth scene, with its laboring mother, nervous father, and family out behind the inn that held no room. But the earliest words written about the birth of Jesus, are actually also about adoption. They come from the Apostle Paul, in Galatians chapter 4, verses 4-5:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent the Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.
For some of you, this is much more than a metaphor. You know the power of Paul’s image in personal ways because adoption is part of your family story. And in this season when so much centers on pregnancy, birth, labor and delivery — when so much centers on the manger — we remember that there are so many who live without the safety of family and the assurance of home, and there are so many ways that God and God’s people can form a family.
It was National Adoption Day, November 2017, when my sister’s family of four was formed. My sister, Susan, her husband, Jeff, and their then seven-year-old son, Harrison, had become the foster family for a baby girl earlier that year, committing to love her fully and vulnerably until it was determined by the appropriate authorities what was best for her. And then came the news that what was best for her, and for all of them, was to become forever family. So we all gathered and celebrated at the Palm Beach County courthouse. My nephew raised his arms as the judge made the official announcement that Ruby Rose Snow — beloved of God — was now legally their daughter and sister, as she also became a niece, cousin, and granddaughter.
The Palm Beach County Courthouse was abuzz that day, as over 20 children were being formally adopted as part of this National Adoption Day recognition, which included a large party, complete with magic, face-painting, balloon animals, and loads of free food for all the family and friends gathered. Everyone in the building — from the security officers, to the clerks, to the social workers, to the honorable judges — seemed overwhelmed at the uncharacteristic joy that filled the courthouse. “It’s our favorite day of the year,” many said as we moved from security check, to cafeteria, to elevator, to courtroom. Once all was official and we were out of the courtroom and into open space, our restless children ran down the airy corridor, all of their pent-up adrenaline finally released with their Sunday-best untucked and unkempt. Reflexively, we called after as dutiful parents, “Don’t run!” A judge walking by stopped and said with an easy smile and a somewhat longing gaze, “If you don’t mind, let them run.” And then “We never see children running here.”
Sometimes we see it. Every now and then, at certain extraordinary moments in our lives we catch sight of unrestrained joy in a setting where there has so often been grave disappointment. Hope that had been pent-up finally released in a place where we were starting to wonder if it would visit again. In the words of Isaiah, it’s like “a great light” seen among those who have “dwelled in darkness.” Christmas is that glimpse. And Paul calls it “adoption.”
Because Paul knows that Christmas is for people who have known the deepest darkness. Those who have known isolation, trauma. Those who have known so much of the old world, with its old stories. The world where Caesar and his census are running things and setting the pace for your life; where Herod and his murderous rage render many vulnerable or on the run; where life is spent often in fragile and difficult places. Christmas is for unwed teenage mothers, nervous and stupefied fathers-to-be, sheepherders and low-wage workers, and every other person who has ever felt far from home or wondered if anyone is coming for them at all. Paul says to them that, in Christ, you are adopted. You are home.
Frederick Buechner’s memoir is about home — entitled Longing for Home. He tells of when he was a young writer in New York, trying to make it in the world of publishing and not doing so well, and he started going to church at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. He recalls the minister, a fine preacher by the name of George Arthur Buttrick, telling a story on a Sunday near Christmas. As he had been leaving church, Buttrick had overhead someone on the steps asking someone else, “Are you going home for Christmas?” Buechner remembers Buttrick, peering out through his sparkling spectacles at all those people, asking, “Are you going home for Christmas?”
He said it in such a way that brought tears to his eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move on to his answer to the question, which was that home, finally, is in Bethlehem. Home is what Gk Chesterton called “the place where God was homeless / And all people are at home.” Home is where Christ is, and where we know once again the strong, saving news that there is One who loves the world so much as to never give up on it, to always come for us, claim us, and remind us who we are as beloved children of God. That’s why Christmas is not only a birth story. It’s an adoption story.
My friend Roger has taught me this. Roger is a deacon in my former church. He was part of the search committee that called me there. He is a kind and generous friend to me and to many, who has always signed his emails, “You are stuck with my love.”
Roger never imagined children. As a single man who is gay, he did not expect that possibility in his life. But some years ago, his sister Kelly expressed her desire to adopt a child, and Roger was supportive every step of the way. Kelly was eventually approved as a foster parent, and then something amazing happened. Within days of her approval, she got a call. A mother had given birth to a son, and they wondered if Kelly would want a baby. Kelly immediately began to do all that was necessary to welcome a baby into her home, just a few days later, and Roger, who never imagined a child, rearranged his life, too. In fact, they made quick arrangements to live in apartments across the hall from each other — no small feat in the New York City real estate market. And yet they made it possible, and together they loved this baby, Jonah, who today is 17 years old.
Some years back, Roger reflected on the miraculous way God had formed this family, and he shared a particular story of how he was picking up a then 3rd-grade Jonah from the afterschool, where he found him reading a book with his personal fan club, the twins Grady and Cyrus. These kindergartners were a few years younger than Jonah, and they were on his lap crowded together while Jonah read the “Garfield” comic book aloud. Roger had never met the twin’s father but he walked into the afterschool center with him that day and went right to Grady and Cyrus and kissed them. Roger watched as Jonah beamed at seeing all this affection and said to the father, “Wow! You are one lucky family!”
The father quickly responded, “Yes we are. And Jonah, you’re part of a lucky family, too.”
Jonah replied, “I sure am. My mom prayed for two years for a baby. Then God answered her prayers and she got me. But I wasn’t in her tummy.”
And the father didn’t miss a beat, “No, but you were in her heart. You know what Jonah? Grady and Cyrus weren’t in my tummy either – but they were in my heart.”
At that, Jonah hopped up and said, “You got that right, brother,” as he ran to his Uncle Roger.
And so, brothers and sisters — siblings in the faith — know this: You have always been in the heart of God. So let us look together toward the day when the time is fully come, when the Spirit is in our hearts, when all know what it means to have their full rights as beloved children of God, when all people are at home, and when all the children run free.