For the last two weeks, we have been exploring Christmas through our five senses. We talked about experiencing Christmas through our sense of hearing. We then talked about experiencing Christmas through our sense of taste as the story of Mary and Joseph moved from a sweet story, to sour, to bitter and then salty. Today, I thought it would be a good time to experience Christmas through the sense of touch.
Now the sense of touch is exceptionally important to us. The sense of touch let’s us experience cold, hot, smooth, rough, pressure, tickle, itch, pain, vibrations, and many more sensations. We need our sense of touch to carry on with basic functions of life such as walking. If we cannot feel the ground or floor beneath our feet, it is very difficult to navigate. We need our sense of touch to avoid painful experiences such as exceptional heat or cold.
But more importantly than experiences of texture and temperature, our sense of touch allows us to communicate emotionally. Holding hands, kissing, or a hug are all forms of physical touch that communicate powerful messages. A handshake offered can express friendship and our emotional state responds to that sense of touch. When something significant happens that is shared between people, there is a natural and almost unconscious need to engage in hugging to share the emotions of that moment whether be joy or sorrow. And yet, there can be time when the physical touch can cause us to be emotionally drain. Think for a moment if you are walking along and someone comes from behind you and unexpectedly hugs you around your shoulders. You turn and see that it is the person whom you do not like. That hug is probably not going to make you feel all that good. So the context of the physical touch matters. A kiss can work the same way. A kiss shared between two people who are glad to be in one another’s presence is an encouraging act of love and kindness. Think for a moment about another situation. This one is from the Bible. The Gospel of Luke says, “While he [Jesus] was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’” The kiss from Judas to Jesus contained no love for Jesus; it contained only bitterness.
Our sense of touch then is wonderfully complex and serves to not just inform us of texture and temperature, but our sense of touch also fuels our emotions. How then might our sense of touch inform us of the Christmas story? Perhaps we can experience the emotions of the story as we experience the physical touch of the Christmas story. I would invite you to turn to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, starting at verse 1.
Luke began with these words, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” To Luke’s readers, these are powerful and emotional words. Caesar had spoken and thus whatever he said was law. Scribes wrote down those words. Messengers were dispatched to every part of the Roman world; there shall be a census. There was at that time, no person on earth more important than Caesar. Caesar Augustus was thought to be the son of Roman gods and all must obey him.
Caesar’s call for a census was not simply an accounting of how many people were in the empire, it was a means of collecting taxes from the empire for use as Caesar deemed necessary. Payment plans and late payments of taxes were not an option. Compliance with the census and payment of the taxes must be done to avoid punishment. Caesar’s announcement meant that each person was in debt to Caesar and that debt must be paid now. Hearing that announcement would have cause people to get sense goosebumps on their skin and the hair on the back of their necks to standup. These bodily sensations would cause a sense of dread to come over the hearers. So, today’s Christmas story begins with Caesar touching the life of every citizen of the Roman world causing near universal fear, anxiousness, anger, and alarm.
Verse 3 tells us that there was a procedure and process to the census in Israel. Luke wrote, “And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he [Joseph] belonged to the house and line of David.” Joseph, obedient to the call of Caesar, prepared for the census and complied with the instructions. Joseph prepared to journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Many of Luke’s readers would have understood the significance of this travel. They would have understood the sensations that travel caused to the body. Nazareth to Bethlehem is a journey of about 100 miles. This was nearly an 8 to 10-day walk. Our Christmas pageants and Christmas movies usually depict Joseph walking alongside a donkey upon which Mary sat. The couple usually walks alone on the journey. It is more likely Mary and Joseph both walked on foot the entire 100 miles. Walking 100 miles is not easy. On average an American will walk about 5,000 steps each day. Mary and Joseph would have walked 20,000 steps per day for 10 days straight to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The ground underfoot would have been a combination of dirt and rock. The coverings on their feet would not have been thickly cushioned by Adidas and Nike. The sandals would have been hard and thin. Because of Caesar’s decree, Mary and Joseph would have experienced blisters and pain and discomfort upon their feet, ankles, knees, and backs. Caesar’s order would have tired them physically. Their skin would have been hurt from the sun and wind. This part of the Christmas story involves sensations of touch leading to pain. Pain caused by the will of one man. Christmas is difficult human story.
Verse 5, Luke wrote, “He [Joseph] went there [Bethlehem] to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.” Not only was the walk difficult on the feet, skin, and scalp but for Mary it was more uncomfortable in her advanced state of pregnancy
The beginning of the Christmas story in proper context strikes our sense of touch deeply with soreness, pain, swelling, anxiousness, anger, and alarm. All the physical sensations thus far in the Christmas story come from the world. Caesar ordered the census. He was the source and cause for the pain of walking and the emotional sensations upon the bodies. The world demands and cares little about the physical demands upon the people. The demands of the world upon people has not changed. Throughout history, world leaders who considered themselves godlike have forced people to march great distances, work without ceasing, to feel pain, and discomfort to suit their own desires. This is the feel and the touch of the Christmas story as it opens before us.
But in the Christmas story, there comes a transition. It begins first Luke’s words, “While they [Mary and Joseph] were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” Mary gave birth to her first child, a boy. Childbirth is a difficult and painful process but a richly rewarding one. The Bible says, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” Second, Luke wrote in verse 7, “She [Mary] wrapped him [Jesus] in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” Something marvelous and tender has happened. Mary has taken strips of cloth and carefully wrapped the baby Jesus’ arms, legs, and torso so that Jesus will feel warmth and security. Mary has wrapped Jesus carefully to protect him because she must lay him in a rough and hard manger, a feeding trough for animals. The sensations of touch in the story have shifted. Luke is not writing about things on the world stage with people ordering others to make hard and demanding journeys. Luke has shifted the story to a very personal story of birth with sensations of warmth, security, love, and protection. Amid the hardness of the world, there comes the softness of love. Amid the harness of the world, enters the love of God in Jesus Christ, the true son of God.
With this transition in the feel of the Christmas story, Luke leaves his readers and shifted attention to another location and another group of people. Luke wrote in verse 8, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” We are no longer in near the manger we are in the fields surrounding Bethlehem. It is now night and the coolness of the day has begun to settle in on the men watching the sheep. It is quiet except perhaps for some low conversations among the men. When suddenly, the field lights up as “An angel of the Lord appeared to them [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone around them [the shepherds], and they [the shepherds] were terrified.” Caesar may have issued a degree but God is now speaking with the light of his glory and messenger of an angel. God has something very important to say to these shepherds. But the goosebumps on the shepherds and the quaking and shivering of their bodies brings warnings to the minds of the shepherds. What is going on?
God, in power and glory, has entered their life. Could this be the end of their days? In haste, the angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” This is no census announcement from an earthly king, this is a statement from God that says, “I have sent my Messiah, your Lord, just as I promised. Do not fear any earthly king or emperor. I, the God of all creation, have sent you a savior. Go and see him.”
Think for a moment what has happened to these shepherds. The sensations coming into the them have not changed. There is the glory of the Lord around them and the presence of an angel causing their bodies to tingle. But the context has changed from believing an announcement of great dread is about to fall on them to an announcement of great joy. In a simple way, it would be like we spoke before someone comes up from behind you and unexpected puts their arm around your shoulder. At first you think it is the person you like the least and your body recoils. You look again though and now you realize it really is your best friend. The sensation to your body is the same but your emotional response is completely different when you realize it is a hug from your best friend. God, the best friend of man, has come unexpectedly to the shepherds to hug them with good news and now the sensations from the shepherds’ bodies are telling them to feel the joy of the Lord. The Christmas is felt not as tingly sense on the body that is to be received as one of joy.
In this heightened state of excitement, the angel wants the shepherds to know not just where to find the Messiah but to know what it will feel like when they do. The angel said, “This will be a sign to you: You will find [the Messiah as] a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” The angel has linked the sign of the Messiah to the care given by his mother who has wrapped in soft clothing. The Messiah the shepherds are to find is soft and approachable even though he lies in the hardness of the manager. The Messiah, their Lord, our Lord, stands in stark contrast to the hardness and uncaring nature of the world.
In the Christmas story our bodies can sense that hardness of life coming from the world. The Christmas story brings to us the sensation of pain brought by power. The Christmas story let us feel the discomfort of living in the world. But the Christmas story changes everything. For in Jesus, we feel the wrapping of his arms around us, like strips of linen against his body in the manger. Jesus wraps us that we can feel safe and secure even as we live through the hardest moments of our life. That is the sensation of the Messiah’s birth.
Russian author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was once imprisoned in a Russian workcamp. In prison, he was assigned to hard labor. He was exhausted. His hands were blistered from the work. He was in pain. Everything he touched was hard and cold. One day he felt like giving up. He felt his life could not make a difference. He sat down on a bench knowing that when he was spotted by a guard he would be ordered back to work. If he failed to respond to the order to return to work, the guard would simply beat him to death. As he sat waiting, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he lifted his eyes. Next to him sat an old man with a wrinkled, utterly expressionless face. Hunched over, the old man drew in the sand at Solzhenitsyn’s feet the sign of the cross. As Solzhenitsyn stared at the rough outline his entire perspective shifted. He knew that the hope of all mankind was represented by that simple cross - and through its power anything was possible. Solzhenitsyn slowly got up, picked up his shovel and went back to work. Everything around him was just as hard, but knowing Jesus was born and died for him, allowed him to feel the comfort of his savior’s arms around him. Solzhenitsyn was later released from prison and authored many books that inspired millions toward freedom, safety, and faith in Christ.
This year feel Christmas. Feel it through whatever circumstances you are experiencing in life. Feel the softness of Jesus. Feel his arms enfold you and that he may give you peace. Amen and Amen.