25 Dec 2016
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shown … For a child has been born for us.” (Isa. 9:2, 6) In the name …
Christmas has a wonderful way of embracing us. It touches each of us emotionally and leaves a lasting, cherished memory. It is, somehow, extremely personal and yet undeniably meant to be universal. It tells us that each one of us matters to God, and simultaneously reminds us that everyone else is loved by God too. Christmas is the revelation that I am no more loved by God than a child in Alleppo or a family in a billionaire’s penthouse. God’s love is perfect; it doesn’t come in increments. Christmas is most definitely a Christian feast day, but its promise is shared with all of creation without exception. I think the Christmas message is so appealing that people can celebrate it without paying any attention to Jesus’ birth. They subtract the religion, but keep the ideas of peace, generosity and hope. And that’s not all bad; it makes people better if only for a season. But we here need to remember and still proclaim that this “holiday spirit” we hear so much about, originates in the birth of a Saviour, born in an animal’s stable because there was no place for Him, born the child of a carpenter and an unwed woman from Galilee. This surprising story means that no matter how much any religion thinks they own God, God in Christmas comes for everyone, which means you and me and also the forgotten, the outcast, the different, the beaten and battered of the world. This Bethlehem birth is the source of all the goodwill that we see this time of the year whether people celebrate Christmas with or without the baby Jesus, but at least we here know the reason for this season.
It’s the power of these emotions on Christmas that make the sentimental so powerful. No matter what else happens, what will last in our memories of this night are the child carrying the baby Jesus to His manger dressed as one of His angels; the candlelit church filled with the gentle sounds of Silent Night; St. Nicholas removing his hat and kneeling before the Christ Child; and the music. Christmas is about emotions more than thoughts. Incarnation is a powerful theology, but it’s a cold word. On the other hand, who isn’t moved by a crèche and the Holy Family nestled among the animals of a humble stable?
If you get our parish newsletter, if you read the front page article, then you know that for this whole year I’ve been writing about the skeptical Bible reader. But this is not a night for such things. On Christmas, skepticism seems out of place and instead wonder defines our strange, new normal. On your song sheet, for example, you’ll see a couple of pictures of shepherds looking heavenward at a shining star. I almost didn’t use those pictures. They’re really not accurate. The story of the shepherds never mentions anything about a star. The star belongs to the Wise Men and the Feast of Epiphany. It’s the angels that tell the shepherds about Bethlehem’s manger. Those two pictures take separate stories and force them together. But this is not a night for such details. This is a night that celebrates joy, hope and beauty.
In this spirit, one of the symbols that has become a part of Christmas is the word believe. Isaiah has been with us throughout the just completed season of Advent. The prophet is as much a part of Advent as is the Advent wreath. And tonight he leaves us with a passage that captures the power of believe. He writes: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shown. … For a child has been born for us.” What an understated power in these few words. We don’t have to take the prophet’s word for this either. We feel what he’s talking about. We know the blessed feeling of hope at this time of the year firsthand. We experience it; we don’t have to be only told about it. And that’s powerful. We know what the prophet means when he says the “deep darkness” gives way because on us a “light has shown,” for us “a child has been born.”
This is so uncomplicated it’s compelling. Everything else nowadays seems to be hyperbole. Even the deodorant I bought the other day claims to work for 96 hours, that’s four days! Who needs it to last that long? Do they really think we’re not going to shower for four days! Everything is hyperbole and that leads to the safety of skepticism. But the Christmas of the Bethlehem manger is untainted by these things: “A child has been born for us.” Nothing more. And that unadorned birth of Jesus in the poverty of an animals’ stable pushes back the “deep darkness” with His light. This revelation is so counter-cultural that it’s confusing. And no one can say it any more convincingly than Dr. Seuss: “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
I have a new toy here. I can make the Christmas tree lights change, but it’s not the differences that define them as Christmas lights. It’s their message that God’s light has come to us one and all, and the “deep darkness” of this world has to retreat before Him. That’s why when we leave here every Christmas Eve we sing “Joy to the World” because this light can change everything if we let ourselves grow accustomed to it and its message. This is the hope shared by the holy child born with no place. He belongs to us all. And this opens us all up to wonder and hope. And the “deep darkness” of the world has no choice but to retreat before His light. May the joy of this season fill our hearts, our homes and our world. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo