The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Christmas Day
December 25, 2017

When I was a kid we had a great Christmas album that I loved to play.  It was vinyl, warm, and only a little scratchy and poppy with the years of wear--no wonder, since I’d often just set it on repeat so that I could hear Bing Crosby, over and over again, singing Christmas favorites like “I’ll be home for Christmas,” “White Christmas,” “O come all ye faithful,” and, of course, with the Hammond organ and a choir of backup singers crooning behind him, “Silent night.” 

I loved that album--maybe you do, too--it’s been around since 1945, so lots of people have heard Crosby’s take on these holiday favorites. 

Somehow between “White Christmas” and “I’ll be home for Christmas” my young mind internalized the idea that, indeed, Christmas was a time that you were supposed to be at home--wherever or whatever home might mean for you--and for me, that meant being with my parents, at their house.  I couldn’t imagine ever being anywhere else.

Many decades later, I realize “I’ll be home for Christmas” was about American GI’s longing to be home--home from war, home for Christmas--just back home.  But as a child it was pretty much a directive for me, an early imprinting.  I’ll be home for Christmas! Of course I will!  And I can pretty much guarantee that, at some point in my young adulthood, my mother said, “It doesn’t matter where you live, as long as you come home for Christmas.”  

I’ll bet that lots of you here today have come home for Christmas--or wish you could be home--however you understand home.  You’ve come here with parents and grandparents because that’s what you do at Christmas--you spend time at home with your family; you go to church; you’re home for Christmas because you love one another.

Or maybe you wish you could be home; perhaps you mourn loved ones who are gone, or you long for a place that is home, or loved ones to go home to.  Our experiences of love, of place, of home, may be different.

But for me, the message I internalized from those songs--a message of obligation--thou shalt be home for Christmas--has, as I’ve gotten older, turned into something more like a message of invitation.  I’ve realized that what Bing Crosby was crooning about was a longing, a desire, to be with people--to be with the people we love.  That my mother’s insistence, “It doesn’t matter where you live, as long as you come home for Christmas”--that expression was just a desire to be together--a longing to spend time, to be with one another, to share the love that parents bear for their children--the love that children feel for their parents.

We’re made for community; we long to be together.  And, often, that’s made even clearer around the holidays--a time when we slow down, when we focus on community, on peace, goodwill.

No wonder.  After all, the whole message of the birth of Jesus, the whole message of the incarnation, is that God has come to dwell among us, as one of us.

We know that, right?  We say it every Sunday as part of the creed. We’ll say it again today.  “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

We heard it in the gospel lesson, the same reading from Saint John that we’ve heard at the end of mass each Sunday in Advent:  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

But are we hearing it?

Are we hearing in this doctrinal truth, in this scripture, in this Word, the enfleshed reality of our lives?  That God wants to be with us?  Not only at Christmas but always?

Here’s a story that helps me gauge how willing I am to receive the gift of the Incarnation.

It’s a story told by Father Martin Smith, former monastic and now secular clergy.  Fr Martin leads lots of retreats and has had many folks in spiritual direction, and this is a story about a retreat he led.

During the retreat a cleric asked to meet with Fr Martin for spiritual direction, and Martin gave him an exercise.  He said to the priest, I want you to go away and pray--spend the day thinking and praying on this one question:  Who does Christ want to be for you, just now?[1] 

The priest dutifully went away and meditated and prayed  and read scripture and walked in the woods.  We’re a task-oriented bunch of folks, the clergy.  He did the thing he’d been told to do!  And later that evening he came back to Fr Martin to check in.

So, what did you learn? What did you hear?  Martin asked.  The priest had conscientiously made a list--things he could work on.  Well, Father, the priest began, I think Jesus wants me to work on being a better husband.  Taking my day off, spending time with my family.  I think he wants me to take my retreat days, to read more, to spend more time in study of scripture and sermon preparation.  I think I can visit the sick more often, spend more time with those in need… And it was about that time that Martin interrupted the earnest man. 

Stop, just stop! he said.  You misheard the question.  I didn’t ask what you can do for Jesus.  I didn’t ask who Christ wants you to be.  I asked you who Christ wants to be, for you.  Who do you want Jesus to be for you, just right here, right now?

Martin says that he asks those questions all the time now.  And that people really struggle to answer.  They default--I’d default--to what they can do.  It’s hard for them to think about what Jesus wants to do. What they want Jesus to do.  Who they want Jesus to be for them.  Who Jesus wants to be for them in that very moment.  In their very lives.

It’s hard for us, in our great struggle to be competent, to be successful, to be effective, or just even to be relatively good at something--or even good to one another--it’s hard for us, in our striving, to just stop, to stand still, and to realize that God has already done the thing that God wants.  God has already done the thing that we long for.  That God just wants to be with us, full stop.  No explanations.  No machinations.  Only acceptance.

We are already home for Christmas, home in the presence of Christ in the sacraments.  Home in the presence of Christ in this, his Body, the Church.  Home in the hope, in the joy, in the love of God’s own self-offering.

Will we receive that gift?  Will we recognize God’s love in it?  God’s longing--God’s own longing for us?  Will we receive God’s longing for us, without strings, without trying to earn it, or deserve it, or do anything to merit it?

For when we truly recognize the love that God has for us, that’s when we’re changed.  That’s when we’re freed to respond with love--love for God and neighbor, love for all Creation.

But it begins here.  In the Incarnation. In receiving that great gift.

Who does Christ want to be for you? 

He wants to be with you.  Right here, right now.  And always.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

O come, let us adore Him.