The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
December 24, 2018
When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
A very Merry Christmas to you and yours. It’s a joy to be together and to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ two thousand years ago. And it’s a greater joy to realize what that means for us today, for the world, for you and for me--for us together.
I caught a glimpse of the joy of Christmas this evening when we were putting the crèche together with the children of the parish--when we told the story, simply and slowly, just as in the gospel texts, of Mary, and Joseph, and the newborn baby Jesus visited by shepherds and angels. We almost skipped ahead to the wise sages from the east who come to visit--but you’ll have to wait until Epiphany--January 6--to hear about them! (I’ll let you in on secret, though--they have already begun their journey to visit the baby in the manger--and if you look closely--maybe even in the Lady Chapel as you return from communion tonight--you may see them starting off together!)
The wonder of the crèche--of children’s faces carrying the holy family, the animals, the sheep, the little dog that’s a part of our scene--the wonder of it all is captivating.
It takes me back to a time from my own childhood--a story that I may have told you before of a nativity scene, a tableau, that I was a part of! In my little town in middle Georgia, at the Methodist Church, for several years we had a living nativity. Now this is just as exciting as it sounds. It’s a nativity scene--a crèche--but with live people--and live animals! Who doesn’t like a donkey and a sheep and a cow on the front lawn at Christmastide?! As an eight year old I was really excited about this.
For weeks we prepared. One of our parents found some small bales of hay to line the inside of the crèche--and to provide some concealed seating for all of us nativity actors. A few handy carpenters built a wooden structure with boards and logs--a rustic shelter to frame the scene. Someone else called around and got friends to volunteer livestock. Mary and Joseph were chosen, and a few real live babies were recruited to work in shifts. No one wanted a baby to be out in the cold December air for long. And the cast of shepherds and angels was endless. In bathrobes with crooks made of pipe and wired tinsel wings the shepherds and angels filled in among the live animals and around the manger itself, trading in and out for shifts, warming up with cocoa in between back in the parish hall. There on the main street, cars slowed and stopped, driving around the block and around again to witness this living nativity, the story of our Lord’s birth played out in our town, on our block, with people we knew. And with live animals!
I don’t know how our parents felt, but for us children, it was great fun! We were so excited! We could hear the animals around us breathing and didn’t even mind the itchy scratch of the hay bales, the dust from the donkey’s coat, the really awful smell of the livestock around us. The baby--whichever baby Jesus was on call at the moment--would squirm and cry--or snuggle and sleep--and it all felt very real and wonderful and full of joy.
Eventually the spotlights were turned off, the animals led away to their trailers and pens, and children wrangled to head home to wrap presents, or unwrap them, or wherever it was in the progression of days until Christmas. I can’t recall what happened after. But there was a joy, a feeling of possibility, of hope, of wonder, that left with us from that little makeshift stall there on the corner of main street in our home town. And we held onto it through the Christmas season.
I’ve been listening to Christmas music on the radio and at parties over the past few weeks and have been struck by two things--how relentlessly optimistic and cheerful and full of hope these songs are! Just think about a couple of songs you’ve heard on the radio, or in shops, or that you’ve sung at Christmas parties. What are they about? Shopping. Decorating. Food and drink and mistletoe. Peace and goodwill and love and joy and hope. Warm fuzzy feelings that we revel in this time of year. People are just nicer to one another at the holidays--or at least it seems so to me--and I give thanks for this little break, in the midst of the mad world, when we can with the angels declare “Peace on earth.”
The other thing that strikes me about the sort of Christmas music that I’ve been hearing outside these walls is that it is very often just generally about peace, goodwill, and good cheer. There is little mention of the source of that peace and joy. Much of this Christmas music--in fact most of it that I’ve heard this year--doesn’t mention God very much--or Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, at all!
Now, we’ve heard that there’s a war on Christmas, and I don’t buy it. The cheerful, relentlessly optimistic good cheer that surrounds us--this benign idea of peace on earth and goodwill towards all--isn’t a war on Christmas at all. I think it’s actually pointing towards something. The culture around us--and we ourselves--are crying out for the reality of these good things. We may pause culturally, whether we’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or whatever else, we can’t get away from Christmas music and decorations in our country--and so we wrap ourselves culturally in this warm fuzzy blanket of soft lights and decorations and gift giving and goodwill--because we are longing for those things to be true. We are longing to know that the madness of the world will be made right. We are longing to know that people can actually be generous towards one another. We dare to hope that the hungry may be fed, the humble lifted up, the mighty who abuse their power brought to heel. We are longing to know hope for the hopeless, release for the captives, good news for the poor. We are crying out in our chains of despair to know that we are loved.
And so we cling to the good feeling of this time together. The warmth and joy of the Christmas season. And by the middle of February--or maybe by next week--we may have forgotten it all together.
Friends, there is no war on Christmas. There is a world longing for the love of God revealed in this gift of God’s own self come among us.
That’s what we’re celebrating today. That God made us all and is there in our joys and happiness--but also sees our sufferings, our longings, our fear, our despair. That in the madness of this world--and the world of first century Palestine was just as mad as ours today--that in this madness, God comes in the form of a baby, weak and helpless, to join us in our plight. To walk alongside us. To heal crowds of people. To speak good news. To give hope.
That message of hope was so revolutionary, so earth shattering, that it threatened the order of civilization--that all people were loved, that all people had equal value in the eyes of God, that all were to be cared for as brother and sister--that message was so threatening that the powers of the world tried to take it down. And the messenger, the prophet, the God-made-man, Jesus Christ, was killed by a government executioner. But God’s own Son couldn’t stay dead--and rose again to be with his friends--eating and drinking with them--and ascended to be with us all, to fill all things, through the gift of the Holy Spirit with us even now, in his Body and Blood of the sacrament, in the fellowship and communion of this place, in the awe and wonder of this holy night, and in your hearts and lives even now.
That’s the story of Christmas. It’s very specific.
The hope and joy and good will we feel is real because it’s about something. It’s about God showing us how much God loves us. It’s about God’s love that will not let us go.
I didn’t tell you another thing about that living nativity scene. I failed to tell you that, as exciting as it was, it was also really cold. My velour bathrobe was no match for the falling temperatures. And the hay was really itchy and made me sneeze. And the animals that I was so excited about were not excited about me. They didn’t want to be petted, and they smelled really, really bad. Why didn’t someone think to give the donkey a bath? I wondered.
But it was still wonderful. Even in its cold and smell and chaos there was something wonderful and real. Just like the world we live in. Even as it seems to fall apart, there is God, right with us, holding onto us. Coming in clouds with power and great glory. Coming in the person of a little baby. Coming again--defeating death--and never letting us go.
The shepherds ran and told everyone what they’d seen. But Mary pondered all these things in her heart, waiting and watching as the salvation of the world unfolded.
What are you longing for tonight? What’s underneath the soft lights, the glow of the candles, the music and the feelings and the warmth? Or if you’re not feeling the peace and goodwill of Christmas this year, perhaps you’re feeling loss, or aloneness, or despair. Surely some of the shepherds felt that, too. Maybe even Mary felt fear. And Joseph certainly was anxious. What were they longing for? What are you longing for?
Come to the manger. Find in the face of the Christ Child--find in his Body and Blood of this feast of thanksgiving--find the love that you seek. Find the hope that will not let you go.
If you’re still looking, hold on. You’re in the right place. Ponder all these things in your heart like Mary. God has come to you.
And when you’ve seen it, go and tell like the shepherds. Tell the whole world. That peace on earth, that goodwill, is real. It’s the way the kingdom of God works. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise--even in February, or next week, when the glow fades. Come again to this font and be refreshed, to this altar and be renewed--to the crèche again and be reminded that God has come and will never let you go.