Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sermon for Christmas Eve

St Paul's Cathedral

Part of me identifies with Ebenezer Scrooge. I am not by nature a terribly sentimental person, so by the time Christmas actually rolls around, many aspects of our society’s way of observing the holidays have long since worn a little thin with me, and I’ve been known to utter that famous expletive “Bah, humbug!” from time to time. Some have even used the word “Grinch” in commenting on my attitude. I guess my cynicism about “the holidays”, as the whole season is now commonly referred to, has been a long while in the making. Some years ago, while I served as a the chaplain for a parish day school, the principal had a special sweatshirt made for me. It featured a pumpkin, a turkey, and a representation of Santa Claus. I called it my “hallow-thanks-mas” shirt. It was good from mid-October into the new year, and, in Louisiana, where I lived at the time, I was able to extend its useful life all the way to Ash Wednesday just by adding a necklace of Mardi Gras beads.

The holidays. Does it sometimes seem like we celebrate holidays just for the sake of celebrating, rather than for anything they might represent? I’m glad to have a day off and a backyard barbecue on the first Monday in September, but I can’t say that I’ve ever gotten choked up with emotion over the contribution of organized labor to the fabric of our culture. If Christmas is just another excuse to celebrate, then I’m sorry, but that doesn’t interest me very much. From the mere fact that you’re with me here in this church, I suspect that many of you share my feeling. Bah, humbug! Surely Christmas means more than that.

Some of you are, or are related to, or are acquainted with, an owner or manager of a retail business. Christmas is deeply significant to retailers, of course, in a very concrete way. Up to a third of their annual income is received during the month of December. That’s why, with their incessant “muzak” and decorations unveiled the day after Thanksgiving, or even earlier, they make sure we realize what time of hear it is. And just behind them in cultivating an awareness of the season is a legion of church treasurers all across the land, cognizant of the fact that, thanks to the virtues of the Internal Revenue Code, December is a banner month for contributions to churches. But somehow I think even the most enthusiastic church treasurer realizes that Christmas means more than an opportunity to close the books for the year using black ink. And I also choose to believe that we are not here tonight to worship at the altar of “St Retail Sales.”

Many years ago a parishioner remarked to me that she was encouraged that there seemed to be less emphasis on Santa Claus that particular Christmas season. When she was young, of course — and, for that matter, when I was young, as well — Santa Clause was the symbolic epitome of the secularization of Christmas. I told her I thought that might be the case that there’s less emphasis on Santa Claus these days, but that I didn’t find it particularly encouraging because I suspect that it just meant there was less of an emphasis on Christmas, period, and more of an emphasis on the generic “holidays.” At least Santa Claus has a link to St Nicholas, a bona fide Christian saint, who really did distinguish himself by giving gifts to children. In contrast to the real secularization that has taken place in recent years, Santa Claus seems like a veritable religious icon. Yet, even in such a context, Santa Claus doesn’t provide sufficient motivation for us to leave our fireplaces and family gatherings and come to an otherwise deserted downtown Springfield to do what we’re doing. Christmas has got to mean more than honoring the memory of an ancient middle-eastern Christian bishop.

Right after Santa Claus, one of the most widely recognized icons of the season might be Charles Dickens’ fiction character Ebenezer Scrooge—you know, my old buddy. Mr Scrooge always looks quite earnest as he’s being lectured by the Ghost of Christmas Present about the virtues appropriate to the season: peace on earth, good will towards men, love, generosity, and all that. Once when I was in one of my “Grinch” moods, it was explained to me that there’s just a certain magic in the air during this time of year, a magic that, just for a while, seems to mellow the natural competitiveness and selfishness of human nature. Hollywood does a remarkably fine job capitalizing on this spirit. Even unsentimental Bishop Daniel still gets teary-eyed in the last scene of It’s a Wonderful Life when the good people of Bedford Falls gather around George Bailey and remind him how important he is to all of them. Even the crusty old bank examiner joins in singing Christmas carols. By and large, this is about as far as the world around us is willing to carry the search for the real meaning of Christmas, and the Christmas episodes of every thirty minute sitcom and sixty minute drama make the same point over and over again. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m still not satisfied. I am, after all, a Grinch, an Ebenezer Scrooge, and sooner or later I’m going to feel like I’m drowning in a sea of sweetness and light that is a hundred miles wide but only a foot deep. And if Christmas is about magic in the air, then what am I doing dressed up in these funny clothes standing here lecturing you?

And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, everyone into his own city. And joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him is swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Is this a step in the right direction? Are we getting warmer? Are we providing a deeper and firmer foundation for our experience of Christmas by anchoring it in these familiar words from the gospel according to Saint Luke? Indeed, I believe we are. The official name for this feast is “the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So it’s a birth that we’re celebrating. For many years, my in-laws, lovely people now departed this life, festooned the exterior of their home every December with a large sign that read “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” Well should it have borne that message, for that is the message of Christmas. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Bishop, of course you would say that. It’s your job to say that.” Well, allow me to burst your bubble, because I want to say that I don’t think we’re there yet. If we make our way past the generic “holidays”, past the commercialism, past Santa Claus and Tiny Tim, past the schmaltz of magic in the air, and to a shepherd’s cave on a Judean hillside and a baby lying in a feeding trough, we have indeed come a long way. We have made great progress. And because of that, all the more is the tragedy if we let ourselves remain stuck admiring an adorable baby and his heroic parents. Saint Luke, with the assistance of the translator’s of the King James Version, gives us those wonderful words which are so familiar and so precious to us that those of my own generation and older, at least, can practically recite them by heart without ever having actually tried to memorize them. But Luke only gives us a partial picture. The Christmas gospel is incomplete without St John’s contribution:

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. … and the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

Christmas is more than Jesus’ birthday. It is more than the remembrance of a nativity. Christmas is the remembrance of an incarnation. Christmas is the remembrance and celebration of word becoming flesh. A word floats on the air in sound waves and is lost as soon as it is uttered and heard. Flesh is corporeal and concrete and can be grasped and held. God is an infinite creator. You and I are finite creatures. Christmas bridges that gap.

God inhabits eternity. Past, present, and future are all one and the same to God. You and I inhabit time. We have no being apart from the progression of heartbeats and days and months and years. Christmas bridges the gap between the eternal and the temporal, because Jesus was born at a particular time: “In the days of Caesar Augustus.”

God is, as the theologians say, omnipresent. He is everywhere, and there is no place where he is not. You and I are “spatially challenged.” We can only be in one place at a time. Christmas bridges the gap between God’s way of being and our way of being, because Jesus was born in a particular place: Bethlehem of Judea.

God dwells in the inaccessible light of pure holiness, beyond all human knowing. You and I dwell in the thick darkness of sin and suffering that we know all too well. Christmas bridges the gap between God’s luminescent holiness and our dark despair, because Jesus is a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death.”

Across the yawning chasm between God’s infinite and eternal holiness, and our temporal and finite sinfulness, lies the Word made flesh. We celebrate not just a birth, but an incarnation, because in the incarnation God became as we are, sharing the conditions of human existence. And because of God’s participation in our life, we have the inestimable joy and privilege of participating in his life. Saint Peter tells us in his second epistle that Christian are “partakers in the divine nature.” And that, my brothers and sisters, makes me want to celebrate. The chance to share in the very life of God is sufficient motivation for me to put on these party clothes and come over here to St Paul’s and sing God’s praises before his altar. It even makes me want to treat people with kindness and love and buy a few gifts and generally spread warmth and cheer wherever I can, and, heck — even enjoy “the holidays.” See, I’m not really a Grinch. But my Christmas joy comes from the realization that God became as I am precisely in order that I may become as God is. O come, let us adore him. Amen.

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