Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve Sermon

Springfield Cathedral

What do you want for Christmas?  Haven’t we heard that question a lot in the last few weeks? Haven’t we asked that question a lot? Sometimes, the answer is quick and definitive, and sometimes it’s slow and vague. I’ve often answered, when asked that question by my wife or children, “All I want is your love and respect,” and I haven’t been completely sarcastic in saying that. Then there’s the occasional politician or beauty pageant contestant who gives the obligatory “world peace” when asked what they want for Christmas.

What do you want for Christmas? What do you really want for Christmas? Ah, well, if you ask it that way, if you want me to actually think seriously about my response, then some different answers begin to emerge. And they depend on how we’re already doing in life. If we’re usually hungry, and live from unplanned meal to unplanned meal, then food is what we want for Christmas. If we’re living on the street or under a bridge, secure shelter is what we want for Christmas. The same goes for warmth and clothing. If we’re lonely, what we want for Christmas is a friend to waste time with, and perhaps even love. If we’re feeling directionless and rudderless in life, then what we want for Christmas is a clear sense of calling and vocation. If we’re among the walking wounded, either physically or emotionally, then nothing would brighten our Christmas more than health and healing. If we have a keen sense of our own smallness and insignificance in a vast universe, then we have no more powerful desire than to have some contact with the Transcendent Other, the eternal, the holy—we crave some vision of the Divine, a glimpse of the face of God.

Now, when I open my gifts tomorrow morning, whatever they may be, I’m going to grin broadly and say “Thank-you” for whatever I get, and I will be sincerely grateful. After all, you have to play that hand you’re actually dealt. So, it might be profitable to also ask the question, What is God’s gift to us at Christmas? Regardless of what we might want, what is it that God actually gives us? “God,” of course, is a malleable concept, and that’s why it’s a concept most of us like, because we can define it so many different ways, one of which is bound to suit us. Traditional Christian liturgy and theology has a particular way of talking about God. Non-traditional Christianity offers some alternative language. Judaism, Islam, and the great Asian religions each speak of God in a distinctive manner. Yes, the great majority of people are fond of the concept of “God.”

Yet, at the same time, in the deepest places of our hearts, we have little use for “God the Concept.” God-the-Concept doesn’t have a lot of hope or encouragement to offer us in our hunger and cold and vulnerability and woundedness. God-the-Concept is of scant assistance to us in our desire for a loving relationship with another person, or direction and confidence in life, or a personal relationship with a personal Transcendent Other. My friends, this is my joyful news to you on this holy night. This is God’s gift to us on Christmas: Christmas assures us that God is not a concept; God is not an idea, an abstraction, a theory. Tonight, God is a baby, born not just somewhere “far, far away and long, long ago,” but in a particular place—Bethlehem of Judea—and at a particular time—during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria—born not of some abstract mother, but of a particular woman—Mary, from Nazareth, the wife of Joseph and the daughter of Joachim and Anne; in a particular stable in a definite place, not to be confused with the one next to it, with particular animals, and not others, and particular smells. This baby is dressed in particular clothes and laid in a definite manger on real hay, not conceptual hay.

This is what is known in Christian theology as the “scandal of particularity.” It’s virtually the exact opposite of “God the Concept.” It takes seriously the reality that God is God and we’re not God. It recognizes the fact that God is not invented or designed by human intelligence, God is not a mere reflection or projection of our insecurities and desires and hopes. God is a definite God, who has this kind of nature and not that kind of nature, who does and says this, and not that. This is all another way of saying that God is in the details—God is in the concrete details of our particular fears, our particular loneliness, our particular woundedness, and our particular hunger for direction and vocation. God’s gift to us at Christmas is simply that He is who He is. The particularity of God is a scandal because we have to play the hand we’re dealt, we have to come to terms with the God who is, not the God we would invent.

And when we drop our resistance, and embrace the scandal, we begin to live. We’ve all made a move like that at least once before—no exceptions. We made that move when we were born. For nine comfortable months, we were the guest of honor in our mother’s womb. It was a pretty good life. Then, one day not of our own choosing, everything changed. When the doctor or midwife cut the umbilical cord that was our only previous source of oxygen and nutrition, we had to make a decision to embrace the new reality and breathe on our own, or else perish. We’re all here today because we embraced our own personal scandal of particularity, and chose life.

Tonight, God is a baby, a particular baby, and not some other baby. This is God’s gift to us. Only one question remains: What is our gift to God at Christmas? What does God want for Christmas? God wants me. God wants you. The response that would warm the heart of God this night would be for each of us to offer Jesus our mind, our heart, and our will; to let Jesus into our past to heal old wounds, and into our future to provide direction and vocation. Receive the gift and become a gift. Merry Christmas, and Amen.

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