Merry Christmas. As is true of every holy feast of the church, each of us brings a different collection of needs, hungers, questions, and reasons to give thanks. You are here, probably, to listen – for the first or the five-thousandth time, to “hear the good news of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” in the words of Isaiah. But, probably, you are also drawn to see. To see and exclaim, even before hearing, even in the midst of many cares and sorrows: How beautiful. How beautiful: the messenger’s feet upon the mountains. How beautiful: the holy arm which the Lord has bared. My God, how beautiful: this Child we have sought with the eyes of our hearts for so long.
Christmas, for Christians in the West, is the foremost opportunity to re-embrace the Medieval impulse to look and to touch; to show things of great meaning first, then to tell as commentary on the showing. So for the next hour, and the next eleven days of Christmas after that: Look! Touch! Taste! Smell! Clap and point and jump up and down at every shiny, lovely thing. We need to engage these impulses in acts of worship. It is easy in this world to forget the path to this holy ecstasy, this self-spending in the pursuit of meaning rather than luxury and waste.
Memories are a powerful force in the human psyche. They have the ability to trap and imprison, but they have also the ability to liberate and free. They have the power to make one weep in despair or grief and to laugh with the delight of a child. They have the power to shape and mold a life and in hindsight to help make sense of all that was and is, and even is to be. As we all know, it doesn’t take much to trigger a memory: a sound, a taste, a smell, an image, even just a word or phrase and suddenly we are back there as if it were happening this very instant.
I have one such memory that crops up in my mind and heart on a regular basis and it happens many days at Morning Prayer. I had no idea at the time, that the event itself was to be a harbinger of things to come. As a memory it continues to delight and console, and even assure me.
I couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 and my mother and I were alone in the kitchen. I can’t remember what we were doing, but we were doing something together, and we were talking as a 9-year-old boy talks with his mother, or at least as this 9-year-old boy and his mother did. I was puzzled and I wanted to know something. The burning question I had, had something to do with church. (It’s okay of you want to roll your eyes at this point.) We had been to church as some point before this conversation, and it had been a Morning Prayer Sunday (if you have been an Episcopalian for more than 50 or 60 years, you’ll remember those). We had sung the Te Deum, and what I wanted to know, and what had puzzled me, was what exactly did we mean when we sang: When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb. I knew what all the words in that phrase meant except one, and I wanted to know what was meant by the word abhor.
“Did you go home for Christmas?” That’s a question you’re likely to hear these days. “Were you at home for the holidays?” “Did the kids come home for Christmas?” It’s a common theme at this time of year. We naturally associate the holiday season with “coming home.” Retailers pick up on the theme, offering us images of families gathered before the fireplace or around the Christmas tree. “I’ll be home for Christmas” plays over the loudspeaker in the grocery store. The idea of being “home” for the holidays appeals to many of us.
But what does “home” mean, really? Is it a place we can return to, or is it more of a longing? For many of us, the word “home” summons up a whole range of things that are past and that cannot be retrieved. The house we grew up in belongs to someone else. Our parents may have divorced – or died. Our siblings may be scattered across the country. The neighbors we once knew have drifted away. For us, “home” isn’t a specific place anymore; it’s more like a whole set of longings… or a collection of special people… or a treasure chest of memories that combine to make us feel safe and loved.
Many of us love the idea of “coming home.” But for others of us, perhaps, “home” was never that fine a place to begin with. Home was the place where mom and dad argued all the time until they finally split up, or where unkind and even abusive words were spoken. For us, “home” wasn’t a place where we felt safe or loved. We’ve had to find our “home” elsewhere – with different people and in different surroundings.
We have heard it before. In fact, some of us have heard the Christmas story so often, that like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, large swaths of it can be recited from memory. Perhaps we can’t recite it word for word in the idiom of the King James Bible, but we know the story cold. If our inner Linus has not memorized it, we can certainly tell the story in our own words, and little would be lost. In fact, in telling the Christmas story in our own words, some parts it might even be embellished, the details highlighted, the emphasis personalized.
We all tell stories. We tell stories to convey information, and many stories are just that, information. We tell stories to amuse, and many stories are just that, amusing. However, we tell stories not just to convey information, or to amuse. We tell stories because stories have power. The most powerful ones are told over, and over again. It is those stories, the powerful ones, that we have in common. It is those stories, the ones in common, that are the most powerful. It is those stories, the powerful ones, the ones we share, that forge our common identity. They shape our corporate imagination. They foster our sense of community and belonging. It is those stories, the powerful ones, that change us, and in turn, are changed by us.
There is something to stories then, especially the powerful ones, that are transformative. These stories that change us, may not be about us, but we nevertheless find ourselves in them, or rather we find ourselves, and we find ourselves in them.
That’s what we are doing tonight. We are finding ourselves by telling a story. Indeed, we are telling many stories. That story, or those stories, are both, deeply personal, and amazingly universal for they have forged, shaped, and fostered us as individuals, even if we think they haven’t. It does not matter if you are a professed Christian, or a casual attender this evening, your life has been shaped by this story, even if you claim not to believe it. That same story is also amazingly universal. It has forged nations, shaped laws, and fostered education and the arts. In either case, a deeply personal story, or an amazingly universal one, the Christmas story is a story of discovery because through it, we find ourselves, and we find ourselves in it.
“The Word was made flesh and lived among us.”
Amazing, wondrous flesh: a baby with bright eyes and smile, tiny fingers, a bundle of new living love. Fragile, frail flesh: reliant on others for food, warmth, provision. Whether child, youth, adult, or elder, even with great care, each will sicken and die. Connected, touching flesh: face-to-face baby and parents bond before and beyond words. Human bodies relate in families and communities both given and chosen. Looking at each other, faces light up and we know love. The Word became flesh—amazing, fragile, connected—and lived among us.
Disconnected this year, we long to be together in the flesh, to see and touch, hug and hold. Fragile and frail, we mourn the dead and dying, struggle to tend the sick, to care for each other, to make ends meet. We are weary from so much change and adaptation.
Being human is amazing. Remember the wonder of our breath, every movement we make, our capacity for imagination and discovery, for being playful and creative. Remember how skin and other organs work to protect from and then restore after injury. Remember the healing power of touch, listening, tears, and laughter.
God became human in Jesus, to live as one of us. “Pleased with us in flesh to dwell Jesus our Emmanuel.”[i] God was pleased to fully immerse into being human. The “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Mighty God, … Prince of Peace”[ii]came and still comes for, with, and as one of us. Jesus longs with us, mourns with us, and with a twinkling eye reminds us of amazing bodies and wondrous love.
Look at the Child of Bethlehem. We have hope. God still comes. Take a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. With one hand on your heart, reach out to another. This is a way to show and feel affection on Zoom. Though distant, we are still connected. Look to the glory embodied, and share the love. Merry Christmas!
[i] Charles Wesley, 1739, alt. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” verse 2
[ii] Isaiah 9:6
Luke 2: 1-14 (15-20)
I want to begin this evening by acknowledging all who are watching this livestreamed Christmas Eve Eucharist, either in real time, or in virtual time. Your prayers, your support, your friendship have been important sources of strength and grace for us Brothers over these last 10 months. We miss your physical presence here in the chapel. We long for the day when we will be able to reopen and greet you in person. At the same time, we are excited that the wonders of technology have enabled many, who for whatever reason are not able to be here in person, and are now able to join us, from next door and across the world.
I also want to assure you that we are all well and safe, and that we pray for your health and safety on a regular basis. We are especially praying for medical professionals who are working hard to bring the vaccine to as many as possible, as quickly as possible. We also hold in our prayers the various essential workers who ensure that life can carry on despite this pandemic. Please know that we value your service and dedication.
Most people will say that they remember exactly where they were and whom they were with at the time of an epic historical event, such as a tragedy or something shocking and unbelievable. Usually it is when the life of the world is altered in a split second, leaving no one unchanged. My mother would tell the story of how, as a young teenager, she was at Junior All-County Band clinic when she and the other students found out that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. In my own lifetime, the Challenger disaster and of course 9/11 are etched in my mind in vivid detail. Not only was 9/11 shocking, but it invoked a great deal of fear that shook the world. No one was the same after that day and we all recalled our stories to each other as we tried to process our emotions and begin the very long journey to healing.
I imagine that this is probably the experience of the shepherds in our gospel lesson from Luke this morning. This particular evening was just another speck in the sea of time, poised to be like all the others, keeping watch over the sheep in their care. These men were country dwellers who lived on the margins of society. To the temple leaders and social elite, they were among the dregs of society, unclean due to the nature of their profession. Because their jobs allowed them little time away, they were unable to make the appropriate temple sacrifices with any kind of regularity. They were literal outcasts because they tended the flocks in the rural regions on the perimeter of town. Yet, it was their job to see to the well-being of sheep that were most likely to be presented in the temple for sacrifice by people who could afford it.
Growing up, I shared a bedroom with my older brothers, Charlie and Chris. This wasn’t a problem, except when it was. On one occasion, they and their friends decided to play parachute, jumping from the top bunk, where Chris slept, down onto my bed. By the time my mother got home and discovered what we had been up to, my bed was a wreck, and my mother was furious. Needless to say, a new mattress and bedspring had to be purchased in order to make my bed usable again.
More problematic, at least for me, was the closet. As the youngest of the three boys, I went to bed earlier than Charlie and Chris. By the time they came to bed an hour or so later then I, it was usually much darker, and the darkest place of all was the closet directly opposite the foot of my bed. Now, I wasn’t afraid of the dark … well, not much at least. What I was certainly afraid of was the darkness of the closet. It seemed like a great gaping black hole, and I was terrified of it. I thought that I could get lost in that darkness forever. I would only be able to fall asleep again if the closet door was closed. And that was the problem. Either on purpose or accidentally Charlie and Chris would frequently leave the door open and I would have to timidly ask them to close it. By then they too were in bed with the lights out, and they would sometimes refuse to get up and do my bidding, so in fear and trepidation I would either whimper until they did so, or steel up my courage and do it myself, scurrying back to bed as quickly as I could, once the dreaded task was completed.
That was a long time ago, and by now, most of us are too old, or too sophisticated to be afraid of the dark. We no longer need big brothers to protect us from whatever is lurking in the back of the dark closet. We no longer dread falling asleep with the closet door open, with that great gaping darkness threatening to swallow us whole. We’re no longer afraid of the dark … well, not much at least.
Isaiah 52:7-10 & John 1:1-14
We are here to celebrate Christ, to rejoice and revel in the revelation of the Word made Flesh, to fall headlong into belief for the first time, or the five-thousandth time. You are here, probably, to listen – for the first or the five-thousandth time, to “hear the good news of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” in the words of Isaiah. But, probably, you are also drawn to see. To see and exclaim, even before hearing, How beautiful. How beautiful: the messenger’s feet upon the mountains. How beautiful: the holy arm which the Lord has bared. My God, how beautiful: this Child we have sought with the eyes of our hearts for so long.
Christmas, for Christians in the West, is the foremost opportunity to re-embrace the Medieval impulse to look and to touch; to show things of great meaning first, then to tell as commentary on the showing. As the faith of Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America remains to this day, the faith of the Medieval West was unabashedly sensory. Looking and touching and tasting were essential to believing, and they are even more so today.
Grandmothers, at least my grandmothers, are quite wonderful! I have many fond memories of them. One of them, whom we all called Nanny, had the softest skin of anyone I have ever known. I loved to snuggle up with her when she came for a visit, and feel the softness of her cheeks. The other, whom we all called Grandma, took an interest in everything around her. Even when she was well into her eighties, she was always taking trips here and there, exploring the country with this friend or that one. Over the years she enrolled in countless classes, or joined book clubs and attended poetry writing workshops. She took film classes, and practiced her drawing, and went on bird watching expeditions.
The summer I was 20, I lived with Grandma, and over supper in the evening, she and I would talk books. I had discovered Thomas Merton that summer, and was reading The Seven Story Mountain. Grandma had discovered Hans Kung, and was reading On Being a Christian, and so our evening conversations were about theology and spirituality. Pretty heady stuff for a 20 year old and his grandmother!