We have gathered here this evening to celebrate Christmas with music and readings and liturgy and beauty fit for a king, and all the excitement and anticipation that comes with it.
Some of you know that the Episcopal Church tradition, of which All Saints’ is a member, has its roots in England, and so we probably have more than our share of Anglophiles and royal watchers, and so many of us have an appreciation for the British royal family and have recently looked on from afar with joyful interest at the marriage of Prince William and Catherine, and the birth and baptisms of their children George and Charlotte. All that pageantry, and splendid music – a feast for the eye and ear. And besides, who doesn’t love a wedding, and pictures of adorable babies and toddlers? But once you get closer in, at least as close as the royal guardians will allow, what do you see? A family – a real family, dealing with their own particular circumstances, their own challenges. Of course, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (as they are now known) don’t have financial worries, but don’t kid yourself – their public schedule is grueling, and they are doing their utmost to raise their children in a private, low-key, and happy way, just as any parents would want for their children. What you see and understand about this family changes when you move from the wide-angel, high-level, panoramic view and zoom in to the personal, the close-up, the more intimate picture.
Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ, is like that, too. When we take the wide-angle view we see all the great festivities, and magnificence, and celebration. But then we zoom the camera lens in, and what do we see? A poor family, travelling to be registered for the taxation that will go to support the Roman army and administration occupying their land; a family who will soon become refugees as they flee to Egypt to escape the murderous rage of Herod, the puppet king. When we move in close, we see and hear the pain and hard work of birth in a place where there was perhaps no midwife close to hand, no extended family to support and encourage. If we put ourselves in the scene, perhaps we will smell a stall that needs mucking out, hear the breathing and rumblings of farm animals. We may notice that some shepherds have arrived – curious and on edge, full of a story about a vision of the heavenly host in the night sky, and asking about a savior; those shepherds who were probably hired hands, essentially migrant workers, very much on the lowest social rungs of their time and place. And as we draw in closely we will also see a baby, an ordinary, human child who is at the very same time the Lord and Creator of all that is, God and man: one flesh. And we see a human family – exhausted, joyful, parents filled with wonder at the blessing of this birth. That joy and wonder and awe is a microcosm of the joy and wonder and awe of the angelic realm, the host of heaven, all creation.
What has happened here, in this stable place, in this rough feeding trough, in uncomfortable and difficult circumstances, is the beginning of God’s final act in the divine plan for the salvation of all that God has made – the wholeness, the well-being, the redemption, the right relationship of humanity with God, with one another, and with the world. In this close-up of Jesus’ birth we can see in our mind’s eye the light of God’s saving love, the strength of God’s peace, the energy of God’s hope.
Those three words – love, peace, and hope – are the truth, the realities that are brought to birth in Christ’s Incarnation. They are the realities that come to full flower in Jesus’ life and teachings, in his passion, crucifixion, and resurrection. They are to bloom in human life on a daily basis – not just at Christmas.
Love is the love that God has for us whom he has made in his very own image. It is an unconditional love; no matter who we are, no matter what we have done or not done, no matter how close or far away from God we feel, we are loved, cherished, without reservation, beloved – full stop.
Peace is the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humankind and all creation. God’s dream is for well-being and flourishing of every family, every neighborhood, every human community; that we will seek to overcome estrangement and enmity, ignorance and want, destruction and the degradation of God’s beautiful creation. As we do that, we reflect the Lord’s goodness in the midst of life.
Hope gives us the courage to live each day, even when God’s presence and purpose may seem veiled from our sight. Hope keeps our eyes focused on Christ, knowing that the tiny baby in the manger is, in fact the Lord God, the Sovereign of the Universe. God knows our hearts and the human condition from the inside out, and will never leave us nor forsake us. And, in God’s own time, his purpose of goodness and blessing for the world will come to fulfillment. That is a promise of hope.
So we move from the wide-angle beauty and celebration and royal pageantry of our Christmas liturgy, to the close-up of the poor family at the manger – the birth of Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel – God-with-us. And then we move back out again, with a deeper understanding, a renewed vision, a more profound love for the One who bids us to follow him. And we can see that the whole world is to be transformed by this birth, and the death and new life that will follow, and that we are to participate and take up our role in making God’s royal dream for the whole world and each person a reality, now, in this life, and in the age to come.
And because of all of that is true at Christmas, we can claim and affirm this truth: God is good/All the time; All the time/God is good. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
Christmas Eve 2015
All Saints' Church, Millington, NJ