Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Christmas Homily

It’s been a while since I last offered a Christmas Eve homily.  I’ve always figured that the texts and the tunes will deliver their own message if I get out of the way.  But this year I feel compelled to reflect on what might seem to be at best an odd juxtaposition and at worst a contradictory paradox.

This is the season to talk about “peace on earth and good will toward all.”  Right?  But that’s not what’s in the air these days, is it?  At least, not if you’re paying any attention.  I don’t need to tell the stories – the names should be enough:
  • Michael Brown in Ferguson;
  • Eric Garner in Staten Island;
  • Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH;
  • Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn;
  • Sage Smith, Hannah Graham, Robin and Mani Aldridge – all right here in Charlottesville;
  • “Jackie” (and too many others) at UVa and elsewhere;

I could, of course, go on.

So, given what we know about the world we live in, what are we to do with this story of a baby, born to poor parents who knew oppression all too well, yet who is said to have grown up to be a living embodiment of “peace,” “good will,” and love? This story of that silent night where rulers and wise ones bowed down before a babe, with the Star of Hope shining clear in the night sky?

We could ignore it.  We could trivialize it.  We could dismiss it, saying that it’s a story from a long time ago with no relevance to today.  We could say that it’s someone else’s story to believe if they want to.  We could say that it’s just a story and as with all fairy tales we should focus instead on the way things really are.  We could do any of that.  Some of us do all of that.

But what if we didn’t?  What if we said that, story though it is, there is truth in it … power in it?  What if we opened our hearts more than our heads and let the story in?  Let it really sink into our souls?  What might happen?

This evening we’ve heard the story as it comes down to us, in its classic form, and together we’ve sung songs that have grown out of as echoes of its truths.  Did we hear those truths, or did we just sing the words?  Mike shared with us the message of the man said to have been born on that holy night so long ago – did we hear it, really hear it, or did we just listen?

2,000 years ago or so, we’re told that a baby was born to poor parents from an oppressed people living in what has been called “the greatest Empire on earth.”  And it was, for a few.  The Pax Romana – the “Roman Peace” that was the envy of the world – was great if you were Roman.  And male.  And a property owner.  The ancient 1%. 

For everyone else, though, it was awful.  Brutal.  The news of the day was not all that unlike the news of our day.

But one of the essential things about the Christmas story is that its hero was not born at the top of the pyramid, but at its bottom.  God, we’re told, chose not simply to express what theologians call a “preferential option for the poor,” but to actually become one of the poorest of the poor.  To make the same point today God might have to incarnate as a young black man with a hoodie and a bag of skittles.

So, yes, the Christmas story is about inns, and mangers, and stars, and wise men, and shepherds, and angels, and, of course, a cute little baby.   But it’s about so more than that.  It’s about an unfair, unjust society and the promise that it won’t last forever.  It’s about the ultimate victory of the forces of life over the forces of death.  It’s about nothing less than a re-ordering of society so that those who are repeatedly told that their lives don’t matter, who are so oppressed that they feel that can’t breathe, well … they’ll have the last word.  As the Gospel of Luke remembers Jesus’ mom as saying,

God has brought down rulers from their thrones
    and lifted up the humble.

God has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.

Can you believe in such a story?  Can you believe in such a vision?  I’m not asking if you believe in God – some do, some don’t.  I’m not asking if you believe in miracles – whatever that word might mean to you.  I’m asking if you believe in Love.  I’m asking if you believe in Hope.

Let me change that.  I’m asking you to believe in Love; I’m asking you to believe in Hope.  Because this world still needs that re-ordering, and this isn’t something that’s done to us … it’s something that’s done through us.  The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said that “we are all Mothers of God because God is always needing to be born.” 

Howard Thurman, a prominent civil rights leader and Protestant minister, wrote something about Christmas that I think about each year.  I’ll give him the final word:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among [people],
To make music in the heart.

Pax tecum,


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1 comment:

Dave Dawson said...

Thanks for this Powerful yet simple story. The more I've wrestled with it over the years, the clearer it becomes. Now it seems to be reflected in the process of "policing", carrying guns (or not), racism, etc. And the story continues. Thanks. Rev Wikstrom.