Monday, December 24, 2012

Crying Baby Jesus: A Christmas Eve Sermon

Like most of you, I grew up singing “Away in a Manger.” And I pretty much assumed that the angels must have taught those very words and that very tune to the shepherds that night out in the fields and that Christians around the world have been singing it ever since, for two-thousand years. After all, if you look it up in The Hymnal to see who wrote it, it simply says that this is a “traditional carol.” Well, for reasons I will explain in a moment, this year I got to wondering:  “whose tradition?” So, of course, I Googled it… 

The hymn was actually written in the late nineteenth century—1885 to be precise—in Philadelphia, where it was published by an Evangelical Lutheran Church Sunday School in a collection called Little Children's Book for Schools and Families. While that’s a while ago, it’s still only decades ago; in a tradition that has been around for two millennia. In that collection it was set to a tune called "St. Kilda,” a favorite tune of the Puritans but not the one we all know; in The Hymnal it is set to a tune called Cradle Song. 

Tradition. It’s a funny thing. We think we know the tradition, but the truth is that most of us are not really all that interested in the depth and breadth of the tradition so much as we are in “the way we did things in my family, or my church, when I was a little kid.”  If you don’t believe me then imagine this: what if Charles and I had conspired to sing the song as written tonight, to the tune no one here knew, and my defense was “that’s the tradition?” This nostalgia for our own childhoods, that we mistakenly confuse with the tradition, is a particular challenge at Christmas time. Like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, we are sometimes tempted to just keep loving tiny baby Jesus—and even more our image of tiny baby Jesus—rather than allowing the image of the child in the manger to invite us more deeply into the mystery of God’s love for the world.  

So I have been singing that carol for almost fifty years now: in church, in nursing homes, out in the streets of Hawley, Pennsylvania as a child caroling. And because of that I knew this: that when the cattle were lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus—come on everyone, you all know it—what does little Lord Jesus do, or rather not do? No crying he makes! That must be in the Bible, right? (It is not!)

The assumption, however, that the carol must have it right has caused pageant mothers (and I presume fathers as well) great consternation over many years in this parish. Every year we ask some poor parents if they will have their child play “baby Jesus” in our live nativity pageant. At first they think this is a great honor, but most years “baby Jesus” doesn’t get the memo that says “no crying he makes.”

So last Sunday night, I’m sitting at Memorial Church at Harvard when the choir sings a “traditional” Flemish carol with the words that have been printed on the front of your bulletins tonight. They go like this:
There is a young and gentle maiden,
With a charm so full of grace.
Look! See how she cradles the Christ Child,
As the tears flow down his face
There is Jesus Christ a -weeping,
While his vigil they are keeping.
     Hush, hush, hush, dear child, do not weep,
     Cease your crying, now go to sleep.
Wait, what?  Baby Jesus cried?! Says who? (Who are the Flemish anyway?) Surely if you have to pick a “tradition” to believe, of course it should be that of good sturdy Americans (even if they are Lutherans!) rather than somebody off in Flanders fields!  Colicky baby Jesus? Really?

Yet this image of crying baby Jesus has haunted me during these last days of Advent. There is Jesus Christ a-weeping…hush, hush, hush dear child, do not weep. Cease your crying, now go to sleep.
Well, of course I knew that the Bible doesn’t address this question at all, but I started to re-examine “the tradition”—even to the point of changing tonight’s gradual hymn to “Once in Royal David’s City.” (You’ll just have to trust me that it would not have worked for us to attempt to sing the Flemish carol!) Because in verse four, we just sang these words:  
For he is our life-long pattern; daily when on earth he grewnow listen up! …he was tempted, scorned, rejected, tears and smiles like us he knew. Thus he feels for all our sadness and he shares in all our gladness.

I have been thinking and praying with this image of the “crying baby Jesus” this past week. And it kept bringing me back to a verse of Holy Scripture that I memorized as a young child. My Baptist grandmother was old-school and she believed in teaching her grandchildren to memorize Bible verses, something I was not (and still am not) particularly good at. To my everlasting shame I am much better at memorizing whole paragraphs from the Book of Common Prayer!  But here is one verse I know by heart: John 11:35— “Jesus wept.” The shortest verse in the Bible!

Now I know that verse is set in a different context, when all-grown-up Jesus is standing at the grave of his friend Lazarus.  But here is the thing: Jesus did grow up. And Jesus did weep. And if he was like us in every way, save sin, then he didn’t wait until he was a grown man to shed his first tears. Like every child he surely cried to let Mary know that he was hungry and when he needed Joseph to rock him to sleep and tell him everything was going to be ok. He surely did cry when his swaddling clothes were wet and he needed them changed. Hush, now, don’t cry little one; go to sleep. 

This matters to us, especially after a polarizing election year and Hurricane Sandy and all of that loss in Newtown, Connecticut—and that’s just the past two months! It’s been a hard year and let’s face it, a hard decade or so. And grief is always cumulative. Crying baby Jesus takes us to the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation and to the good news of this holy night: that God really is with us. God who, in Jesus, knew both tears and smiles and who, even now, feels all our sadness and shares in all our gladness. Immanuel. 

I think most of us have felt, at some point or another in our lives, that what we really want is an interventionist God: a God who will intervene in human history and fix things that get broken, or better still prevent bad things from happening in the first place. A superhero-God who can at the very least spin the planet back in time when necessary to stop evil from happening. Such a world would be Eden, of course, and we would have no free will—but still it sounds nice when things are really hard.

In the world we do live in, there are some out there speaking in the name of Jesus Christ who find an interventionist God to be the cause of every bad thing that happens and usually they have a group that they are happy to scapegoat as the source of God’s wrath. Now I’m not really for going back to the days when we had heresy trials but if we did, Huckabee and Dobson and their ilk are the kind of clowns that ought to be the first brought up on charges. What they have to say is mostly about their own bigotry and fear and hatred and has very little to do with the holy catholic and apostolic faith we are here to proclaim tonight.   

The two great moments in the life of Jesus that take us to the heart of what his life was about are celebrated in the two great festivals of the liturgical year: Christmas and Easter. The two great icons of the birth and death are of a baby in a manger and of a man dying on a cross. If these two images reveal anything at all to us about the nature of the incarnate God, the suffering God, it is that God so loved the world. That is how John’s Gospel puts it. Not that God so loved the right-wing Christian zealots. And certainly not that God so hated the Jews, or the Muslims, or the gays, or the atheists, or anybody else. God so loved the world, the whole world. No exceptions.

But God so especially loved the little children of this world, that God gave up power and control to live and die among us to be with us and for us. There is nothing in Bethlehem or on a hill outside of Jerusalem to suggest that God is looking for ways to inflict hurt on people. Jesus comes to bring joy to the world, and peace on earth and good will to all people. That’s what the angels sing about, even if some are deaf to their songs. In his living and in his dying, Jesus shows us how to live more generous and compassionate lives. He shows us how to respond, when we pray for peace on earth: let it begin with me. He feels all our sadness and all of our gladness. Look! See how Mary cradles the Christ Child, as the tears flow down his face. There is Jesus Christ a -weeping, while his vigil they are keeping. 

Jesus most assuredly wept and weeps on this holy night with all who are grieving.  Not just those new losses that are still fresh on all of our minds, but old ones too. When I look back and consider all the funerals I’ve presided at in this parish over fifteen years, I wonder why it is that so many of them come in December: so much loss in our lives and so much sadness. So if you ask the question “where is God?” in relationship to the grief and pain that we feel tonight, then there is only one answer to that question: look to crying baby Jesus. It is the God we see in the face of this child that calls us to live life more abundantly. The God who is revealed to the shepherds and to us on this holy night is not some distant masochist who watches this all happen with glee, but a God who weeps when we weep.

And that is the good news of this night: that we are not left comfortless. We are called as Christians, as Franciscan Christians, to sow joy where there is sadness, to sow love where there is hatred, to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair. That is what these weeks of Advent have been about: recalling us to the work God has given us to do in Christ’s name. In four words that is about hope and peace and love and joy. 

The late Fred Rogers (who was, if you don’t know, also a Presbyterian minister) once wrote that when he was a boy his mother told him after scary news in the world to “look for the helpers.” To look to those places where, after a disaster or tragedy, people are helping and caring. You see that both globally and locally. It’s as real here in Holden when people show up at their neighbor’s door with a casserole as it is in Newtown or on the Jersey Shore. Look to the helpers. There you see Jesus making all things new. Or as St. Paul reminded the first-century Church in Philippi:

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
We gather here on this holy night and throughout the year to be re-membered and to listen for God’s calling to us to share the work that God has given us each in our own way. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth and John the Baptist and Mary: to say “yes” to God by letting this same mind of God’s self-emptying kenotic love be in us until every tear is wiped away. Even the tears of baby Jesus.

If you want to see the hand of God, then look to those places where there is love, for where there is love, there God is. Ubi caritas et amour, Deus ibi est. There are babies crying, even now—in our world and in our neighborhood. May we see in them the face of Jesus, the newborn king—the crying baby Jesus who yearns for us to double down as instruments of God’s peace, and as willing participants in the work that God has entrusted to us, that God shares with us for the sake of this broken world: to be doers of justice and lovers of mercy and a people who (always with God’s help) continue to walk humbly with God.   

Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with us.

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