Friday, December 16, 2016

The Christmas Story, PG-13 Version

As a parish priest, I would be thinking seriously about my Christmas Eve sermon about now. I don't have to do that in diocesan ministry, but old habits die hard, and I find myself thinking about what I would say if I had a pulpit on Christmas Eve to preach from...

Easter offers preachers more variety in terms of the Biblical narrative from year to year. Always we are reflecting on the risen Christ, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell it differently, from their own perspective. And those nuances very often provide a way into re-telling the story from year to year.

But Christmas is different. There are only two birth narratives. Mark doesn't have one; his gospel begins at the Jordan River when Jesus comes to be baptized by John. John's Gospel offers a theological prologue. It's definitely a Christmas theme that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" but there are no angels or shepherds, no un-crying baby in the manger.

In fact the story we get year to year is the one Linus quotes to remind Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about. Some may even be able to recite it by heart: "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered..." (See Luke 2:1ff)

The fact that the Emperor - Caesar - is mentioned is a clue that the birth of this child is not some "spiritual truth." John's prologue gets it right - the Word has become flesh and that means in a particular time and place, among real people. The story resists spiritualizing interpretations; yes it is a holy night, but it's also a mess and the child is born into a world that was a mess.

Even so, Luke's story, while dramatic and easily adapted to pageant-form, is not the only birth narrative in the New Testament. There is also the lesser known story as told in Matthew 2. Whoever may have been Caesar at the time of Jesus' birth, Matthew goes more local: it is the time of King Herod. Most of us know the part about the magi (whom we usually just "tack on" to the end of Luke's narrative at Epiphany)  but this story has a lot more in it, although it's much harder to tell it to younger children. It's the kind of story that can give you nightmares, which is why parents (and preachers) should be cautioned that some of this material is not suitable for children under thirteen.

James Taylor sings that the wise men went "home by another way." But we do well to remember why they did that: Herod was a bad king, the kind of leader who misuses his power. When Herod discovers that he has been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated. (See Matthew 2:16.) So infuriated, in fact, that he slaughters the innocent children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. Then was fulfilled, Matthew tells us, what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more. (Matthew 2:18)
Merry Christmas! It does not matter whether or not happened; we know it is true, because we live in a world where it happens. We know this because always it is the innocent who suffer when power is corrupted and that's as true today as it's ever been.

Four years ago, in what turned out to be my last Christmas Eve Sermon as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden, I preached a sermon entitled Crying Baby Jesus. That context was devastating; just ten days after the murder of innocent children in Newtown, Connecticut and a bitter presidential election.This country was reeling and we mourned. And yet today there are some who deny it even happened. Lord, have mercy. 

Who could have imagined it might be even worse four years later? Yet this Christmas, the children of Aleppo are crying out for our help. Yet day after day they continue to be slaughtered before our eyes. A voice is heard even now in Ramah and Newtown and Aleppo - wailing and loud lamentation. And I for one am tired of being "consoled," because they are no more. It's time to act. I am not smart enough to know what those actions should be yet. But our prayers are not enough. We must re-learn what it means to be a Church that is part of the resistance.

The holy family, in Matthew's Gospel, is saved from Herod's rage by becoming refugees in Egypt. Again we cannot say whether or not it happened and it may be a rhetorical device for Matthew to have this new Joseph return to Egypt so that this new Moses-child might leave Egypt for the Promised Land. But the story is true whether or not it happened; Jesus and his family knew what it meant be strangers in a foreign land, to be refugees. As an adult, Jesus will say that "the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" suggesting he knew something of that experience. His followers need to be in tune with the refugees in our own world who are fleeing from violence, regardless of where they are coming from.

There was a meme on Facebook this week that showed a nativity scene "without any Jews, Arabs, Africans or refugees." And so I wonder: what will it take for the Church to reclaim our own story, the whole story, this Christmas? Not the sanitized Christmas Carol version where Jesus never cries, but the real story where this child is born for the sake of a world in turmoil - for the sake of children who are in danger, and as the hope of the nations. We might begin by remembering the story as Matthew tells it, since it seems to be ripped from the headlines of our own day. And even still, to proclaim the good news that God is with us, Immanuel: in all of the sorrow, through all of the tears, in the midst of all of our fears.

The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

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