All Saints’ Church
December 24, 2016
Merry Christmas! And welcome to the Feast of the Nativity at All Saints’ Church. Everyone is welcome here. The presence of each and every person here makes this celebration complete. The most honored guests at this feast are the newest ones—those here for the first time, those who have traveled from far away, those who come here with hesitation, those of other faith traditions or none at all. The Jesus whose birth we celebrate this holy evening is not a possession; he does not belong only to those who claim him. He took on the lowliest of births so that God could be seen by all. In doing so, he taught us that the divisions we build between us mean nothing at all to God.
Christmas touches many different emotions. For some, it is a joyful time spent with family and friends. For others, it is a painful reminder of broken relationships, or of those we love but see no longer. For still others, Christmas can be a rare confrontation with questions of faith and doubt. For most, Christmas is a messy mixture of all these things. Regardless of what this evening means to you, know this: Christ was born into the mess of the world not as we wish it were, but the way it is. This is part of the miracle we celebrate tonight.
Yes, at Christmas, we acknowledge that God comes into the world as it is, not as we wish it were. Jesus was born into a world where corrupt rulers pursued power and ignored the weak and the innocent. The rich exploited the poor. There were wars and rumors of wars. World events determined the place and nature of Jesus’ birth. Joseph and Mary were traveling from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered because of the decree that went out from the emperor in Rome. God did not change these events, but rather worked through them. And as much as the faithful of Jesus’ time may have wished for him to come as a strong and mighty savior, one who could change the world with his might--he came instead as a little child, a baby boy. This was their salvation—and ours: a little child.
On this Christmas Eve, for just one moment, think about what it means that the redemption of humankind comes to us as a child. Children have so much to teach us adults about what to do in the middle of a mess. Children are vulnerable. Children are dependent. Children approach others without prejudice. Children want to play. Children are not interested in being productive, or powerful, or rich. The thing children want most is for you to love them—and to love you in return. Isn’t that the thing we all still want, more than anything? When Jesus was born, these were the gifts he offered us, and he offered them to everyone.
To the children here tonight: thank you for reminding us adults about Jesus. We need to keep learning from you. Because this year, especially, the adults have been very naughty. We have forgotten all the lessons Jesus taught us as a baby. We stopped believing that being vulnerable, like you, makes us open to God. We looked at dependence as weakness, not strength. We let our prejudices get the better of us. And, maybe worst of all, we decided to stop playing with one another. When the playground gets tense and fights break out, usually the adults step in and reset the games so that everyone can play together again. But what happens when the adults are the ones acting up? Who will save them from their fights? The scary thing about adults is that we think we’re more sophisticated than children, in part because our weapons are bigger and scarier than the sticks and stones from the playground. But as you can see from our recent behavior, adults want to be bad just as often as kids do. So we need you, like the Christ child, to show us the way forward.
I lived in the former Soviet Union, in Lithuania, for several years before moving to New York. My best friend there told me a Christmas story from his childhood. Like all public religious observances, Christmas was illegal under communism. Understandably, this was a source of great anguish for millions, and especially for the devout Roman Catholics where I lived. Families tended to observe Christmas in secret, but if discovered, they could face punishment at their jobs or in school.
My friend told me how there was a particularly strict assistant principal at his elementary school. One December, she came into his classroom unannounced, interrupted the teacher, and asked the children to tell her whether their families planned to celebrate Christmas. At first there was silence; even fourth graders knew what the consequences would be if they told the truth. Then, the kids looked around at one another, and one by one, they raised their hands—in defiance. My friend said he sat in awe as he watched the little boys and girls in his class declare their faith in the face of this scary woman. These children had more courage and less fear than their parents, even though they had just as much to lose. They made themselves vulnerable and worked together to defend what they knew was right. Not even a totalitarian regime could take Jesus away from them. He belonged to them, and they to him.
When I think of this story, I think of Scripture. Isaiah foretold that a child would be born, and that he would be a great light for the people who walked in darkness. In the story of Jesus’ birth, even the power of an entire empire could not overcome the grace of a little child. God’s message to us is clear: the same grace of that first Christmas night will be our salvation, even in this time. We must have faith in the child who is given to us. We must be imitators of the Christ child, finding strength in humility, hope in unlikely grace, and, above all, love in all people and the whole creation. We’ve already been shown how to get out of a mess, and it looks a lot like Christmas.
If you are thinking this is a tall order, you’re right. As we grow up, we experience the pains of living. We are hurt, and we hurt others. Our wounds can turn us sour, and we can begin to forget about the miracle of this life that has been given to us freely and in exchange for nothing. When that happens, grown-ups become brats and bullies. But do not fear the bully—have pity on him, because he has more fear than you. Matthew tells us that Herod sent an army to find the baby Jesus and kill him. How humiliating it must be to fear an innocent little child. How lonely it must be to spend your life defending your tiny corner and your little things. How sad it is to fear opening yourself up to all that is good and right and true, to be scared of joining a world where all God’s children are welcome and celebrated equally. And yet, this is a mistake any one of us could make…if we let the trials of life overshadow the light that God has placed within us.
But there is good news this Christmas Eve. As much as the baby in that manger belongs to all humanity, there is a child deep inside every one of us whom nothing can destroy. That inner child knows what Christmas means and can never forget. Just as a newborn seems freshly sent from another realm, the child within us all lives close to our souls and beckons us, tenderly, to tend those souls.
Perhaps this evening, a tiny voice is crying out from within you. It is calling out, softly, tenderly. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace toward all whom God favors. Amen.