Christmas Eve 2013
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” And so begins the Nativity story from St. Luke, reminding us of the powerful people at the time of Jesus’ birth. Augustus and Quirinius and others just like them called the shots in that area of Palestine, or so they thought. With the sound of their voices and a stroke of the pen, they could make thousands of people move about like pawns on a chessboard. Joseph and a very pregnant Mary did as they were commanded, traveling from Galilee to Bethlehem because of Joseph’s heritage.
None of the powerful ones asked if it inconvenienced Joseph or Mary to make the 80 mile journey or so. It didn’t even cross their minds, or if it did, it would have been with evil delight. So traveled they did, and arrived in Bethlehem to find it full up. No guest rooms could be found even among the relatives. Finally someone offered them space by the animals—we’re not told if it happened to be a stable or a barn or even a cave. Simply that the manger would double as a bassinet after Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Which she did, of course. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.”
The action moves immediately to an angel messenger. But, as Lutheran Bishop Craig Satterlee put it, Luke’s narrative turns completely away from the powerful. While you’d expect a heavenly messenger to by-pass the officials of the Empire, you might expect the angel to go and find the clergy. But “the angel’s announcement of the fulfillment of prophecy goes not to the Temple but to shepherds living in the fields.”
Shepherds were not trustworthy people and had little to no standing in the community. Their testimony wouldn’t hold up in court, and due to the constant moving of their herds, lived a vagrant life. But the messenger of the almighty appears to them in the fields of Bethlehem rather than going to the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem a mere 5 miles away.
Which makes good Bishop Satterlee suggest this: “If we want to experience the newborn Christ, and we take Luke’s account seriously, the last place to be on Christmas Eve is in church, because Jesus is being born where people need him most.”
Now before we start saying this is exactly the reason we’re Episcopalians and not Lutherans, let me unpack that a bit. On this most holy of nights, we pull out all the stops. We get dressed up in our fancy clothes and light all the candles in this church and decorate this place with dozens of poinsettias. We’ll hear exquisite music and will kneel once again to sing “Silent Night” as the lights are dimmed. And we do all this to celebrate Christ’s nativity together. This place is wonderfully resplendent and I am very grateful for all of this and the hours it took to make this festival Eucharist so memorable.
And yet I cannot help but think of the other places I’ve been this Advent season with parishioners. I’ve had the privilege of serving turkey soup to some three hundred homeless people in Boston at the St. Francis Center. I took communion to parishioners who are unable to get past the four walls of their homes due to their physical health. A group of us visited with seven young men in the lock up in Westborough who desperately want to be anywhere other than where they are at and long to have a mother’s home cooked meal. This past Sunday a band of carolers and saxophonists made their way to a nursing home to bring joy to the elderly who need to live in a 24 hour care facility due to their poor mental or physical help.
In all of those places, Jesus is so desperately needed.
As I stand before you in splendid array tonight, I know I’ll spend a mere 3 minutes outside in the cold as I return to my cozy home. Before bed, I’ll look excitedly at our glorious tree which has more than enough presents underneath it and give thanks for all my blessings. And I know with certainty that if Christ chose to be born once more on this night, my house would not make the short list of places for the angel to visit. I live in Jerusalem and work at the temple. The angel would head to Worcester or Lawrence or to the family just barely scrapping by or the houseful of immigrants or the nursing home or the prison or to the guys sleeping under the overpass just trying to make it one more night.
I’ve been watching Christmas films as an Advent practice this year. What has interested me most of all is if Hollywood gets it, if the true message of Christmas can be found in feature length Christmas films (and yes, I’ve found that to be the case more often than not). I started out the weekend of Thanksgiving with “The Bishop’s Wife,” an old classic staring Carey Grant as an angel named Dudley sent to answer the prayers of a new episcopal bishop and his wife. As a friend once said, if you’re going to have an angel show up to answer your prayers, who wouldn’t want him to look like Carey Grant.
The bishop is in the thick of a capital campaign, trying to raise millions in order to build a new cathedral. He is constantly seen in despair as he loses his very soul over the project, in addition to losing his connection with his wife and daughter who are being sacrificed on the altar of his work. Dudley attempts to lead him toward peace, but as the bishop gets closer and closer to Christmas Eve, he feels it all slipping away.
As the good bishop walks up to the pulpit on that Christmas Eve, he find not the sermon he wrote, but one that Dudley crafted for him. Listen to his words:
“Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking. Once upon a midnight clear, there was a child’s cry. A blazing star hung over a stable and wise men came with birthday gifts. We haven’t forgotten that night down the centuries; we celebrate it with stars on Christmas trees, the sound of bells and with gifts. But especially with gifts. You give me a book; I give you a tie. Aunt Martha has always wanted an orange squeezer, and Uncle Henry could do with a new pipe. We forget nobody, adult or child. All the stockings are filled – all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we are celebrating. Don’t ever let us forget that. Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most, and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”
In just a few hours, some 50 kids will be opening up gifts given by all of you even though you’ve never met them. Extravagant gifts of love and joy bought after you chose a gift card from our giving tree. Games and stuffed monkeys and winter coats and gloves. Pajamas and graphic tees. The gift of Christ will be visited upon those homes. And in a few months, a village somewhere in the Third World will get clean water in the first time in God knows how long due to our Sunday open plate offerings. And those boys in lockup will be visited again in February, and a meal will be served to the homeless at St. Francis House this coming Sunday. And we’ll reach out to those whose lives are turned upside down. All of it is spreading the message of Christmas to those who need it so profoundly.
Maybe this isn’t such a bad place to be on Christmas Eve after all, as we too need the overwhelming love of the Christ child. On this most holy and silent of nights, the cry of newborn can be heard and with it comes good news for all people. The news is carried on the wings of angels who fan out to the most unlikely of places. We need this message of hope in the desolate places of our hearts, the places we rarely go for fear of what we might find there. The good news can penetrate even the darkest places of our own lives, flooding us with the magnificent light of God’s love shown in the humble birth of Jesus the Christ.
May these 12 days bring you peace, and with it goodwill to all, as you share the love of Christ with those who live in the desolate places of our world and those who live in the desolate places of their own lives. May Christ’s light pierce the darkness so that all people may know the joy of Christmas, and may God use us as holy messengers to share that joy. Merry Christmas! Amen.
 “Commentary on Luke 2:1-14, from Working Preacher.com (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522) Accessed Dec 20, 2013.