Archives for 2010

The work of Christmas, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2010

December 24, 2010

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

On this holy night, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who, according to Luke, was born in Bethlehem, in a stable, because the town was full of out-of-town visitors who had come to pay their taxes. But if you look around, you will see that we’ve made much more of this celebration than the observance of a simple birth story.

This time of year is profoundly fraught with multi-layered meanings; family traditions; economic success for merchants; in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice; the pause between the end of the lunar year and the longer solar year; and our year-end tendency to want to evaluate this year before embarking on another. All these things, along with a group of fictional stories like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, find their way into our consciousness, our decorations, our gift-buying habits, our parties, and into our expectations. Our culture treats Christmas with massively sentimental attention. We watch Hallmark specials on TV, we resurrect “A Christmas Carol” with its ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; and we long for our families to match these sentimental visions. We can even get sentimental over a puny little Christmas tree, like the one in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

None of this is bad. Traditions instruct us, delight us, and remind us of our values. But Christmas trees and Rudolph don’t have anything to do with the birth of a Savior. What is this story meant to tell us? If we really want to look at Christmas past, imagine the morning after Jesus is born:

The stable is full of animals. The cow is loudly asking to be milked. The straw smells like animal dung and the funk of childbirth. Stunned and exhausted new parents wake up to an entirely different reality from yesterday: there’s a baby in their lives now. They rub their eyes: were those really angels making all that noise last night? And what about those shepherds – they found us in this dim little stable because, they said, a host of angels showed them the way. The new life lying in the straw between them is somehow the cause of all the commotion. True, every baby is a miracle, but this baby – Mary and Joseph can’t stop staring at him, touching him, holding him, like any new parents – they know that God has plans for this baby, and they’re a little afraid.

We often regard this sweet scene through a Hallmark-special fuzzy lens, as though it were only about another sweet baby. But this nativity scene, the morning after the dazzling holy night, isn’t just the end of Mary’s pregnancy and the start of a new family. The baby in the manger is none other than Emmanuel, God with us. The people who walked in darkness have, indeed, seen a great light – and we’re not just talking about the shepherds and the star. The light emanating from this sleepy domestic scene is the light of God, come to be with us, come to dwell in us, come to transform us. The response of faithful people to this new reality is to learn from Jesus, to emulate Jesus, to become bringers of God’s light ourselves. We celebrate the gift that God has given to us in Jesus when we subvert oppression, especially in the life-affirming ways that Jesus employed – by teaching, healing, giving voice and vision to those who have been in darkness. The work of Christmas begins, but does not end, tonight.

One of the best-loved of all Christmas hymns is “Joy to the world.” Listen to the first verse, where we sing “the Lord is come” – very much like the memorial acclamation in the Eucharist, when we say “Christ is risen.” “The Lord is come” says that Jesus comes to us here and now, not only on that first Christmas 2,000 years ago. The universe shifted the moment that Jesus was born, shifted toward the reality of God’s presence in and with and for God’s creation. We are faced with the task as Christians of making real that revolutionary love, here and now, in the time and place we belong to. Christmas present should look different and better than Christmas past.

The other part of the first verse of “Joy to the world” that challenges us is this: “let every heart prepare him room.” How have you made room for the living Christ amid the busy shopping days and decorating and parties? The only way for us to “prepare him room” that matters to the world is when we make room for Jesus to challenge us and change us, to develop us and transform us into Christ’s own hands and feet and strength and love for this time and place. To “prepare him room” means giving up some of our attachment to having a “perfect Christmas,” one that touches all our personal buttons and fulfills every tradition and wish. To prepare him room means, perhaps, less retail and more giving; less concern about having a perfect dinner table and more feeding the hungry; less decorating and more real celebration of who Jesus is, the one who is always being born in our hearts and who desires always to be with us.

Christmas doesn’t end tomorrow. Christmas doesn’t end with Epiphany, or Lent, or Easter; Christmas is God’s continuing gift of God’s presence with us, and Christmas is our challenge to prepare room in our hearts, and in our lives.

So what about Christmas future?

As we pack up our ornaments for another year, fill the garage with boxes labeled “Christmas,” think about how your life in January and February can continue the work of Christmas. As you pull the tinsel off the tree and put away the Frosty the Snowman videos, imagine who is lost, who is hungry, who needs peace in March and April. When the shepherds are back with their flock in the box, remember their surprise and joy, and find someplace to offer the song of the angels to someone who needs it in June.

Howard Thurman puts it this way in his poem “The Work of Christmas”:

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 brothers,
To make music in the heart.

 Merry Christmas.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

Our hearts and our treasures, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2010

February 17, 2010

Isaiah 58: 1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Reading Isaiah 58 knocks the breath out of our self-righteousness. The prophet’s words are addressed to all people and nations who claim belief in a God of justice and love. As citizens of this country and as people who carry the name of Christ, we are commanded to listen carefully. Ash Wednesday is a time for repentance, not just for us as individuals, but also for us as a people, a nation.

The words of Isaiah fall on our collective soul like a whip:

“Day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that
practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the
ordinance of their God.”

The prophet continues by zeroing in on all aspect of our failure to do justice:

• Serving our own interests
• Oppressing workers
• Quarreling and fighting among ourselves

How well we recognize all these failings, especially at this time of national unemployment and home foreclosures while the rich thrive.

We no longer practice fasting as the ancient Hebrews did – a fasting that God rejected because it was done only as a ritual by those who ignored the poor. We may not fast, but we do attend church, and we do claim to be a righteous nation – “the greatest nation in the world” is a phrase used across the land.

Yet we allow voices of hate, voices that despise the poor and the oppressed, to populate the airwaves. What would the prophet say about those voices? What would he say about the millions who listen to those voices? How many of us make it a Lenten discipline not to listen to voices on the radio or on television that spew hate and racism, that show admiration for the rich while despising the poor?

The prophet’s words were echoed centuries later by Jesus of Nazareth who responded to the call to loosen the bonds of injustice by the way he lived his life and by his death. Jesus, who called citizens of God’s kingdom only those who fed the hungry, who gave water to the thirsty, who clothed the naked, and who visited prisoners – not those who made a show of praying and giving alms.

On this day, when we allow ourselves to recognize our own faults, our manifold sins, our mortality, we are asked by the prophet and by Jesus to look at what really matters. We should not feel satisfied that just because we may have followed certain rituals, we have done what is just before the eyes of God.

On this day, the words of Jesus as recorded by Matthew, remind us not to be gloomy when we pray or when we work for the kingdom. He wants us to be joyful. Jesus wants us to remember “the least of these” not as a show but because we cannot do otherwise when we are faced with God’s demands and with God’s love.

Above all, in this cultural climate when the very rich are rewarded with bonuses while the poor lose their jobs, we are asked to remember where our treasure lies. Do we treasure things that perish, or is our treasure doing the will of the Father, a will that is never corrupted or co-opted or rewarded with gold?

Oh, let us on this Ash Wednesday wear the ashes with humility and repentance and with a determination not to be silent when the oppressed are ignored, overlooked, or despised. Let us put our hearts where our treasure is – in the love of the One who called us to be God’s righteous people indeed.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse Publishing, 2003), also available in audio form.