Archives for December 2011

Is it true?, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2011

December 25, 2011

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

And is it true? The choices of lessons for Christmas Day approach that question in two ways. St. Luke tells us the story, a story we’ve heard year by year. Because we are so familiar with the tale, its truth may not engage us anymore. Yes, it’s a beautiful story. A young girl gives birth to a baby in a cave used to house farm animals. The child is placed in a feeding trough. We don’t know whether Joseph was able to find a midwife to assist in the birth. We do know that they took shelter in the cave because there were “no vacancy” signs on the doors of all the inns, the motels of that day.

Bethlehem was full of visitors because a politician far away had decided on a census, a way to establish how many people there were in an area who could be taxed and what property and income they possessed. In this case, people were not counted where they lived; they were sent back to their ancestral hometowns. Beneath the story runs a tale of oppression, of people at the mercy of a tyrant, a people enslaved by conquerors. The story has a familiar ring to it even today. Dress it up with tinsel, with poinsettias, shining stars and angels if you will, but this is a story of oppression and vulnerability, of injustice with little mercy.

And is it true? It is certainly familiar. It rings true enough. Perhaps its telling again today may inspire us to show mercy and act kindly toward those in need. But the truth of this story lies deeper. It isn’t just a morality play, or a docudrama. So another choice for looking at the gospel today takes us deeper, much deeper. And that’s when things get complicated. We may, perhaps, accept the politics of the story, but can we get our heads around the theology of the story?

The word “theology” can be off-putting. We want a simple faith, even though we don’t like to be thought to be simple ourselves, and theology sounds complicated. Yet the first fourteen verses of St John’s Gospel, Chapter One, is anything but simple. It teaches that the baby born in a cave among farm animals is God the Word, the second Person of the Trinity.

And is it true? If we have much taste for a God, what we want and think we need is a powerful God. True, we want a god who is kind to us. God can be rough on those we don’t like, but must be compassionate to us. Yet Christmas Day reveals a vulnerable God, a helpless God, a baby God. It shows a God who needs parents and friends, who needs protection and care. What an extraordinary idea! This is a God who calls us to love him, even though he can’t do a thing for us except gurgle, smile, and even cry. Here’s a God who keeps us awake at night and yells for food.

Certainly any mother knows how wonderful it is to love and be loved by a baby. Even the hardest heart may be melted by the sight of a radiant mother and her baby. Christmas Day challenges us to see that sight, it calls us to allow our hearts to melt. We are called not to receive, but to give. We are called to give our hearts and love to God the Son, God the Baby, receiving nothing more, or less, than love’s reward. For love is a doing, a giving, a surrendering, a merging. It breaks down our walls of separation, our pride and bitterness, our self-assuredness and pretended autonomy. Christmas teaches us that before we receive from God we must first give ourselves to God unconditionally, come what may. And so God challenges us to see him as a baby, a dispossessed baby born in a cave and placed in a food trough.

John Betjeman, the English poet, wrote a poem called “Christmas.” Here is the last verse of that poem. Listen to it and take it to heart, and then give yourself to Jesus the Baby as he comes in Bread and Wine:

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

— Father Tony is rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, and an examining chaplain to the bishop of Northern Indiana. 

Let us whisper it, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2011

December 24, 2011

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

Part of the wonder of this night is the possibility of the meeting of worlds, the coming together of time. We sing, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Though we live so long after those events in Bethlehem, tonight we find ourselves at the manger. In our mind’s eye, we imagine the holy family in the stable, the mother tired, but radiant; the breath of the animals visible in the cold night air. We hear the lowing of the cattle and the rustle of straw. But most of all, we gaze in wonder at the baby, this long-expected child.

What would we say if we were there? What would we add to Mary’s contented sighing and Joseph’s protective, “There, there”? For, as with all babies, just his existence is a gift. And as with all babies, it’s not just their infancy, but their futures we imagine and dream of and long for. But with this baby, this little one named Jesus, we have seen his future. We have glimpsed what lies ahead for him and what it means for us. So, what do we say to him as we take our place by his manger tonight?

In 1994 the Rev. Richard H. Schmidt wrote a reflection in Episcopal Life magazine entitled, “Christmas: Let Me Hold You, Dear Little Jesus.” Inspired by his image of holding the infant Christ, here are some words for our hearts’ prayer on this Christmas Eve:

Little Jesus, let us hold you now. On this holy night, when you are a newborn baby, let us cradle you in our arms. Let us hold you and keep you warm. Now, while you are small and vulnerable, let us watch over you. We want to hold you now, because many times in time to come, you will hold us.

Rest well, sweet baby. Rest your tiny hands. For though you are the King of kings, you will touch no silk, you will carry no gold. You will grasp no earthly scepter, sign no imperial decrees. You will use your hands for far more precious works: touching a leper’s wound, wiping away a widow’s tear, blessing and breaking bread, and giving it to your friends. Your hands, now so perfect, so tender, so tiny, will someday be wounded for us.

Sleep well, sweet baby. Rest your tiny eyes. For someday you will look at the world and you will see the pain and loneliness and ache that humans bear. You will look at us and see us just as we are, with all our sins and loveliness both. You will look and see the Christ within each one of us, and you will try to teach us to see it too.

Hush now, sweet baby. Rest your tiny mouth. For someday from your mouth eternity will speak. Your tongue will summon the dead to life. Your words will define grace, pronounce blessings, teach, and paint pictures with words so we too might see our eternal God the way you know God to be. Your mouth will speak forgiveness to those who wrong you, will invite us to paradise to be with you forever, will send us forth in your name to all the world. Your words will echo down through centuries, bringing meaning and hope to our lives.

Rest now, tiny child. Rest your infant feet. For someday you will walk many miles to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives. Someday you will stride out in power across billowing waves in a storm-tossed sea. Someday your feet will be anointed with oil by a woman who prepares you for death, and your feet will bear the same nail prints as your hands. Rest your feet now, for someday millions will follow in your footsteps.

And sweet little baby, with your little heart, how much love you will show. Rest now. And let us hold you on this holy night, for someday, you will hold us. Someday we will feel lost and lonely. Someday we will wonder – is this all there is? What does it mean? What am I here for?

Then you will come to us. You will not be a helpless infant then. When you come to find us, you will come as our Wonderful Counselor, our deliverer. You will tell us that you searched for us. You will call us each by name. And when you find us, you will rejoice. You will invite us to your banqueting table and nourish us with your very self. You will remind us that we belong to you; we are yours.

Little baby, let us hold you on this holy night, for someday you will hold us. Someday we will feel deep sadness and sorrow. Something will happen in our lifetimes that grieves us so deeply that we may wonder where you are. But you will come to us, then, not as a helpless baby, but as the Prince of Peace. You will remind us of the promises of God, of the strength of hope, of God’s deep loving kindness, God’s steadfast love. You will hold us close, and if we are quiet enough to hear, you will whisper to us that all will be well. All manner of things shall be well. You will tell us that you are here for us always, not just when we are empty enough to know we need you. You walk beside us, offering us your peace every day.

Sweet infant redeemer, let us hold you on this holy night, for someday you will hold us. Someday we will grow old or sick, our bodies will fail, and it will be time for us to rest from this world. Then you will come to us, not as a vulnerable baby, but as Mighty God, Everlasting Father. You will welcome us into eternal light and life. You will welcome us to a heavenly feast prepared since the beginning of time, a home and a place for us.

You will do all of these things for us at great cost to yourself. You will teach us the meaning of giving, all that we have and are, on behalf of goodness and love, no matter the cost.

But that will be someday. Tonight we adore you as a baby. We welcome you as a helpless, vulnerable babe, as the Almighty God who became a child so we could become full mature human beings; who was wrapped in swaddling cloths so we could be unraveled from the snares of death; who came on earth so we could live beneath the stars; who had no place in the inn, so you could prepare for us mansions in heaven; who became poor, so we could become rich; in whose weakness is our strength. This is the night, the wondrous night when the creatures hold our creator. This is the night of grace, when the Lord of heaven and earth stoops down, reverses roles, and allows us – the finite – to serve the infinite God.

And so, little Jesus, on this one night, let us hold you.

And let us whisper now the thanks that will be yours for all the years to come. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for loving us. We love you too.

 

— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.