Archives for December 2014

Zigs and zags, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2015

January 4, 2015

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

The start of this new year invites us to take out the map of our life and look at it carefully. This is a time to recognize where we have been, so that we may be better prepared for the future that awaits us.

Where have you traveled in your life during these past 12 months? What is there to celebrate? What is there to lament? Who have been your companions on this journey? What have been the regrets, the surprises, the delights, the moments of judgment, the seasons of grace?

The end of one old year and the start of a new one invites us to look at our maps, review our travels and reorient ourselves for whatever road lies ahead.

The gospel for this Second Sunday After Christmas Day presents us with a map to look at. It is a map of where the Holy Family traveled in the months, perhaps years, after the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem.

This is a zigzag map. The silent night, holy night when all is calm, all is bright, does not last long for Joseph, Mary and the baby.

It seems that when Christ’s birth is made known, King Herod trembles for his throne. The news of another monarch born in his territory raises in his mind fears of insurrection, the end of his time as ruler, maybe the end of his life.

Meanwhile, Joseph wakes up in the dark of night out of a troubled sleep. In his dream, an angel demanded that he take up the child and his mother and leave town, because Herod’s soldiers, the servants of his paranoia, were already about the cruel business of slaughtering every baby boy in that vicinity in order to eliminate the newborn Messiah. Even as husband and wife stumble about, making the briefest of preparations, the devouring sword draws near.

The angel does not send them back to their hometown of Nazareth. Instead, he sends them on a journey lasting hundreds of miles, which takes them in the opposite direction.

They are to go to Egypt, a strange and alien land. This route saves their child’s life, yet it is a zigzag, not what they expected when they lay down to sleep the night before.

In Egypt there are large Jewish colonies, and probably it is in one of these that Joseph and his family find a place to live. The baby prospers in that strange land, and days and months go by quickly for the young family.

Finally Joseph, the man of dreams, is awakened again from his sleep. Again an angel has appeared to him with momentous news. Herod, that killer of children, is now dead. It is safe to return, safe to go back to the land of Israel, that place they left in haste and fear. Joseph, Mary and their toddler son pack up and leave, invigorated by a sense of relief and hope.

Perhaps they had expected to remain permanently in Egypt, but there is another zigzag. Back home they go.

Once they arrive in the land of Israel, they hear that Herod indeed is dead, but his son has succeeded him, Archelaus, who is no better than his father. So Joseph and Mary decide to keep away form Judah, the region where Archelaus holds sway. In response to yet another dream, they continue northward to Galilee, to their own town, Nazareth. There they find safety and familiar faces welcome them. This is yet another zigzag,

A long and unpredictable journey, a zigzag trip, has taken them back home again so long after that census in Bethlehem. It’s a strange sight to see on the map, the life of this young family and their travels over many months.

Matthew’s gospel recounts events around the early life of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies from the Old Testament. Thus, the opening chapters of Matthew are studded with Old Testament quotations.

This happens, in particular, with the zigzag trip taken by the Holy Family. Two quotations are cited to shed light on this journey. The first, from Hosea, is applied to the flight into Egypt and the return to Israel. “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” are the words attributed to God.

The other quotation, of uncertain origin, is applied to Jesus when he’s finally a resident in Nazareth. A single word describes him: “He will be called a Nazorean.”

The significance of this second quotation is unclear. It may represent a play on words referring to Jesus as the long-expected branch growing up from the stump of Jesse, father of King David.

But the significance of the first quotation is clear. “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” The reference here is to Egypt as that place where Israel was enslaved centuries before the birth of Jesus.

God heard the cry of his oppressed people and acted decisively to win their freedom. Moses became the Lord’s agent in the struggle that culminated at the Red Sea. There the people of Israel passed through on dry ground while the Egyptian army that was pursuing them was swept away by the returning waters.

The Exodus was the Lord rescuing his beloved child, calling his son out of Egypt. This was the event that made Israel a people, the people of the Lord.

That God also calls his son Jesus out of exile, out of Egypt, back to his home, means that Jesus is a new and better Moses, about to lead a new and better Exodus, one that will deliver all people out of the realm of sin and death.

So in the story of the Holy Family, the zigs and the zags have their purpose. The path taken by this little household – driven as they are by angels, led by a man who listens to his dreams – is no purposeless wandering. It serves the intention of God’s mercy: to offer new and lasting freedom to all the people of the earth.

Now is a season for each one of us to look at our own map; not simply the past 12 months, but all the years we have lived, and those still to come.

If we consider that map with care and honesty, we will recognize zigs and zags along the way, times that seemed to make no sense, moments when the road simply disappeared or led to places that should be avoided.

Look at the map, and there may be those nights, those days, when what drove you was a dream with a good angel, one seeking your safety, your redemption and new life not for you alone.

There may be for you no straight, consistent, logical lines, no paths that make ordinary sense. There may be instead greater themes, themes that take more time to satisfy, that make sense only further down the road, themes that require you to listen to your life for what is both very old and yet still fresh.

You may find that some phrase sums it up, like a prophecy fulfilled. For once Israel was led forth from Egypt. Then Jesus, still a child, came forth from Egypt. God remains in the Exodus business, and it may be that your story, your map, reveals that once again God has brought forth his child out of some slavery into the bright hope of freedom.

God writes straight with crooked lines. Let’s amend that saying just a bit: God uses zigs and zags to prepare an open road for his people.

Like the Holy Family, you may find this true if you look intently at the route you’ve traveled. Like Jesus, you may discover that time you spent away, literally or metaphorically, was for the sake of calling you home and so that others could march home with you.

Now is the season for each of us to pay attention to what we’ve lived, the map we’ve traveled. The zigs and zags may point to angels who speak in good dreams, who in turn point to One who still calls each of us “Child” and welcomes us back home.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

The power of a name, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2015

January 1, 2015

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

“All hail the power of Jesus’ name, let angels prostrate fall!
Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all!”

So proclaims one of the great hymns of the Anglican tradition. It calls upon the people of God to worship the Name of Jesus in anticipation of the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This what the church does today, on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus: We gather together to glorify his name.

In worshiping Christ’s name today, we join a long line of believers before us who have invoked God’s blessings by calling on the Savior’s name. But the questions arise – what is the importance of Jesus’ name, and why do we celebrate it today, a week after Christmas?

Names can be powerful things, and throughout the Bible God uses names to communicate his purposes and to mark his covenant blessings on those who enter into relationship with him. Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah when they embrace the call to become the forbears of many generations of believers. Their son is named Isaac – “laughter” – on account of the joy God gave them. After a night-long struggle, the shadowy stranger changes Jacob’s name to Israel because he had wrestled with God. In the burning bush at Sinai, God reveals the Divine Name to Moses. He is Yahweh, the great “I am,” the Holy One.

Today’s lesson from Numbers, Chapter 6 tells us that God commanded the Old Testament priests to bless the people of the covenant with this holy Name: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

God promises to bless his people when they invoke his Name. The Name of God is blessing to those who call upon him faithfully. In the Ten Commandments, we learn that reverence for God’s Name is serious business: “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

Because to honor God’s Name is to honor God himself, centuries ago pious Jews ceased pronouncing the name revealed to Moses, saying instead only Ha-Shem, “the Name.” The more familiar custom of English Bibles replaces the divine name Yahweh with “the LORD” in all capital letters.

Several centuries after Moses received the Law, the prophet Isaiah declared that among the titles of the long-awaited Messiah would be the name Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” From the gospels we learn that before this Messiah was to be born, the Angel Gabriel announced to the child’s mother that he was the Son of God and would be named Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. It was an auspicious announcement that brought both exceeding joy and grave concern.

In St. Luke’s account of the Nativity, a portion of which we have read today, the evangelist informs us that indeed the Son of God was born as the angel had promised. Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, it was an occasion of great happiness that brought hope to the many people who eagerly waited for God to save his people – people such as the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, the shepherds of Bethlehem, and later on people such as Simeon and Anna. Matthew’s gospel shares how the news spread quickly throughout Judea and especially in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

A week after Christ was born, in obedience to Jewish Law, Mary and Joseph circumcised him and named him Jesus, just as we read in today’s gospel from Luke. This is why we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus today on the Eighth Day of Christmas. We remember that a week after he was born, Jesus was circumcised and received his name in obedience to God’s commandments.

The angel’s message that Mary’s baby would save his people helps us to understand the significance of the child’s name. “Jesus” (or Yeshua) literally means “Yahweh saves.” The child whose birth the angels praised with songs was destined to save God’s people – a covenant people drawn from all the nations of the earth – by shedding his blood and giving his life for ours. The name of Jesus is above all other names, and in the words of the psalmist, is “glorious throughout the world” because it reveals what the covenant God we believe in is like: He saves.

Christians ought not to forget that, while still a baby, Jesus shed his blood for our redemption when he was circumcised. As the Apostle Paul writes in today’s reading from Galatians: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

The law required that boys who were born to Jewish parents had to be circumcised as a sign that they belonged to God’s people and that they shared in the God’s covenant promises to Israel. In a way, Jesus’ circumcision was his first public act of obedience to the Father’s will, and the blood Jesus shed on this occasion was the same blood he would shed later on the cross.

Although he was fully divine by nature, the Lord Jesus was born in the humblest of human circumstances in order to save us from our sins. He was willing to undergo suffering, shame and death in order to fulfill God’s desire to save the world. What kind of obedience could be more perfect, and what kind of love could be more merciful? Jesus Christ loves the whole world.

When we understand that the Holy Name of Jesus is a sign and symbol for us of God’s great love and of his desire to save the world, we can see why God would honor his Son’s name by declaring it the most glorious name of all. In his love, God’s Son came to the earth, took on our human nature and willingly gave his life so that we could be reconciled to God.

Because God has honored the Holy Name of Jesus, we, as Christians, ought to do the same. We ought to respect his name and love his name.

As St. Bernard of Clairveaux, an 11th-century French abbot, tell us, to praise the Holy Name of Jesus is to receive light, food and medicine for the soul.

So, what is so special about the Name of Jesus? The answer is to be found in what the name tells us about the God we worship. The Holy Name of Jesus tells that “Yahweh saves.” For those who turn to him in faith, the Holy Name of Jesus is joy, hope, peace and eternal life.

 

— The Rev. John J. Lynch is rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church, Yorktown, Va.

Christ doesn’t belong back in the box, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2014

December 28, 2014

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

The poet W.H. Auden captured the after-Christmas feeling very well. Toward the close of his long poem, “For the Time Being,” he wrote:

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.”

Auden’s “For the Time Being” is a Christmas oratorio written for the bleak mid-winter, post-Christmas malaise. The excitement of the holiday is past, and now we get back to our daily lives, made all the more dull by the brief holiday.

“For the Time Being” was written on the heels of Auden’s conversion to Christianity. The lengthy poem gives Auden’s understanding Christianity, particularly the meaning of the Incarnation – God becoming human in Jesus. Auden wrote:

“To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

Auden wrote this oratorio in England in 1941 and 1942 and published it in 1944. He, like other Christians of the time, desperately wanted the brief glimpse of the Christ child to sustain the world in a time of war. The world was full of people naming other humans “it.” That’s how you get well-educated, thoughtful Germans to participate in the horror of the Holocaust. You rename another person as an “it” instead of a “you.” You dehumanize the other person. You certainly don’t try to see Christ in them. That the temptation to demonize the enemy existed on both sides of the conflict did not escape the poet. He concluded:

“There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”

In lives full of work, keeping bills paid, writing papers or memorizing multiplication tables for school, it would seem impossible to redeem everyday time from insignificance. Yet, that is just what scripture tells us is the Good News of Jesus’ birth. The Good News is that all time is redeemable. Nothing has to be insignificant.

The Gospel of John begins with a cosmic view of time. John tells of the Incarnation from a heavenly perspective, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

The prologue to this fourth gospel introduces Jesus as the preexistent Word of God, the second person of the Trinity. John does not begin his gospel with Jesus’ birth, but with the creation, telling that not one thing is, that Jesus did not create. This ties Jesus very closely to the everyday stuff of life. Before he was born to a poor couple in a lowly stable, Jesus had worked to create dirt, water, air and all life.

These words from the start of John’s gospel are most likely the words of an ancient hymn, perhaps written by the John the Apostle, perhaps known in the community where he led the church. The hymn itself is verses 1 through 5, 10, 11, 14 and 16. A closer look at those verses shows that each verse contains a keyword picked up in the next verse. To introduce us to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, John weaves together a tightly written hymn of praise of Jesus as the eternal word of God, with John the Baptist’s affirmation that this eternal word has come among us as the light of the world.

John wrote: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John carefully and beautifully shows us how the two great ages – our time-bound world and eternity – coexist in the person of Jesus. By weaving the story of the eternal Word with the story of that Word being made flesh, we see that those two ages are not mutually exclusive. In the person Jesus, we can meet eternity in the here and now.

Through Jesus’ life, his words, his actions, we see the will of God lived out in the flesh. John’s prologue tries to stand at the crossover point between this age and the next. For John that nexus is the manger, when the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God did not send Jesus to redeem merely a stable in Bethlehem, or even all of first-century Palestine, but to redeem all creation.

Let us lay these two visions of life alongside each other – Auden’s vision of a Christmas celebration now morphing into a mid-winter malaise, and John’s vision of the light of Christ spreading into the darkest corners of our lives.

Do you entertain Jesus as merely an agreeable diversion? Or are you ready for something more? John wanted us to let the Word of God that created all that is pitch his tent in our day-to-day existence. I’ll warn you: This is risky business. It will always be far easier to confine Jesus to holidays and perhaps Sunday mornings. It will always be far more difficult to invite the light of Christ into every area of your life.

Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine in your darkness? What about the parts of you that you hope no one notices? What about the parts you like to keep tucked under the bed or in the back of the closet, so to speak? Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine there, too?

The celebration is over. As Auden writes, “Now we must dismantle the tree, putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes.” But the light of Christ was not meant to be tucked back in the attic with the decorations. The love of God as it shines through Jesus was meant to take root in your soul. And it still can, if you make room in your everyday life for light to shine in your darkness.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

 

The perfect Christmas and the real Christmas, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2014

December 25, 2014

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

Crossing the minds of almost everyone around this time of year is the fantasy of the perfect Christmas. This fantasy appears in many versions, but a standard one goes something like this:

An attractive old house sits securely on its wooded parcel of land. There’s plenty of snow on the ground, and more is falling – gently, silently – through the cold, crisp air.

Inside the house, members of a large extended family are caught up in their holiday celebration. Parents host their grown children and young grandchildren, various aunts, uncles and cousins, and the occasional in-law, fiancé or friend. The entire clan is attractive, respectable, well-mannered and well-spoken. Each member is either successful in school, advancing in a career or enjoying a comfortable retirement. No one is mentally unbalanced, seriously ill, chronically unemployed or even socially inept. All have broad smiles and straight teeth.

Most extraordinary about this gathered clan is that all the members get along with each other! Despite hours of proximity, rich food and potent drink, no simmering hostilities boil to the surface. No grudges are revived, no harsh words are spoken or even muttered. The animated conversation is mixed with frequent laughter, celebrated memories, and new stories.

Many hands in the kitchen make the preparation of Christmas dinner go quickly and peaceably, and soon the table is covered with a variety of fragrant, tasty dishes. Everyone sits down and the family enjoys a splendid meal. After the dessert, the air echoes with compliments for the cooks. The entire family helps clear the table and clean up, and it’s not long before the kitchen counters are empty, and the automatic dishwasher hums contentedly.

The presents stacked beneath the tree are opened one by one, and each gift delights its recipient. It’s always the right size, color and style. Children gleefully tear off the brightly colored paper and smile gratefully at their elders. No one lashes out in envy, bursts into tears or damages one of the remarkably complicated toys. A dreamy state of tranquility overcomes the revelers as the fire in the hearth burns low. Outside, the gentle snow continues to fall.

There’s a problem with this lovely fantasy. Christmas never happens this way. Christmas Day may feature drizzle rather than snow. Someone precious may be missing from the family circle, or someone hard to tolerate may be present – a ne’er-do-well, perhaps, or an obnoxious, screaming child, or a critical, controlling adult, or an insufferable boor. As for the rest, they are down-to-earth people with less-than-perfect profiles. A little overweight, perhaps, a little eccentric, a little shy. The fact is that most of us do not qualify as the best and the brightest. We do not live the lives of which fantasies are made.

Then there are the fights – arguments or heated discussions or vigorous fellowship, depending on your family’s particular euphemism. One brother-in-law remembers how much he resents another. A grown-up daughter again feels suffocated by her elderly mother. A nephew despises the uncle who sold him the car with the cracked engine block. An argument erupts in the kitchen over the way to make turkey dressing, and raised voices defend rival orthodoxies about the matter.

It’s not that all this happens every year, but any of it could! There’s testimony to the indomitable human spirit in the way families gather again and again despite the often painful consequences. Add to this the labor, so much of which falls on the women of the household, who are expected to make everything perfect – the cookies, the decorating, the tree, the gifts, the music, the food, the cleanup.

Our fantasy of Christmas – our pursuit of an elusive perfection – leads to frustration and disappointment. When the leftovers are stored away, the tree taken down, and the trash put out, we may find ourselves wondering whether Christmas is for us. Perhaps Christmas is for the perfect – those perfect people who live in an imaginary subdivision just over the horizon.

When the fantasy of the perfect Christmas fills our heads, we can do ourselves a favor by going back to the beginning. We can look at the original Christmas and recognize that this first Christmas was far from perfect.

Forced by government bureaucracy, Joseph brings his pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the sake of the census. Not a single relative with a bedroom to spare remains in the old hometown. And there’s not a hotel room to be had for love or money. The young couple find some space out back, inside a barn filled with farm animals. A couple of local women help with the birth and chuckle over the new-born boy.

Joseph, meanwhile, tries to get his wits about him. The months since he found out about this disturbing pregnancy and nearly brought his relationship with Mary to a sudden end have been hard. The dream, demanding that he accept the child, was followed by this awkward travel to Bethlehem, and now this sleepless night in the barn.

Nor is it a perfect Christmas for Mary. The unease of pregnancy and discomfort of travel give way to the pains of labor. Once her baby is delivered, Mary soon yields to her hunger for sleep. Yet this sleep is suddenly broken by the unexpected arrival of shepherds from the hills. These ruffians approach, caps in hand, their eyes wild as they proclaim a story of angels filling the night sky with song. Joseph wonders if there’s wine on their breath. Falling to their knees, they ask to see the baby. They delight in Mary’s little one, then, as quickly as they came, go off into the night, shouting songs of praise. They are drunk, but not with the wine of this world. Their hearts overflow with heaven’s joy.

Christmas in the barn is far from perfect. The circle around the manger is made up of people with problems. But Christmas in the barn is real. The baby is born, wet upon the blankets. Hard-living shepherds hurry to meet him. The small stable becomes a wide enough place to encompass the world, a world of imperfect people like you and me. The gospel makes clear that there’s room at the manger for imperfect people.

The perfect Christmas of our fantasies is something we try to accomplish on our own. If we just bake more cookies, give more presents, smile more broadly, then it is sure to happen – or so we imagine. Yet we become frustrated time and again. We try to live up to some fictional standard, and we end up sorely disappointed.

The gospel comes to us as an awkward surprise, a Christmas gift we did not foresee. God in Christ accepts us in our incompleteness, our imperfection. God in Christ comes to us in an eminently imperfect, unmanageable way, with all the disruptions of a baby born in a barn and put to bed in an animal trough. God in Christ relates to our little, imperfect selves by becoming smaller, less powerful, more dependent than any of us who are old enough to walk and talk. The good news is that God knows our imperfection, and God loves us as we are. God does not require us to be perfect. God asks only that we become real, as real as the events in that Bethlehem stable, as real as divine love.

What we need to do is remarkably simple: put down the burden of the perfect Christmas and accept the freedom of the real Christmas.

We can gather around the manger with people who have problems, like Joseph and Mary; with hard-living people like the Bethlehem shepherds. Here imperfect people like you and me find a surprising acceptance.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s, Baden, Maryland in the Diocese of Washington and is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

 

The time has come, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2014

December 24, 2014

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

Mary’s time had come. After the long journey, the road to Bethlehem, and the days of worry before that – what would Joseph say when he found out she was pregnant? How did this happen anyway? But Joseph had stood by her, and now the time had finally come, in a strange city, with no family there to help, and the barn would have to do. There was no room in the inn, but how could they have afforded that anyway? Money was hard to come by. The baby at last was coming, and Mary was terrified.

And the shepherds, too, were terrified. Like Mary and Joseph, they weren’t sleeping inside that night: They were out in the fields, and it was cold. And suddenly this Angel of the Lord was confronting them, and this glory of the Lord was nearly blinding them, and this multitude from heaven was declaring peace on earth. There hadn’t been peace for a long time; how was this baby lying in a manger going to bring peace now? It didn’t make sense.

We have heard this story before, and we are probably not terrified tonight, as Mary and the shepherds were. But maybe we should be. Because if Christmas really comes, the way we say we want it to, things will have to change. The world will be reborn. The Kingdom of God will come on earth, as in heaven.

Still, like Mary, we have been waiting, and praying, and hoping for this night. When the Angel Gabriel told her she would bear God’s Son into the world, Mary’s response was, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary agreed to do this, despite the strange and unusual circumstances. She knew people would think the wrong thing and look down on her. She knew that Joseph might not understand. Even knowing how hard this would be, she said yes.

We also have a choice. We are not here merely to remember what happened so long ago on a cold night in Bethlehem. Like Mary, God is asking us: Will you bear Christ into the world? Will you carry Jesus in your heart?

Our road is different from Mary’s, but it is challenging in its own way. A new baby always changes things. Your life is no longer your own. If you agree to let Jesus be born again tonight, your life will change, maybe in ways you don’t expect. So be careful how you answer.

The Christmas story can so easily be lost under a sentimental blanket of snow, with cows gently lowing and stars brightly shining. This is true with the carols we sing, too. They are so familiar that we sometimes miss the real meaning.

For example: “It came upon the midnight clear.” The really interesting stuff in this carol happens in verse 3. This is true of most Christmas carols, actually: The real theology happens two or three verses in. Here’s the third verse of “It came upon a midnight clear”:

“Yet, with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”

And here’s the second verse of “In the bleak mid-winter”:

“Our God – heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.”

Christina Rosetti, who wrote this carol, is making a bold theological claim in this verse. When God comes – if God comes – heaven and earth will “flee away.” Heaven and earth as we know them now – everything we know, everything we see – will simply stop. Vanish. And then what? What comes next? Well, what comes next – what happens when God comes – is what Rossetti wants us to think about.

Perhaps the best example of Christmas carol theology is “O little town of Bethlehem.” The first couple of verses are sweet, almost cloying – all those “Christmas angels” and “silent stars.” But Phillips Brooks, the famous 19th-century preacher who wrote this carol, knew what he was doing. He has given us a perfect sermon in miniature. Here is the last line:

“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

The carol has gotten rather serious by this fifth verse. “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today” – not so sweet, is it? It may be what we need – it may even be what we want, what we are praying for – but it doesn’t sound easy.

“Cast out our sin” brings to mind some lines from the Magnificat, the Song that Mary sings after she hears from Gabriel that she is pregnant:

“[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”

There’s some resonance between God’s tearing our sin from us and casting it out, as in the carol, and God casting down the mighty from their thrones, sending the rich away, empty. Being sent away empty isn’t a punishment, you see – its a blessing. If we allow God to cast out our sin – if we allow God to empty us out – then we will be blessed indeed, just as Mary was.

And what is it, exactly, that we need to be rid of this year? What is the sin that needs casting out, the thing that’s getting in the way of God being born in us? Our desire to be important? To have all the right things? To have more than we need?

What is it that occupies your heart this Christmas? Maybe it’s sadness, frustration, anger? The feeling that you’re not good enough or smart enough or kind enough? Or maybe you’re lonely or afraid?

Whatever is in there, God wants to be in your heart, too. And if you let God in, even just a little bit: Watch out! Cast out our sin and enter in. He has sent the rich away, empty.

It is only after we have been emptied – of all the ridiculous things, all the needless stuff that gets in the way of God’s love – only when we are emptied of these worries, these desires, are we ready to be filled with the love of God. Only when we are empty can Christ be born in us. Only when we are empty will Christmas come. We can sing the carols and put out the crèche, but unless we are willing to be emptied out, there won’t be any place for God to live.

This is the inside work, the thing that must happen inside our hearts, in order for the outside work to move forward. And the outside work is the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Heaven and earth shall flee away, you see, when he comes to reign. We are being asked to bear God into the world, just as Mary did. And just like Mary, we know that this is not going to be easy, and it’s going to change everything. Are we brave enough to do this, knowing that if God’s kingdom really comes, our lives change forever? Are we willing to be cast down, emptied out, so that God may be raised up?

This labor, this bringing about the Kingdom of God, will not be easy. But this is Christmas; the time has come, and our call is to bear Jesus into the world, just as Mary bore him so long ago.

We are called to put flesh on the values of God’s kingdom, to put hands and feet and brains and shoulders to work for peace and justice and love.

Come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel. Be born in us today.

Merry Christmas.

Amen.

 

— The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.