The Work of Christmas
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, Christmas Eve 2015.
One year during the season of Advent, John Philip Newell, the author and teacher of Celtic spirituality and former warden of the Abbey of Iona in Scotland, was visiting the Convent of St. Brigida in Havana, Cuba. Sister Maria was thrilled and eager to show John the nativity that was set-up on the ground floor of the convent, in a place that had, at one time, actually been a stable. Every year the sisters of St. Brigida would lovingly work to prepare the scene for its visitors. When the stable doors slide open, the nativity scene faces a bustling street in modern day Havana. During Christmas season hundreds of Cubans are drawn to the stable on the street… a scene that extends an invitation for passers-by to gaze upon the life-size representations of the small Christ Child… and of the very young mother Mary who had said “yes” when God sought to take root and grow in the depths of her being,… and of Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph who also said a big “yes” by affronting societal propriety and taking on the responsibility of an unwed pregnant Mary… and the responsibility of the child she was to bear.
At the original nativity…we don’t know for sure… but there may likely have been in attendance a tired ox, a cud chewing cow, some sheep, an ass, a chicken and a mouse or two, and maybe even some fleas and flies… The animals probably knew more about what this still, starry night of birth was about than did all of the high priests and religious pontificators in Jerusalem. Then, of course, there were visitors, ones to whom the angels gave the good news… shepherds who were the first to receive the birth announcement in their work place far out in the fields… simple laborers who were held in low esteem living on the outskirts of polite society and who were often assumed to lead shiftless lives… It was to these outliers that the angels gave the great news… It was not to the rich or famous or powerful that the message was given… but to shepherds who would be the first to be drawn to the place of new birth, drawn to see for themselves what this heaven-singing-glory was all about… and to find that all of the hoo-ha was about a small vulnerable child who was… dependent on others to feed and clothe and nurture him… and to change his soiled nappies… just like us when we enter this world. The three kings were probably present in the Havana nativity, though from biblical accounts they were most likely not present that night in the stable. They will arrive in a time… for they have just noticed the star above Bethlehem and have changed their course to head west, their camel bags bearing gifts worthy of a king. The Magi will arrive in Bethlehem when Mary and Joseph have, most probably, found a place indoors to stay. We will celebrate the arrival of the three kings and their gifts on the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. The story of the birth of Jesus that we heard tonight is found in the gospel according to Luke. The story of the Magi, the Kings from the East, is found only in Matthew’s gospel. The two different accounts of Jesus’ birth are often conflated into one. Even though this conflation irks some Biblical scholars… it is all good.
It is believed that the very first nativity scene was created by St. Francis of Assisi. Eight hundred years ago St. Francis was concerned that the true message of Christmas was becoming lost amidst the growing focus of ritual gift giving. To help remind the people of the true meaning of Christmas Francis created the nativity scene in a cave near Greccio, Italy. He used real people and live animals to tell the story. One Christmas four of us were on the island of Cyprus walking around the capital city of Nicosea. On our stroll we turned a corner onto a tiny path and came across a large room-sized cave that contained life size figures of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the kings, and a very alive smelly camel who was calmly being faithful to his role by simply standing and chewing . I didn’t want to get too close because I have heard that camels are known to spit. I also didn’t want to move any closer because the smell was mighty. The encounter with this life-scale scene engaged the senses in a more visceral way than some of the beautiful, quaint, stylized versions of the nativity that we enjoy. I have to confess…I have an ornament on my tree, a gift from a dear friend, that depicts the nativity in the form of a family of happy bears… Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and Baby Jesus Bear. I can hear St. Francis sighing…
Back in Havana… Newell writes of the visitors who view the convent’s modern offering of the nativity scene. He writes that the people,
…gaze with delight not because the nativity scene is pointing them to a foreign figure in a far-off land and age. They gaze because they have recognized something of this light in the newborn countenance of their own children. And they gaze… I believe… because they distantly remember… deep within themselves… the Light that no darkness on earth can extinguish…1
It is clear to Newell that the passion of Sister Maria’s community, the passion that goes into the gift of the nativity scene to the larger community is:
..inextricably linked to the vision of Light that inspires the [convent] community to feed the hungry and to welcome strangers as if they were feeding and welcoming Christ. It is no coincidence that, in the thirteenth century, St. Francis introduced the tradition of the nativity scene. It brought into focus for him the Light that he saw on earth and in every creature, the light of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” as he called them in his Canticle of the Sun…2
We have come here this night as God’s own beloved to be awash in the beauty of Christmas light and carols and to hear the story, once again, of the birth of the holy child Jesus who came to be the incarnate, muscle on bone en-fleshed gift of God’s ever present light… and love… and peace. The lowly birth of the Messiah is already upsetting humanity’s misaligned trajectory that has, for too long, focused on false Gods of money and of earthly powers that use a simple binary score card of “winners” and “losers.” …false gods of inflated ego that obscure the true self… and a mistaken belief that winning requires subduing others.
As a culture and as a people of faith we wrestle with the meaning of Christmas… with issues of religion… with the passion for our faith stories… yet with questions… Do we buy the whole package without question? How are we to live into this story, into the core message of the Gospel… and not into simple platitudes? What are we to make of the story that we have received that has been stretched and molded, cut apart and reassembled over and over again… a story that has inspired God to send us the basic lesson once again. We believe that Christ was born for all humankind and, indeed, for all of creation. Christ came not to oblige us to set up nativity scenes as evidence of our faithfulness. Our gift of faithfulness is given when we dare to shed the extraneous trappings of faith and encounter God for real… to know the real presence of God in the silence… and in the dance… and in the simple act of sharing the Holy Feast.
Everything that has come into being was conceived in the dark stillness and peace of God. God spoke and life came into being. God spoke the language of brilliant light, and peace. God spoke in a great burst of brilliance. God has spoken on this holy night in the language of love that is seeking a home in us, not for this night only, or for this season only, but for all time, and all places, and for all people. God has spoken a word that is to change all things. Out of the silence came the cry of a newborn baby… a pure and powerful cry to wake us… and the world…to new hope and possibility. At the end of his poem “Advent Calendar” the Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, has written about the anticipated birth: “He will come, will come will come like crying in the night; like blood, like breaking as the earth writhes to toss him free. He will come like a child.”
The child has arrived.
The child has arrived…
in the pediatric unit where children are fighting for their lives
in refugee camps gripped with piercing cold, hunger and uncertainty
in the desolation of prison cells
in the opulence of mansions
in meth houses
in cathedrals and house churches
on the graveyard shift at the paper mill
in the hearts of the bereft
in the midst of those who have forgotten the story and their name
in the homes of children tucked lovingly into bed this night
the child has been born to adults and children and pets who are
living on the streets, in tent cities, or in shelters
this night the child has been born to the boisterous and haughty
and to those who have yet to find their voice
Christ has been born to those who are living in fear
because they know God by another name… and that simply will not do for others
God has been born to the biased and bigoted
and to those who lead the struggle for peace and justice
and to those who are about to join the effort
and to those who lend their hearts and prayers to God’s hope unfolding
God has been born to all,
in every metropolis and hamlet,
in every penthouse and shack
in every boardroom and barroom
and in this place on this night…
Whether recognized or not… to all the Prince of Peace, the Messiah has been born to us.
It is for us, on this Christmas… to steep in the true richness of God’s holy presence… to let God’s message of light and hope and possibility take root deeply in us… and then to share the light of eternal, divine love with the world as we go about our lives… to live out the “work of Christmas” …work that the African-American Quaker pastor and theologian Howard Thurman, who was a mentor to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., names in a poem:
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 flocks, 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 the people, to make music in the heart.
Long, long ago, in a town far, far away… “The Force” came alive for us. “The Force” is with us. Can you feel it? It is alive and is calling forth a new empire, a new order, a new heaven and a new earth, a reign of truth and power, a reign of peace. God’s dream has been born again this night… the Messiah is now with us to show us the way. Come let us adore him…
1 John Phlip Newell, The Rebirthing of God, Skypaths Pub., Woodstock, VT, 2014, pg. 36. 2 Ibid.