If a retired preacher with no congregation writes a Christmas homily and there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? Let’s see:
“Since Christmas is on Sunday this year, are we still having Church?” earnestly asked my beloved lay leader whose absence I feel even to this day.
“Ahem, Barb? Really?”
It was seemingly a lifetime ago. I still giggle at that moment as we both did there and then.
It’s not an entirely unreasonable question. I mean we were just at Church the night before, birthing that baby, sealing it with Eucharist and topping it off with a candlelit “Silent Night.”
We did it already, didn’t we?
What do we do now? Oh, right, here come the carols of Christmas that we’ve been singing since Black Friday, even though the obstinate preacher said we can’t sing them in church until now. Fortunately, a well negotiated agreement was reached avoiding a full blown walk out allowing us to move from Advent hymns (like what the hell are those and why do they matter?) to some carols starting on the Sunday we light the pink (sorry, I’m told it’s rose) candle. The preacher spoke Latin, “Gaudete” I think it was, so some “joy-full” carols were allowed.
You know how it is when the preacher breaks out the little bit of Latin, Greek or Hebrew they know. Whatever it takes to be able to sing “Joy to the World” in mid-December.
Of all the things Christmas is, it feels awkward to think of it as inconvenient, and yet…
Christmas has always flirted with being inconvenient.
It’s as if the realization occurred to somebody in the latter decades of the 1st century of the Common Era, as the movement centered on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth took hold and grew, and his imminent return was not so…imminent, that this powerful witness had no backstory.
Welp, we better get one.
It surely wasn’t a consideration for the writer of Mark. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” at his baptism was a full throated claim in the face of the Empire. The earliest gospel has nary a word about “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”
John, the last of the canonical gospels, has more cosmic considerations of Light overcoming the darkness, and of the pre-existent Christ who was in the beginning before there was one. Can’t have a birth narrative if you always were.
Leave it to Matthew and Luke.
Less birth narrative than the story of Joseph’s decency (which is a compelling story), Matthew opens with an Ancestry.com exposition of his lineage, with the story of Jesus’ arrival told in a scant 8 verses focusing on the theological pillar that in Jesus’ birth, God is with us. No small thing.
Matthew gives us star-following magi, getting there one way and going back by another (because of a brooding antagonist) with their interesting gifts who come to see Jesus much later than our crèches depict it. Their visit reminds us that Christmas is a season, not one day. And for the Western Church, I fully support anything that reclaims the significance of January 6.
Now Luke gives us a story. And boy howdy, it’s a doozy! We get prenatal leaping in the womb, governmental reasons compelling late term travel leading predictably to labor with no place to deliver, mangers, hay, donkeys, shepherds with their sheep, singing angels, and lots of treasuring and pondering.
Linus tells it in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” it’s where we first hear of “swaddling clothes.”and being “sore afraid.” It’s a story worthy of how the gospel ends. It closes the loop for a movement becoming a religion. Whether or not it should have become a religion is a different conversation.
As an historical matter, any time a movement driven by mission and focused fervor becomes an established thing, over time sustaining the established thing becomes the priority, often at the expense of the mission. But I digress.
However these stories came to be and why they did there’s a resonance in what rises when we read them.
What is your backstory and how does it define you?
Like Joseph, what do you do in moments when harshness disguised as justice is warranted and grace is a choice?
“Peace on earth and goodwill upon those whom God’s favor rests” seems a far flung whim in a polarized world on fire. It’s arrogant presumption to think we’re among those upon whom God’s favor rests, isn’t it?
Who, exactly, might these people be? I know! Those pushed to the margins by the very people reading the same story believing that they are the ones God favors. Irony much?
What’s it mean to be told, in the moment of your greatest need, that there’s no room here for you?
What’s it mean when you no longer believe there’s a place for you?
The Christmas story asks its questions.
Only you can find the answers if you’re willing to take the journey. It can be humbling and fear making. It can also be redemptive and soul saving.
Where would you begin?
Let me suggest starting as a shepherd heeding the words of angels: “Don’t be afraid.” Good news and great joy are to be found for the willing. Nothing of meaning can happen in your journey until you “become willing.”
Don’t be afraid.
As the poet David Whyte suggests:
“Take the first step. The one you don’t want to take.”