Christmas Eve, December 24, 2011, Year B
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
Merry Christmas, everyone! This week Hannah Maeve and I were reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales, by that drunken genius Dylan Thomas. It is a beautifully written vision of all the Christmas comings and goings as seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy. Of course the telling paid some attention to the presents he received over the years. There were the useful presents and the useless presents. “Bags of moist and many-colored jelly babies… a false nose and a tram-conductor’s cap… never a catapult; once by mistake that no one could explain a little hatchet…” and, among other things, “a celluloid duck that made, when you pressed it, a most unducklike sound.” Those were in the useless column. Amongst useful gifts were “engulfing mufflers of the old coach days, mittens made for giant sloths… blinding tam-o’-shanters like patchwork tea cozies…” and most importantly, for me the real take away from the whole story was the last gift mentioned; over the years the boy had received a host of books, including “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”
“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger…” and the heavenly host sang out, “Glory to God in the Highest Heaven, and on Earth, peace, good will to all.”
What does it mean that Christ, our God was born to us on the floor of a barn? There is of course the tragic side to the story: there is noting edifying about being born into poverty, being born outside in the cold, far from home. There is another, maybe even more disconcerting side to the story: this birth, the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Superstar even, this birth was so ordinary. We say that we hate tragedy but what we really hate is the ordinary. Jesus was born exactly like all of us were born or were supposed to have been born. Jesus was wrapped as babies were wrapped and was laid in a safe place on clean straw while his mother attended to the things mothers have to attend to after child birth. What does this mean to us that this is our story of God?
What does it mean that the angels announced the birth of the savior not to Kings and Queens, not to Priests and high officials but to shepherds on some God-forsaken hillside watching their sheep, shivering in the cold. The shepherds were likely slaves, and were certainly very, very low in Jewish society. What does it mean to us that people like that were the first to get the very best news the whole world had ever gotten, and from Angles?
What does it mean? Well, partially it means that that hill was not so God-forsaken. No hill is, actually. Otherwise, in the nether regions of theology we describe what it means in terms of Mystery. Great is the mystery of faith. Why did it happen this way? Mystery. Why are we who we are? Mystery. Why wasps? Mystery.
Wendell Berry once had a conversation with a friend about rain. They watched a tree during a rain storm, and his friend commented that the course the rain drop took from the sky, dripping its way through the canopy and the branches down to the earth and back into the water cycle was random. The path was random. Berry disagreed. He said that to know something was random you must have an infinite set of data points, because there just might be a pattern if you could see it all. The better explanation is that the rain drop emerges from mystery, travels for a while where it can be observed and experienced, and flows back into mystery. Into God. Sounds a little like our lives, no?
Blaming it all on mystery does not absolve us from the responsibility of dealing with the world, with root causes, daily tasks, and relationships both casual and intimate, but it necessitates that we deal with these things and that we approach the world from a posture of radical humility. Ours is a radically humble religion. We do not know as much as we would like to, or usually supposed that we know. Our God and Savior was born in the modern day equivalent of a truck stop, or maybe out back behind a Motel 6 off of a freeway near Flint, Michigan to folks about two steps away from living in their car. Our God tells that the first will be last and the last will be first. Our God tells us that we are accountable to God and to each other for what we do and how we do it, and why. And our God tells us that we are loved no matter what. It means that we do not know what happens when we die but that we do not need to worry, world without end.
What does this embracing of mystery mean to us on our average Tuesday morning? It means do not trust your assumptions or preconceived notions. It means that when you think you know who someone is by what they appear to be, you are bound to be wrong. It means that God and God’s Church offer many more questions than answers because answers are ends of roads, questions are forks. It means that we must consider what it really means to be comfortable; we must consider what the difference is between what we dream of, what we want and what we need. It means that when it comes to love, reckless abandon is always appropriate. So is smiling. So are good dogs, and kittens, whether good or bad if you can even tell the difference.
Tonight we celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ, the mysterious incarnation of Emmanuel, God With Us. Some of us spend a lot of time gathering around this table in our weekly celebration of His life and work and death and Resurrection. Some of us get here a lot less frequently. But whether we are here often or nearly never; whether we believe a whole lot, just a little or almost even not at all; no worries, no fear, all are welcome at this humble table. God in Christ is just glad that you are here. May God bless you and all that you love. And Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night. AMEN