Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
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Of all the stories of the first Christmas, it is Luke’s narrative that figures most prominently in our imagination. Who can forget the story of a babe in a manger, or angels flying through the sky, or shepherds guarding their flocks by night? Even the most secular of persons among us conjure up these images in their minds as they hear the word Christmas. Despite how well we think we know the Christmas narrative, do we really know the story? Or have we roused up in our hearts an idyllic tale that simply misses the point of what happened two thousand years ago?
I suspect for many of us, myself included, Christmas has become less about God’s presence and action in our lives and more of a cherished holiday that inspires warmth in our hearts and tender images of loved ones gathered around the table. Of all the musical works that best encapsulates the contemporary imagination and feeling of Christmas is the theme song from popular film, Home Alone. Entrusted with the difficult task of writing a piece of music that captures the Christmas spirit, composer John Williams wrote “Somewhere in My Memory.” With words penned by Leslie Bricusse, “Somewhere in My Memory” creatively rouses our modern sentiments of Christmas in word and music. Particularly the lyrics. Listen to how the lyricist phrases the feelings of the season:
Somewhere in my memory
lies the joy of Christmas.
Living in my memory
all of the music, all of the magic,
all of the family home here with me.
Together with the music, these words draw together the feelings that so many of us have as Christmas comes upon us. Perhaps even more so this year. Many of us, I’m sure, long this year for the Christmases of times past: the holidays whereby we gathered for celebrations with loved ones near and far while sharing a banquet and feast. Yet living in a time of pandemic, those festivities of the past are but memories for us. Painful as that is, I wonder whether or not if this can be an invitation for us to truly reflect upon the first Christmas and to discern its meaning for us today.
Familiar though the Christmas story may be to us, we often miss what is truly remarkable about the birth of Jesus: that God humbled God’s self and came among us in the humblest of all forms, a babe born to parents of questionable reputation. As Lutheran pastor Mark Wegener rightly notes in his commentary on Luke’s story of the nativity,
The sentimental holiday tone fails to capture the essence of the gospel, that is, God’s Spiel, God’s good news, because it does not signal what God is doing here. Yet the simplicity of Luke’s story conveys a sense that God is up to something, that what is being offered in the birth of Jesus is something of God’s own self.
Mark goes on to ask, “So what is God doing? Giving? Forgiving? Affirming? Protecting? Gathering? What is the tone of the tale of Bethlehem?” Indeed, what is the spirit of Bethlehem?
In Bethlehem, we encounter the benevolence and graciousness of God. In Jesus we experience “the goodness and loving kindness” of a God who has long heard the cries of his people and has stooped down to liberate us from all our burdens. (Titus 3:4) In the humble estate of a manger, we see the “home of God among mortals.” (Rev. 21:3) The one laying in the crib is the one who will “wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Rev. 21:4) The fragile babe is the promised “glory of the Lord” and we behold in him the “majesty of our God.” (Is. 35:2)
My friends, if we move beyond our sentimental feelings of Christmas and really consider the extraordinariness of this day, no pandemic or disaster will be able to take away our joy. This is the day when we recall with wonder and awe the mystery of God among us, God living and acting among us, giving sight to the blind, setting captives free, and bringing light to those in darkness. (Is. 42:7 & Lk. 4:18)
Listen carefully to what I say: God is still at work today. The mystery of the incarnation, the story of God among us, is still ongoing today. Our Christmas feast isn’t simply about an event long ago nor is it about presents and abundant feasts today; it is about God working in and among us, here and now. We only need to be open, open to God’s presence living among us today.
And where shall we find the living God, Jesus Christ, among us today? We will find him living among the poor, the hungry, the broken-hearted, the sick and suffering, the lonely, and the afraid. We shall find Christ in the person who shows mercy and forgiveness to those who have done wrong, and in the physician, nurse, and caregiver who shows kindness and compassion to the sick and dying. And dare I say, we will not find God in the high palaces of the rich and powerful, the mighty rulers of our day. For Christ comes among us today as he did so long ago: not in the temple or the palaces of Jerusalem, but in the least expected of all places, the dwelling place of the humble and meek, the exiled and the marginalised.
If you wish to meet Jesus and to experience Christmas in it’s fullest, open the Word of God and listen, feed upon the Bread of Life and be fed, and go to the places of pain and suffering, need and want, and be the Body of Christ to those yearning to experience him today. Receive the grace of Christ broken for you and be Christ to the broken of the world.
St. Isaac of Nineveh, a 7th century Syrian bishop and monk, captured best the Christmas spirit we are to embrace and live in a sermon he gave for the Feast of Christmas. Although his words were spoken over 1300 years ago, they are just as relevant for us today as they were for those who first heard them. So I close my meditation by quoting at length what St. Isaac said so long ago. As I share these words, I invite you to listen carefully and consider how you will live them today and always. St. Isaac writes:
This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world –
So let no one threaten;
This is the night of the Most Gentle One –
Let no one be cruel;
This is the night of the Humble One –
Let no one be proud.
Now is the day of joy –
Let us not seek revenge;
Now is the day of Good Will –
Let us not be mean.
In this Day of Peace –
Let us not be conquered by anger.
Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.
Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.
This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.
Today the DIVINE BEING took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of DIVINITY.