Homily for the First Sunday of Christmas 2008

Homily for the First Sunday of Christmas 2008

Isaiah 61:10-62:310 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Psalm 148 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host! Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created. He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed. Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD!

Galatians 4:4-7 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Luke 2:22-40 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

“Praise him … snow and frost.” This has been a very interesting Christmas, with the heavy snow severely limiting our ability to get around. I have been reminded of Christmas/winter adventures of many years ago, when I served as a rural priest in Saskatchewan. I was often out by myself in the dark (at night, that is) in -40 weather, on narrow, sometimes drifted country roads, with no cell phone. Some of those roads had very little traffic, and the farms were often many miles apart. Things were a little tense on occasion and I certainly found myself praying with a real intensity – it was a good way of learning to rely on God.

I went out there with a strong sense of faith that God was looking after me and wouldn’t let me down – and God didn’t. Was I nuts? Naive? Stories like the woman being found in a snow drift in Ontario last week remind me there was some real danger involved, had I gone sliding off into the ditch on some isolated road.

I feel that those excursions/adventures enhanced my sense of being on a journey with Christ. At Christmastime, it was a way of identifying with the holy Family as they struggled to avoid Herod and other dangers. I was a man on a mission. I thought, if they can undergo those kinds of risks and deprivations, what’s a little drive in the cold darkness compared to that? I think at some point everyone has to examine what it is that really motivates them – drives them. The Gospels invite us to make connections, to embrace the story to the point that we do begin living it – testing it out as a new way of being.

That is often the unopened gift of Christmas, as incongruous as a present from a special person left sitting unopened under the tree – our openness to what the Spirit can do in us if we allow the story to speak to us. The birth of Christ is the gift of a new direction and purpose, an invitation into a new way of being, an invitation into the very household and family of God. And that life summons us out of our easy chairs and into discipleship – into a quest. As the hymn says, like the shepherds, we are summoned to the cradle, summoned to a place where renewal and new life are to be found. That quest may lead deep within ourselves or way off into the world, or perhaps just into the neighbourhood. That is the gift we must be open to receiving.

Each Gospel treats Jesus’ beginnings differently – Matthew and Luke create elaborate, and quite different, even contradictory accounts; John deals with the cosmic and ontological origins of Christ as the Word of God; Mark’s Gospel makes no reference at all. The important thing is not to ask: did it happen this way or that – were there wise men or not? Did they flee to Egypt? Did they go the Temple first instead? Realize that each author is making certain points, drawing certain things to attention, and ask instead: What did each author mean; what was each one trying to get us to see in their particular presentation?

Today’s Gospel from Luke portrays Christ being presented in the Temple – “presented” in the traditional sense of being an offering, but in this case not an offering from people to God. I think we are meant to understand that this presentation in the Temple is an offering that God is making to humankind, for the transformation of the world. It is God’s gift to us, and to all who will receive it. The old sacrificial system, as people of that day understood it, was now to become obsolete (as per Hebrews 8:13: “In speaking of ‘a new covenant’, he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.”), because God was perceived to be reversing the direction. No longer were people to express their duty and loyalty to God through sacrifice – instead, God had once for all expressed the divine compassion and mercy in the life of Jesus. This was meant to be seen as a gift to the whole world.

Luke stresses the universal aspect of Christ’s coming – that Christ is a gift for the whole world. Clearly, Luke sees Simeon and Anna as representatives of a faithful, prophetic and mystical Judaism there to receive that gift – people who had persisted in believing that the Messiah would come, and capable of recognizing him when he did – people within the Temple and Judaism, but open to what new life God might bring. Jesus is to be seen as the fulfillment of everything that people like them hoped for, and insightful people were ready to accept that. Yet, as Simeon’s song indicates, Jesus is not restricted to Jews, but is intended to include Gentiles (non-Jews) as well — “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

There is no elitism in this new covenant – no either/or; no clean/unclean — it is as available to shepherds as it is to kings; it is as accessible in a stable as it is in a church; it is offered to Judaism (symbolized by the Temple) and it is offered to the world; it is offered to men and women alike.

Throughout the lessons today there is a sense of the purpose of God being fulfilled, and an important thing to become aware of is the theme which suggests that the family is an important aspect of salvation. The kind of family we come from is influential; our family of origin shapes us genetically, socially, spiritually. Just as the impact of wise, loving and responsible parents is enormous, people from violent and abusive families spend years in severe reaction to their upbringing; it works against them for the rest of their lives.

Today’s scriptures speak to us of the blessing of being part of the family of God, and invite us to enter their story. To Israel, languishing in slavery, the prophet gives voice to God’s promise of a new identity and self-understanding, wiping out their history of slavery, abuse and humiliation: “You shall be called by a new name.” We can choose to be raised, and shaped by God, if we choose to enter God’s family (which in the Christian tradition we do through faith and Baptism). Then we allow God to shape our destiny, to become our Mother/Father, and the promise is that God’s influence on us will be even more powerful than our own family. St. Paul says it clearly in today’s Epistle: “God sent his son so we might receive adoption as children of God.” Anna and Simeon are examples of people who tune in directly to God, and therefore are not tied to one religious or cultural expression. They are part of God’s family, and in every age, singular individuals offer examples of what it looks like to be part of that universal sense of family (in our time people like Gandhi, Brother Roger of Taize, Pope John XXIII, Thomas Merton, Deepak Chopra, the Dalai Lama, etc. may come to mind). God draws all people into one great family, beginning with the family into which Jesus is born. Simeon recognizes Jesus because he is part of the family. So with Anna, and with anyone who is perceptive enough to acknowledge that God in the person of the Christ has come, and is present – that this was no ordinary birth, but a sign of the beginning of the re-ordering of the world, a sign that tells us that nothing would be the same from then on.

Even though the Gospels present widely differing views, there are powerful connections, and like Simeon and Anna it’s up to us to perceive them, and to make the choice to receive that offering, that gift from God. They speak to us of the importance of remaining open, and willing to operate on faith, trusting in the promises of God. Today’s Gospel reminds us of that powerful statement from John’s Gospel: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” At least, that’s what Luke’s presentation suggests. Whether or not that story inspires and convinces us to open our hearts, to enter the story, to go on our own journey, and to become a child of God and part of the family, is up to us.