Christmas is a beautiful and powerful celebration of new life and hope and purpose coming to birth in a specific time, a specific place and in a specific person, but having universal and eternal relevance. It’s a festival that has been powerful enough to cause opposing armies to stop shooting at each other, powerful enough to inspire reconciliations within fractured families, and powerful enough to inspire great acts of unselfishness in the name of that Child that we remember. It reminds us that we are children of God; it reminds us that others are also children of God, and it reminds us that we live in a universe that is open to moments of mystery and transformation.
It is a time of year when people are reminded that God’s defining characteristic is love, and that God loved this world so much that God entered and embraced humanity in a new way, getting inside and among us. God’s essence is birthing, as Johannes Eckhart said, and the vehicle for that, the prototype, as it were, was Jesus of Nazareth, whose purpose is to reveal to us a new way of relating to each other and to the being we call God.
There are four Gospels, each one a unique characterization of the person and purpose of Jesus. Tonight we hear Luke’s version, and he offers a compelling image of the journey of the Holy Family and of shepherds offering a simple welcome to the newborn Christ Child.
According to Luke, the Emperor Augustus had sent out a decree – an order went out from on high that all must be accounted for. The Romans’ system of domination and occupation was very organized, if nothing else. By speaking of Jesus’ birth in this setting, Luke makes a powerful point: God is about to throw a wrench into the plans and ambitions of almighty Rome; a new and very different kind of king is about to emerge, one who will not in fact even call himself a king.
Luke 22: 24 says: “A dispute arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But it shall not be so with you; rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’” This is an essential element in the way Luke relates the Good News of Christ.
Until that time and in many ways even into our own time, God has been pictured as being above us. The old way of looking at God was similar to the way people viewed the Emperor — in a patriarchal and hierarchical fashion – that we are way below where God is – with the unfortunate result that those who identify with God sometimes develop the habit of looking down on people. That can be especially true at Christmas, a time when many Christians seem to become angry and judgmental toward those who celebrate Christmas in what they consider to be the wrong way, as though somehow we have acquired sole ownership and copyright to the whole thing. Definitely we are not well served or edified by “Badvent Calendars” or movies like Bad Santa or bad ideas like the Zombie Nativity scene that some misguided person put up this year, but to expect that everyone’s idea of what the season is about will match up with ours is just a tad grandiose.
I don’t want to become one of those “Keep Christ in Christmas” kind of people because I think it’s kind of pathetic and mean-spirited for one thing and I don’t think Christmas is a time to add to the level of animosity and division that already exists in our world. Also, because I believe it would be hard if not impossible to keep Christ out of Christmas in any case. If the scriptural record is any indication (and I think it is), Christ seems to have a knack of finding his way to the places where he needs to come to life, whether it’s a stable or Superstore.
As I was wandering around the stores, amid the crowds, I thought, “Who am I to say Christ isn’t here – who am I to say that this has nothing to do with Christ?” In fact, I had kind of a God moment in one of the stores (the Bay I think) because what I felt was an enormous amazement and gratitude for the abundant society we are part of, and also the realization that most people who are out there shopping, despite the exasperated looks on their faces and the odd tendency toward impatience and frustration – they’re all out there hunting around because they’re motivated enough by the love they have for someone to find them a gift that expresses something of that love. Christ may not be found in materialism per se, but Christ is certainly present in any truly loving gesture. Yes, you can look at Christmas strictly in materialistic and economic terms, but you don’t have to, not even in Walmart.
The angels in Luke’s story tell us to look beyond the conventional, to let go of limitations around the way we may tend to want to interpret or celebrate the Christmas story, and also let go of control over who can celebrate Christmas in the first place.
The angel tells the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” In other words, don’t be intimidated by the magnitude of this message – that this is something intended to bring joy to all. The Christmas message in Luke is a reminder that this event was proclaimed as happening and being offered for all people – it is universal, it is cosmic (I think the angels are meant to suggest that larger context), and Luke’s Gospel certainly dismisses any sense that it is only aimed at a kind of spiritual or moral elite – quite the opposite, in fact.
As Luke tells it, the divine proclamation was to shepherds. As Lutheran scholar Craig Satterlee reminds us: “By the time of Jesus, shepherding had become a profession most likely to be filled from the bottom rung of the social ladder, by persons who could not find what was regarded as decent work. Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds’ duties kept them from observing the Sabbath and rendered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees classed shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, persons who were “sinners” by virtue of their vocation.”
It’s not only interesting but important that Luke’s Gospel suggests that the shepherds were encouraged to look horizontally, not vertically. The angels persuade them to shift their vision from the vertical to the horizontal, as if to say, God’s over there, not up here – God’s with you, not above you. From now on, look for him among you – in fact, if you look, you can find him right now in a stable in a back street in Bethlehem. The old hierarchical, vertical model is in Luke’s gospel replaced by an egalitarian, horizontal model — God on the same level as us.
Luke portrays Jesus aligning with the Jewish prophet Isaiah in compassion for the least and the lowly, people of other religions, people who have disappointed their parents and run away from home, and people who have been despised and rejected (like Zaccheus, the ten lepers, or shepherds). He asserts the fact that women were prominent in the leadership that formed around Jesus. For Luke, “every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.” In Luke’s Gospel, humility is a key virtue (14: 7—11), and no one is excluded from the invitation to the table of life (14: 12—14).
So the kids out on Hastings street handing out bag lunches and socks to the homeless; the people offering free dental care to the poor; the people who create pop-up stores; the people opening up their restaurants to offer a gourmet meal to street people … in Luke’s vision of things, these are the ones who probably understand something central to the story. Most of you probably don’t know that St John’s this past week had a wonderful Christmas turkey dinner (and gifts) for the people who come to our Food Bank. We fed 72 people, and for some of them there will be no other such meal to be shared – that was their Christmas.
The Gospel of Luke shows us that if we change the way we conceive of God – if we change our conception of God — it changes the way we experience God. Luke’s horizontal approach creates the rather radical way of viewing things in which we are encouraged to look at a fellow human being and see the face of God, or even to look at ourselves and see the face of God. Luke’s Gospel is the only one that quotes Jesus as saying that the Kingdom of God is within you. After all, isn’t this the overall Gospel message — that we are able to look at the face of a human being (that is, Jesus), and see the face of God? Why shouldn’t that be extended or extrapolated?
At this time of year, we are reminded that the Church is —and must be — a repository for the sacred stories — called to carry that torch of telling the amazing story of the Incarnation of God in Christ – and offering places where that story can be shared by all and celebrated in community.
Part of the story we most need to hear may have to do with opening up. Many Christians have this strange tendency to want to locate Christ only in particular places – typically where they are. The Gospels, especially Luke’s, are at pains to point out this tendency to be wrong about where Jesus is most likely to be. One of my favourite passages in the NT is the way Luke describes the angels, standing by the tomb of Jesus, seemingly baffled that Jesus’ followers would looking for him in a graveyard. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? In this case, Jesus is to be found in a stable – and according to the story, not many people were expecting to find anything of significance there. Saturday Night Live’s Christmas Mass Spectacular skit a week ago may serve as a reminder that people have heard it all before – that maybe we need to find some news ways not only of telling the story but of living it.
We have this repository of beautiful and deeply meaningful and enlightening stories and I think we are beginning to realize in our time that if we don’t tell them no one will. But we are not merely repeating the ancient words. We may start there, but that is only the beginning. Merely remembering for old times’ sake is nostalgia – sentimentalism – and there is none of that in the Gospels. For Christians, the faith journey has to do not only with telling and remembering but also in participating in that story – becoming part of that ongoing, unfolding narrative, which for us is much more than a story – it is salvation history. It is about taking that story forward, and developing new interpretations and applications, so we don’t consign the living Christ to a museum or a graveyard or to perpetual infancy.
The way we remember as Christians is expressed most profoundly in the sacrament we are about to experience. The Eucharist is a deliberate act of inviting Christ into our lives – symbolizing and embodying that act of faith by physically receiving symbols of his body and blood – symbols that allow us to participate in the reality they describe. This element of Christ becoming present to us in the breaking of the bread is also central to Luke’s Gospel.
In the Eucharist, Jesus is quoted as saying “Do this in remembrance of me” but for me it loses something in translation into English. To my mind, Jesus is saying something like “Take, eat, and go on doing this that I may continue to be present with you” or “that I may continue to be born in you.” Re-membering in this sense allows Christ to be born into the present moment. The real question then becomes – do we want Christ to be present with us or do we prefer to have him remain in the past as a quaint and mysterious historical figure?
God is with us; Christ is in us. May we continue to encounter and nurture that presence, so that Christ may grow in us. May we open our hearts to the heart of Christmas, and become aware that we too are part of the Christian story – part of the message of good news that God is sharing with humanity.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 52: 7—10 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’ Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Hebrews 1: 1—4 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,* whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains* all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Luke 2: 1—20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah,* the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’* When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.