The great theologian Karl Barth once said that the clergy of our time need to prepare sermons with a Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other. That was considered a pretty radical or avant-garde statement in the early 1960’s; however, now we are more likely to be connecting to the TV and Internet or twitter, and likely the Bible or commentary we’re looking at is online as well! And the volume and breadth of information to consider is hundreds if not thousands of times greater than it was in 1963 – just 50 years ago.
But Barth had made a critical point about the need to stay in touch and up to speed. In our society, most people take great pains in order to be in touch with the latest, and we want the latest devices to keep us up to the moment with what’s going on. The word NEWS is central to us, and as a local radio station recently advertized, “if you’re reading it, it’s not news” — after which a stentorian voice asserted very emphatically “YOU NEED NEWS!”
It’s true, we do need news – we thrive on finding out new things, exploring, celebrating discoveries and breakthroughs in research, applauding when some old sports record is broken. “What’s new?” is as common a greeting as “Good morning” or “How are you?” Institutions and companies that are not geared to innovation are soon bumped to the sidelines, as Blackberry has recently found out.
Try to imagine the response of your children or grandchildren to a Christmas in which their gifts consisted of old Commodore 64’s, transistor radios, wind-up toys, and those clunky cell phones of 20 years ago – things still new and amazing to us older folks, but pretty lame to a 10 year old. It’s a reminder of how quickly things move on and get old – what seemed like something cutting edge even 10 years ago is basically junk today.
Our age is extremely focused on innovation and finding the cutting edge, but in the Church, though we sometimes like to think that “things which had grown old are being made new,” at times we seem more like old Mr Fezziwig of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – quite determined to stick to the old ways, even though he is conscious they may be leading him to extinction. In the Church, there is always much emphasis and reward related to holding the line, embracing the traditional ways of doing things – loyalty to the past. There is usually very little commitment to innovation or creativity; for instance, no promise is required of the newly ordained leaders of our Church to respond in new ways to the challenges and opportunities of the present – there is virtually no encouragement to lead people into the future. We are seriously tied to the past, and those who attempt to innovate are often regarded with suspicion.
“How beautiful … are the messengers who announce peace, who bring good news, who announce salvation, who say to God’s people, ‘Your God reigns.’” We need news indeed, especially GOOD news! As the Book of the prophet Isaiah indicates, Good News is such a blessing that he suggests it’s a beautiful thing. Local TV channels at this time of year often offer good news spots, and they are so refreshing, such a wonderful contrast to the usual stream of darkness and doom we get.
The other day some TV commentator was talking about Beyonce’s new album, and he described it as “edgy – not something you’d hear in church.” I bristled at that, partly because it’s true. He’s right, in a sense, “edgy,” “cutting edge,” “contemporary,” “current” (even “relevant”) are not words you associate with Church.
Tradition gives us the wonderful hymns we have tonight – a sense of being rooted in something tried and true – even the basic awareness that Christmas is important. But Christmas is not about nostalgia, or being tied to the past. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Christmas sermon, urged Christians to “join the human race and become agents of transformation and renewal . . .” He said, “Jesus comes …to make humanity itself new, to create fresh possibilities for being at peace with God.”
For me, the word news crosses over and converges with our beautiful Christmas word “Noel.” Noel suggests birth, something novel or brand new coming to light and life. So at Christmas we celebrate the light and life of God in the Christ Child, not just as an historical event but as something that continues to happen. One of our best Christmas hymns actually says: “News! News! Jesus Christ is born today!” There are actually exclamation marks in this hymn! Because for an Anglican, that is exciting stuff!
Noel as a word for Christmas suggests the celebration of the new, the recognition of the profound symbolism of the birth of the child, the new coming into being, which is in turn a promise to transform the future. We’re supposed to be about the new and we shouldn’t apologize for it!
As the majestic opening words of John’s Gospel continue to echo in our heads, and perhaps our hearts, let us listen to what Meister Johannes Eckhart said some 700 years ago: “When we say God is eternal, we mean: God is eternally young. God is ever green, ever verdant, ever flowering. Every action of God is new, for God makes all things new. God is the newest thing; the youngest thing there is. God is the beginning, and if we are united to God, we become new again.”
That may not be exactly the picture you get when you enter your typical church, but what he is saying is that there is a way to stay current, plugged in — connected to the Source – even though you might be sitting in a seniors’ home or a monastery or a jail cell – or even some lonely road in the middle of Saskatchewan, where I was serving in a parish stretched out over hundreds of square miles, which some people in the diocese regarded as beyond the pale. On a very cold night, driving through pitch darkness, I could almost have believed that. And yet my response was that anywhere God is, there is the centre of the universe – after all, what was Taize or Iona or even Jerusalem, until someone recognized that possibility – that fact.
According to Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, for various reasons, had come to fear the world around him too much, and like many folks today he had come to see Christmas as a “humbug.” His 19th Century comment on Christmas could have just as well have come from any number of Scrooges I have heard recently: “If I could work my will … every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
The irony is that Christmas is indeed a humbug, that is, a fraud, hypocrisy, nonsense, and something meaningless, if it does not bring us into contact with the Good News that is at the heart of it – if it only drags us over the tired territory of nostalgia and convention and custom, rather than bringing us face to face with the story of the Child being born. Christmas is about being present to the ever-new life of God.
The magi are described as willing to travel many miles – across countries – through deserts — to discover something new. It seems to me that this is the level that the Church can begin to connect with the world around us, helping the world identify and celebrate where is Christ NOW, where is good news coming to birth NOW, in our time, and encouraging people to take up the journey of faith as a quest.
A birth is not something you easily forget, and yet as your children grow it’s all too easy to lose that sense of original wonder and amazement and joy, especially when they are carelessly spilling cornflakes all over the place, or will only communicate with you by rolling their eyes and sighing, or when they have just backed the family car into a post.
Christmas invites us to stay open, to re-open each year that place in ourselves where new and wonderful experiences can still come to life, and where old memories can be stirred in a way that brings new meaning and energy to what is happening now – in the present.
That is where Scrooge needed to go to be released from his imprisonment in the past, so that he could be present to the joy and life and wonder that were all around him, all the time. Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas past brought him not only into the present but to a vision of the future.
Upon waking up, permanently, from his dark and unconscious life, Scrooge says “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby!”
Because God is a God of downward mobility, descending to places of humility when you might expect majesty; treating the last as the first; regarding the least as the greatest, so Meister Eckhart suggests a very different direction and expectation for the Christian life. He says: “My soul is younger than the day it was created . . . in fact, I am much younger today than I was yesterday, and if I am not younger tomorrow than I am today, I’ll be ashamed of myself. People who dwell in God dwell in the eternal now. There, people can never grow old. There, everything is present and everything is new.” So as Jesus might suggest, if you want to understand what Christmas is about, spend it with a toddler, or at least in the mindset of a toddler, because you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of God.
Christmas is the story of a child born at night, which is a way of saying, a child born in mystery. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge is a story of a child reborn at night, a bitter old man rediscovering his inner child and being re-born to a new life. What re-birth may happen here tonight I cannot predict, but I am always filled with hope at Christmas, and I know that God is a God of surprises.
What keeps us from becoming miserable curmudgeons like Ebenezer Scrooge, tending to sneer at and dismiss all the newest things, and fun and festivity, and the crazy generosity of this season, is this awareness that Christmas, and the Christ who inspires it, is not a has-been, not a once-only — it is as new and fresh and relevant as we dare to make it. We don’t have to put Christ in Christmas – we have to JOIN him there.
Again, according to Meister Eckhart: “What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to the Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?”
We celebrate tonight the “gift of Christmas presence,” because the name Emmanuel, one of the names given to Jesus, means “God with us.” NOW – in the present tense – God is with us.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” As John’s Gospel assures us “to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.” May God give you grace and faith, that you may embrace the Christ Child and become new yourself. May you come to know this Christmas that God is with you.
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.
John 1: 1—14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.