Homily for Christmas Eve 2017 – The Rev. Stephanie Shepard
St. John the Apostle
“no perfect Christmas?”
If you went to the mall during the past couple of months, you know what Christmas is all about. Christmas is about getting everything you want. It’s holly, jolly, chestnuts roasting on an open fire and sleigh bells jingling. It’s let it snow, let it snow, let it snow, because we’ve got all the time in the world to build a snowman. It’s I’ll be home for Christmas with family and friends and Santa Claus stacking presents under the tree. It’s Christmas cards mailed off according to schedule and online ordering and payments put off to the new year. According to the tropes, Christmas has to be perfect and you are expected to plan, decorate, entertain, gift, and be happy for the whole season.
And so we feel guilty because the tree didn’t get up this year.
We know better. There is no vacation from the realities of life just because a certain day on the calendar got designated by the Church and celebrated far beyond the boundaries of Christendom. Sickness and death don’t take a break. Natural disasters and political crises still happen. Financial situations are even more stressed and family relationships more awkward because of the pressures of this time of year. We want to believe in a magic that will transform us even for one day a year. Perhaps it is because we so want things to be better that we are irritated and depressed when things go wrong for December 25. Maybe we could move the day to April. Or maybe we could re-think the whole thing.
Because Christmas was never perfect. Especially not the first one. Between the lines of the good news of the birth of Jesus, according to Luke, we catch glimpses of the reality.
There was the social situation in Israel at the time. The Roman Empire occupied the land of the Jewish people. Under the rule of Gaius Octavius, known as Augustus Caesar or “revered emperor”, a first census to establish financial and military control of the Syrian territory was announced. This province included both Galilee and Judea. Every man had to be counted for tax and conscription purposes. For the Romans, the population was a source of needed revenue and troops for their ongoing wars of conquest. In their leftover time they could grow crops for Rome and stay out of trouble. Joseph was just a Jewish number for the register. Mary didn’t even count.
Under this oppressive regime, Joseph and his eight-months pregnant fiancée were forced to travel from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south, a distance of over 120 kilometres. So late in the pregnancy, Mary and Joseph were far away from family, friends, and the local community by the time they reached their destination. Joseph’s kin may have come from Bethlehem, the city of David from whom he was distantly descended, but they obviously didn’t open their doors to him when he showed up with the woman who was great with child. No room was to be bought for love or money. Only a stable shed for a bedchamber and a birthing room.
Maybe looking back, Mary and Joseph could smile and say to each other, “Do you remember when…?” Because in the midst of the anxiety and the cold and the pain there were some moments. The innkeeper who took pity on them and gave them as much room as he could. The animals sharing their warm breath in the quiet of the stable. The shepherds tumbling in the door with their story of angels and glory. The tiny miracle baby lying in the absurd makeshift cradle. Perfection wasn’t in the whole, but in the little things. Especially in the littlest one of all, this child of their own they called Jesus.
But even from his birth, they knew Jesus wasn’t all theirs. He came into the world in the way that all humans do- with blood and water and pain and cries. But when Mary held him in her arms, it felt like she was holding the whole world, the whole universe in that tiny body. Somehow God had folded love down to fit in this surprising gift for the world. The angel Gabriel had told her, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). Mary didn’t know what was to come, but she did know that the time she would have this child to herself was all too short. He would grow up into whatever God would have him become too fast. So this night, when all she could do was hold him and feed him and love him had to be enough for the moment.
When we do not know what the future will hold, it is all the more important to treasure the small things that touch our hearts today. Find the beauty and the kindness and the companionship when it comes to you, even if it brings you to tears. Accept the healing touch and the mug of tea when they are offered. In them Jesus comes again, as God-with-us. In this imperfect world, and in our imperfect lives, the reality is that love comes to us still, if we let it.
There were perfect moments that first Christmas. And there are perfect moments waiting for us as well. Moments when the love of Christmas shines through the mess and the heartbreak. Hold onto those this year, whatever they are. Ponder these things, like Mary, and treasure them in your heart. Christ will be with you, not just at Christmas, but every day, when you need love most. That is the true meaning. And that is just perfect. Amen.