Christmas Eve at St. Paul’s Cathedral 2016
Christmas Eve, 2016
St. Paul’s Cathedral
San Diego, California
Isaiah 9: 2-7
Luke 2: 1-14
Come Holy Spirit: Touch our minds and think with them, touch our lips and speak with them and touch our hearts and set them on fire with love for you. AMEN.
I had another sermon written for tonight. I suppose it was a good sermon. It was your run of the mill, feel good Christmas Eve sermon. You would probably tell me at the door it was a good sermon and forget about it before you got home. It was warm and fuzzy. Some of you may be saying, “wait a second; that is exactly what I came for—check please!” But you see, that sermon was fit for an ordinary Christmas Eve. Perhaps I can use it another year, but not tonight. I just don’t think this is an ordinary Christmas.
There is so much anxiety out there. Our lives feel so unsettled. And one could say we are doing it to ourselves. We are so plugged into news, much of it manufactured, and too much of it false news. Almost all of it raises emotions—and not in a good way. Throughout the election, we felt edgier and edgier—and Twitter is not helping. Truth be told: we simply live in a fearful age. And I think this has been building for a long time. Imprinted on the psyche of most of us here tonight, being born and raised in a nuclear age punctuated by the Cuban missile crisis, the arms race, whose sign was a fallout shelter, we are preconditioned to be fearful. Our nightmares included mushroom clouds. As those fears faded, they were replaced by a changing economic environment, a warming planet, Al Qaeda and ISIS. Fear has become such a constant that it almost doesn’t register even as our fears define our lives.
Travelers in first century Judah, while not knowing this age, would connect to those same feelings. Luke tells the story of Christmas by firmly placing it in time, in a specific fearful time, during the registration of Augustus, when Quirinius was governor in Syria. Today, our decennial census is something routine—but not so with that ancient census. Indeed, during the census of Quirinius, Judah suffered a rebellion led by Judas the Galilean. With these details, Luke reminds us that Jesus’ birth occurs in a time of rebellion, oppression, violence, terrorism, and suffocating poverty. Indeed, the very circumstances of Mary and Joseph’s travel underscore the brittleness of life for so many—poor travelers, giving birth to their child in a dirty grotto, using a manger for a first bed—tough living with much to fear.
We are told that, not far away, there are the shepherds—the first century equivalent of parking attendants or night watchmen. They are suffering life at the lowest level. Our common bond with those shepherds, with all common folk around Bethlehem and even with Mary and Joseph is being citizens of a fearful time.
And yet, it is into their world of darkness that a child is born. It is a moment that could pass unnoticed. But this is God’s most gracious offering placed not in the midst of beauty, but in the darkest darkness. It is not given first to the most blessed, but to the most marginalized. Nevertheless, it is so cosmically transformational that angels must tell the story. And an angel goes to those shepherds. Those shepherds, like us, are children of fear…it is their heartbeat and it is their default. And so, when the angel appears, they are afraid. And so are we… we are afraid of what we see and hear. We are afraid of what our politicians say. We are afraid of what our nation is becoming and who will be marginalized. We are afraid. And that is why no simple Christmas sermon will do.
When the angel comes to the shepherds, the angel is surely coming to us. We need this birth. We need to hear what the angel says. This is really it. The angel’s message is the proverbial spiritual ball game.
Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
The good news that the angel brings is that we do not have to live this way. We do not have to live in fear: do not be afraid. The incarnation, God enfleshed in Jesus, changes everything. This is the unanticipated and unexpected humility of God.[i] God’s love for the world—for us—is so profound and complete that God would come and be with us even as a helpless child. Fear is simply knocked off the stage. Our Advent hope is not in vain. And so shepherds go, in that hope. With their sheep, staff, and robes, they are both characters in the story and messengers in their own right.
On this night, we can similarly be set in motion. We can become characters of the story of a new birth that vanquishes fear and changes everything. And so, we come to this holy place and sing the carols of joy. Incense is lifted heavenward with our prayers. We hear Luke’s precious words of the first birth. Then through the Eucharist, we connect the story of this baby with the Christ he will later present, enflesh through his teachings, miracles and finally the cross and empty tomb. To go to the manger is to go the cross. It is to worship God who is all in—with us, in our joy and in our suffering, our life and in our death.
And after “Silent Night” and a refrain of comfort and joy, we like those shepherds of old, will go into the night. We go with spiritual courage because our resolve is fragile and fear still reigns out there. Fear continues to be cultivated by the principalities and powers. Scapegoating and fear mongering remain political fodder. Terrorists still bid to do harm. The poor still suffer, which is where we come in as tellers of the story and participants of the story of the manger. “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.”
And so leaving the manger, we will look for Mary and Joseph again on the road. Perhaps we will see them in the 60 million refugees around the planet who yearn for safety and home, some in our own city and county. With them, we will practice the spiritual discipline of neighborly love. We will not be afraid. We might sit down with other travelers at table when they are ridiculed because of their race, or gender or sexual orientation. We mean what the banner in front of this cathedral says. We will not be afraid. And we will see them in those who practice different faiths, whom some wish to register in a new and subversive census. Secure in what we have seen within this manger, we might even say, I too am a Muslim; register me. We will stand in love. We will not be afraid.
Dear ones, it is this simple: unto us a child is born. Hope does not come through a political campaign or a business plan. Hope comes with this child and birth—the transforming gift of God found in a most unlikely place. Do not be afraid anymore. Dismiss the power of fear with the overwhelming power of God’s love. Take your angelic role as a messenger of God. Tell the story of glad tidings. Be and live the story of good news. Do you hear the heavenly host? They are praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Do not be afraid.
[i] Michael Gerson, “Where is God?” The Washington Post, December 23, 2016