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By Bruce G. Epperly
A comment regarding the lectionary: there are a variety of texts to choose from for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I have chosen to include both Isaiah passages to present a more realistic vision of Christmas, a vision that joins, as the hymn proclaims, “the hopes and fears of all the years.”
On Christmas Eve, the theme is revelation and incarnation, in terms of both presence and absence. December 24 is more than a chronological date. Christmas Eve is a frame of mind and movement of spirit that brings out joy, wonder, exaltation, and sometimes grief and despair.
By the time Christmas rolls around, we’ve heard the stories and sung the carols, and know them by heart. We’ve wrapped gifts and imbibed in the spirits of the season. We may be doing last minute shopping before family celebrations and church. But, the spirit of the season – the spirit of incarnation and presence, of God among us, and moving in our lives – may still be eluding us at least in a neatly tied bow portrayed by Hallmark cards and movies.
We may want to be in the spirit of Christmas, but find it virtually impossible – we may feel depressed, grief-stricken, busy, or simply disengaged. We may cry out in pain as we experience the absence of loved ones or the absence of the joy we felt in childhood. This year, I mourn the deaths of my brother Bill and one of my best and oldest friends, from the sixties, Wendy. I had known Wendy for over forty years as a dear friend; until six months ago, I had never experienced a world without my older brother. I will feel the void created by their absence, especially my brother’s place at the family table. Christmas can be a harsh season for those who feel out of step with the mood of Christmas or who feel guilty because they are unable to conjure up any of that “joy to the world” feeling that each Christmas season promises. To be blessed at Christmas, we need to be aware of the seasonal ambiguity – Christ is with us, yet life is often difficult.
As we read the words of Isaiah 62, we recognize that Isaiah and his companions believed in God, but no longer could experience God’s faithfulness or care. Isaiah feels the pain of divine absence: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Isaiah is looking for a clear demonstration of God’s presence in the world. He has heard of God’s great deeds of yore, but now God seems to have abandoned God’s people. More than that, Isaiah fears that God stands behind the peoples’ current spiritual and political malaise. What are we to make of these words, “But you were angry and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed?” Is Isaiah simply playing the victim, blaming God’s absence for the peoples’ infidelity? Or, does he believe that God is the ultimate source of the pain and suffering that comes from turning away from God?
Despite his pleas for God to reveal Godself, Isaiah appears to believe that whatever God does is right and appropriate even if it means the destruction of the nation. We are clay and God is the potter, who can shape us any way God wants. There is no use to argue against divine sovereignty. God does it and we have to live with it. The Isaiah passage ends with hopeless resignation: “After all this [punishment and absence], will you restrain yourself, O God? Will you keep quiet and punish us so severely?”
This is hardly a passage to inspire Christmas joy. Moreover, we may have to challenge theologies that exalt divine unilateral power in relationship to human passivity. We may suffer the consequences of our behaviors, but is God truly the source of the pain we experience? This sounds perilously close to the words of those who identified the terrorist acts on September 11 with God’s withdrawal of divine protection from the United States. Must we accept these passages without question or shall we challenge them in light of the incarnation, “God lovingly with us?”
I believe that God suffers and rejoices with us and shares in pain that God would not inflict on even the worst of us. I believe that Christmas tells us that God sees everyone in all our ambiguity with the love that Mary and Joseph felt for the baby Jesus that first Christmas morn. This is where Isaiah 9:2-7 comes in. This passage is best read following the lamentations of Isaiah 62. At last, the light comes – “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. On those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them a light has shined.” Arise, your light has come; jump for joy, your burden is lifted; celebrate, you have been made whole. This is the rejoicing of a good medical report, a troubled child coming home, and employment after months of unsuccessful interviews. Darkness is real – and must be faced – but the shining light brings hopeful possibilities for new life and creativity in partnership with the Light Giver. God is working even in the darkness to bring forth light.
In contrast to Isaiah 62, Psalm 97 speaks of God’s presence in the non-human world and human history. “Let the earth rejoice; let the coastlines be glad!…All peoples behold God’s glory.” The whole earth is filled with God’s glory, but the righteous, those who follow God’s path, will experience the fullness of revelation. “Light dawns for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart.” I wonder how Isaiah would have read Psalm 97. Would he protest his righteousness and fidelity in light of God’s absence in his life and the life of his people? Would he have sung hymns of rejoicing to tide himself over until God reappears again in glory and love?
The seldom invoked Letter to Titus proclaims God’s freely grace present in the Spirit that animated Jesus’ life and mission. We have richly received God’s ever-flowing spirit poured out upon us in Christ, not as an external force but as an inner spirit able to transform our lives regardless of the past. Abundant grace abounds; and this grace is not contingent upon our achievements or abilities. Grace happens to the greatest and the least, the best and worst. As John’s gospel proclaims, the light shines in and on all.
Luke 2:1-20 are among the best known words in scripture. They are stuff of Christmas tableaux and children’s plays. Even people outside the church have heard of the angels and shepherds and the family in search of lodging. The innocent babe, born without fanfare and unnoticed, speaks to our experiences of being left out, marginalized, and neglected. There is a child in all of us who is seeking a safe and warm place for its birth.
The message also comes to the marginalized, to shepherds at the lower end of the social order. There is nothing romantic about being a first-century shepherd, or for that matter, wearing your father’s bathrobe at the Christmas play! Shepherds lived a hardscrabble life, had few assets, and were often maligned as shiftless and untrustworthy by people in the trades and in more comfortable and remunerative occupations. Then or now, no one pays much attention to homeless children, farm workers, sanitation workers, or herdsman, few paid attention to shepherds or to the Holy Family that evening. But, the wonder of incarnation is that it can occur anywhere. God appears at the margins, making the margins the growing edges of adventure and healing.
Angels appear in the most unlikely places – to a young girl and to dirty shepherds, working the night shift, and to a family struggling to find a safe place for their child’s birth. The angelic presence and message is always astounding and awesome, and they must always tell the recipients, “Don’t be afraid.” Yes, don’t be afraid either of the messenger or the message that will come. Angels always call us beyond our comfort zones into new frontiers. They make the margins holy places, and the economically and socially marginalized holy persons. They call us beyond habit and certainty, even the regularity of poverty and marginalization, toward horizons of possibility, vocation, and insight. They call us to embody – to incarnate – our highest values, regardless of who we are.
Christmas Eve is wrapped in the glory of angelic hymns, but the glory is always surprising and unexpected, and sometimes short-lived. The shepherds return to their flocks and we return home. Mary and Joseph and their wee child flee to Egypt. Like today’s undocumented workers, they seek a better life for themselves and their children. Christmas Eve reminds us that the Christ-child can be born everywhere – in poverty and wealth alike. If we are to hear the angelic cries, amid our own cries of absence or sighs of busyness, we must look deeply in each child’s face. We must build highways that connect and not walls that electrocute. We must love the children, not just when are innocent and fetal but at the moment of their birth and in the ambiguity of growing up.
Rejoice. Give God glory. Let our hymns be whole hearted. But, let us return home with warm hearts and hands to welcome and greet the Christ-child in all of us.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.