December 24, 2019
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Isaiah 9:2-7||Psalm 96||Titus 2:11-14||Luke 2:11-14||John 1:1-14|
by Bruce Epperly
Preaching on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are among the most challenging homiletical assignments preachers face. While I am overjoyed to tell the Christmas message and sing the familiar carols, I recognize that preachers and their congregants have heard the story so often that it has been normalized, domesticated, and taken for granted. We appreciate the story of the Holy Family, magi, and shepherds. We delight in the star and are enchanted by the lighted tree. Yet, we yearn for something new. A new song and a deeper understanding where mystery and enchantment go beyond words and doctrines.
We also recognize that, especially on Christmas Eve, many of the attendees are there under duress, having been dragged from video games to carol singing and pre- or postprandial cocktails to celebrate the yearly family ritual of Christmas Eve. More than ever these days, children, young adults, and their parents, come with little knowledge of hymn and carol and more familiarity with Rudolph and Frosty than the stories of magi, shepherds, and the Holy Family.
Still, preacher and congregation want the evening to be something special. As much as I like Hallmark movies, we want something more than the predictable kiss that makes everything right. We want to feel the mood of Christmas, its radical message of Incarnation in Judea and in our hearts. We want to become Christmas people.
To contrive this special moment often spoils it. To touch the holiness of Incarnation in us and in Bethlehem, we preachers need to address ourselves first, sitting lose with our homiletical memories, to discover the amazing novelty of the moment.
Christmas is the celebration of novelty and creative transformation in the maelstrom of history and human life. The Christmas story is incredible, almost miraculous in nature. While John and Luke come from independent strains, they complement each other in the gestalt of Christmas. “The hopes and fears of all the years” are focused in a Bethlehem stable. The Word and Wisdom of God, Logos and Sophia, is made flesh in the ambiguities, wonders, and conflicts of history. The whole universe, including Divinity itself, conspires in the birth of a child, the growing edge and hope of the future. Christ is born of Mary, in Bethlehem, in a humble stable, and praised by angels and outliers.
The Word and Wisdom of God is made flesh in Bethlehem in Judea. The Infinite is incarnate in the most finite and fragile of moments, the birth of a child. The context is spiritual and political. Indeed, the incarnational and political cannot be torn apart in the stories of Jesus’ birth. As a result of Roman occupation of the once proud Israel, a working class family is forced to pay taxes without representation at the most inconvenient time, the late stages of Mary’s pregnancy. The Holy Family, financially strapped and politically powerless, is representative the majority world and all families with their economic backs against the wall, dispossessed as the result of machinations of the powers and principalities.
No tinsel or romance in this Bethlehem child’s birth. The parents and their child Jesus lived their whole lives under the thumb of the Romans, never breathing free air, except the free air of the spirit and the joy of the newborn baby. Shepherds, far from the lovable creche characters, were at the low end of the social spectrum, looked down upon, powerless, and eking a livelihood from day to day. The Creative Word of the Universe, God’s revelation in the cosmic journey and a family’s peregrinations, comes to the least as well as the greatest. The whole earth is full of God’s glory and that includes the real world of cold evenings, flocks and messy stables. God’s vision is incarnate locally as well as globally. The Energy of the Universe in all its Tragic Beauty is right here in the fragile conception and humble birth of an apparently ordinary child as well as the grandeur of the angelic chorus. In letting the story deeply touch us, we are liberated from materialism and mundanity and experience the re-enchantment of new birth.
Something cosmic is happening here in Bethlehem and in every birth. The great Celtic spiritual guide Pelagius asserts that each newborn child reveals the face of God. The Infinite takes birth in the finite. The whole universe in a grain of sand and a little baby. The Loving Wisdom of the big bang and fourteen billion years of evolution is right here in Bethlehem, hidden from the powerful and proud. Yet, if the doors of perception, ours and theirs, are cleansed and open, we will see the Infinity of this child and every child. The incarnation in Bethlehem, this unique spot of divine revelation, opens our eyes to divine revelation everywhere. God in all things, all things in God.
The messages of John and Luke complement each other. The marriage of Infinite and intimate give birth to new life and holy adventure. God is here in the hardscrabble world of Roman oppression, impeachment hearings, xenophobia, and incarceration of children on our borderlands. God is here in our desire for something more than consumption and inebriation. We want a Child to be born in us, a novel incarnation, to enlighten our world, to touch us and all creation with its light.
While most preachers will focus on the gospel readings, the readings from Titus, Psalms, and Isaiah provide a creative backdrop for the birth of Jesus. The juxtaposition of Infinity and messy incarnation is under-girded by the prophet, psalmist, and evangelist. Titus proclaims the universality of revelation. “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” God is redeeming us, taking the initiative, and challenging us to accept the gift, to prune away and declutter behaviors that stand between us and God’s birth in our lives. The evangelist echoes John’s affirmation that true light, coming into the world, brings global enlightenment. Within each spiritual quest, God is at work. In every heart, even that of dissociated political leaders, there is something of God seeking “the best for that impasse,” trying time after time to gain purchase for birth.
The prophet proclaims that those who have walked in darkness, economically, politically, emotionally, relationally, have seen a great light, first a sliver and then full presentation. Light enough for the next step, and then the beckoning horizon of possibility. The prophet Isaiah, anticipating a moment in which a Child changes everything, in which God takes birth among us, turning upside down by raising up the valleys of desolation and teaching the powerful to care. Whether or not Isaiah anticipated this Child Jesus is irrelevant. Isaiah dreamed of a revealing of Divinity in dire circumstances, and we too must hope for such revealing and be open to its coming in our lives as we face our own dire time of heartless rulers, economic exploitation, and planetary destruction.
New light gives birth to a new song, song of freedom and expectation, a song born of the hope of way where was no way. We chant our psalms and hymns, complementing the Psalmist, as we recognize that Divine Pathos (Abraham Joshua Heschel) leads to Divine Healing and Social Transformation. God is involved in history, our history in all its tragic beauty, beckoning us to take our part in healing the world this Christmas.
The gospel story concludes with a focus on the shepherds and Jesus’ mother. The shepherds return to their flocks, still poor and at the edges of society. But, from now on, they will experience a light shining in their menial tasks and they will discover their own inner greatness, the incarnation within, despite what others see in them. From now on, no one can take the angelic chorus away from them. In hearing the angels, they discover their own deepest identity as God’s beloved children.
And, Mary the Mother, “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Her first Child, born in economic and political unsettledness, is also a miracle and wonder. One of billions born in earth history, this Child tells us that every child comes “trailing clouds of glory” and every birthplace is a gateway to Divinity. In Bethlehem, wonder and politics meet and the hopes and fears of all the years are gathered as we hope for new life, a new song, a growing birth ourselves as we become midwives to new creation, to the birth of justice, to the hope of a new heaven and a new earth. We don’t need the politicians to give us permission to say, “Merry Christmas.” We can shout “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” knowing the Christ Child is born in us and all creation.
Rev. Bruce Epperly, Ph.D., is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author. A Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ pastor, he is the author of over fifty books including Piglet’s Process: Process Theology for All God’s Children; Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God; Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: a Progressive Vision; and Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.