Christmas Eve, 2004
St. David's, Pepperell, MA
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale+
Some years it’s harder than others to get into the Christmas Spirit.
Of course, that raises the question, what is the Christmas Spirit? Is it the one depicted in all those TV specials and the commercial barrages, which accompany them? Happy families gathered together, bringing one another joy and delight through perfect and abundant gift-giving, basking in the glow of familial love?
I’ve had Christmases like that. I hope you have, too. I hope this year is like that for you. But I’ve been hearing too much, of late, from folks who are finding themselves in the midst of Blue Christmases. People who are less aware of the loved ones around them than of those not with them – dead, estranged, deployed, or simply grown up and gone away. People who find all the Christmas hype nothing more than a painful reminder of their losses and regrets – of all the pain of their lives.
Or maybe the Christmas Spirit has to do with that proclamation of Peace on Earth and our fervent desire to believe that all’s right with the world and that anything that isn’t all right is in God’s hands and not our concern—even though God has never suggested anything of the sort. But the problems are so big and complex and overwhelming that we don’t know where to begin and so we yearn to embrace a message that tells us it’s all ok. And some years we can pull it off. Other years the news is too bad and too ubiquitous to allow us that easy escape.
Or maybe the Christmas Spirit calls us to abandon sentimentality and look at the story the Bible tells. James Carroll, in his Boston Globe column, walks us through that real 1st Christmas story:
The single most important fact about the birth of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, is one that receives almost no emphasis in the American festival of Christmas. The child who was born in Bethlehem represented a drastic political challenge to the imperial power of Rome. The nativity story is told to make the point that Rome is the enemy of God, and in Jesus, Rome’s day is over….
The Gospel of Luke puts an even more political cast on the story. The narrative begins with the decree of Caesar Augustus calling for a world census – a creation of tax rolls that will tighten the empire’s grip on its subject peoples. It was Caesar Augustus who turned the Roman republic into a dictatorship, a power-grab he reinforced by proclaiming himself divine.
His census decree is what requires the journey of Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, but it also defines the context of the child’s nativity as one of political resistance. When the angel announces to shepherds that a “savior has been born,” as scholars like Richard Horsley point out, those hearing the story would immediately understand that the blasphemous claim by Caesar Augustus to be “savior of the world” was being repudiated.
When Jesus was murdered by Rome as a political criminal – crucifixion was the way such rebels were executed – the story’s beginning was fulfilled in its end.
Maybe the Christmas Spirit has to do with exploring and embracing the meaning of liberation – the revolution that these stories point to. But that, too, can be too overwhelming to face, especially knowing which roles we’d be cast in if that story were unfolding today – as, of course, it is.
Any way you look at it, there are some years in our individual or corporate lives when it’s hard to get into the Christmas Spirit.
But…But, there is a promise in these stories – a promise given to each and all of us no matter where we fall on the Christmas Spirit spectrum in any given year. We’ll hear it Sunday when the Gospel reading is from John and includes this: “A light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not quench it.” The darkness could not quench it.
These stories don’t require us, or even ask, or allow, us to deny the darkness. Darkness let loose in the world or the sins and griefs we harbor in our own hearts. We don’t have to pretend in order to claim Christmas. In fact, it’s better if we don’t. God knows all about darkness. God sends a light – unquenchable hope. Even if your own hope should, from time to time, flicker and die, it can always be relit from that never dying hope born again this day.
But what do we hope for? Well, how about Love and Joy and Peace – for miracles. Not big, cataclysmic, turn nature on its ear, miracles. But those everyday unfathomables that turn our lives upside down and thereby empower us to become who we were meant to be and to do the work God has given us to do in God’s world.
Falling in love… and being loved in return. Being really seen, really known, by another human being, and, somehow, finding that more comforting than terrifying. Staying in love – even though that person has hurt and infuriated you more than anyone else ever has – or ever could – many times – and will again. Love makes no sense and yet in it we are reborn. It’s a miracle.
Or the birth of a baby. Out of next to nothing grows this new life, and that tiny little creature changes everything. And, more often than not, you’re glad of it. It’s a miracle.
Every day of our lives is full of miracles; and why should we, who rely on miracles, ever give up hope?
Very soon, this baby whose birth we celebrate tonight is going to grow into a revolutionary, preaching a new way and calling us to practice that new way. We are called to be God’s agents of Peace and Justice and Love and Joy. Tonight, though, we’re invited to pause, to take note of the light, to take note of the miracles, to take note of the joy and love that surround us and to be sustained by them, to prepare ourselves to accept, expect, and work miracles.
And how do we do that?
First, by opening ourselves to Love – God’s Love for us – the Love we’re instructed to bring into the world and to let guide all our decisions and all our actions. At Christmas, the birth of a baby points the way to that Love, for babies teach us about Love and about God. You know, we don’t just love babies; we adore them. We love them with senseless extravagance – even when they cry all night and spit up all day. We love them.
At Christmas, the birth of this baby reminds us that this is how God loves us – and how we are invited to love one another. We are encouraged to embrace the miracle of unconditional, unreasonable Love. We are invited to adore one another – even when we whine all night and throw tantrums all day – even when our behavior makes us pretty unlovable.
And I have a suspicion that, if we can love one another with that kind of abandon, we’ll be able to let go of some of our fears, insecurities, and defensive aggression and become, in fact, considerably more loveable.
We adore babies not because of what they do but simply because they are. How much more ought we to adore one another – who have suffered so much, learned so much, done so much. The people sitting in this room with you are adored by God. Look at them; there is so much there to love, adore, and wonder at.
Come, let us adore the babe in the manger, yes. But let that miracle inspire us to unashamedly, unreservedly love one another and be strengthened by the miracle of Love, given and received. Strengthened not to blind ourselves to the darkness but rather to face it, head on, and, holding on to that flame of hope, to light yet more candles – to do the work given us to do. To fight in every way we can imagine for justice and peace among all peoples – fueled by Love and expecting miracles.