Christmas at St. John's, Lafayette
Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 18th
8:00 & 10:15 a.m. Holy Eucharist
12:00 noon Greening of the Church
6:00 p.m. Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols
Tuesday, December 20th
6:00 p.m. "Longest Night" Service
Christmas Eve, Saturday, December 24th
4:00 p.m. Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
9:00 p.m. Carol Prelude
9:30 p.m. Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Christmas Day, Sunday, December 25th
10:15 a.m. Christmas Day Service
1st Sunday after Christmas & the Feast of the Holy Name,
8:00 a.m. & 10:15 a.m. Holy Eucharist
Sermon delivered by the Rev. Dr. Bradley Pace,
Christmas Eve 2016 at St. John's, Lafayette
I will admit to you right off the bat that I have become a bit of a Christmas curmudgeon. It’s not that I don’t like Christmas. I’m just allergic to certain kinds of sentimentality. So, for instance, when people complain about the War on Christmas, it makes me want to only say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas just to make a point. After all, the word “holiday” comes from an Old English word meaning “holy day”. When people say “keep the Christ in Christmas”, I remind them of the true meaning of the word “Christmas” and insist that they keep the mass in Christmas. The word means Christ’s mass, after all. Needless to say, this doesn’t win me many friends in check-out lines. And people find it strange when the priest doesn’t like to say “Merry Christmas.” But I have always had a certain contrarian streak.
Even here at church in my preaching, I feel like I’ve been trying to ruin Christmas for everyone. For instance, a few weeks ago, I said that while we think the prophet Isaiah is talking about Jesus when he tells us that “a child is born, unto us a son is given”; in the historical context, he’s almost certainly talking about Hezekiah, the son of King Ahaz. Hezekiah became king, defended Jerusalem from an Assyrian invasion, and was taken as a sign of God’s presence for Israel.
Last week, I said that when Isaiah mentions another child named “Emmanuel, he is probably talking about an actual child named “Emmanuel”, a historical person who will be a sign that God is with his people through thick and thin. He’s almost certainly not talking about Jesus. Even all those titles like “Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace” and so on, the ones that Handel makes so much of for the Messiah, are probably referring to one of those historical figures. The Tuesday morning Bible Study has been reading a scholarly book called the First Christmas, which connects the Christmas story to ancient mythology and routinely refers to the Gospels as propaganda. The authors argue that much of Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is made up, as is Luke’s. There was no census and Herod did not murder the children of Bethlehem. It turns out, there wasn’t even a little drummer boy.
And then last week, I came across the coup de grace. I read a wonderful, compelling article by a biblical scholar who argues that Jesus categorically was not born in a manger. His argument is based, in part, on the different Greek words for “inn” as well as ancient Palestinian customs and architecture. In rebuttal, I immediately started singing the first line of “Once in Royal David’s City”, which tells us that there “stood a lowly cattle shed”.
But the fact is it’s a pretty good argument. Turns out, 19th century Christmas carols do not typically sway biblical scholars.
The author’s main point, however, is that putting Jesus in a stable—in a lowly cattle shed—away from the house and away from the rest of the action, creates a theology problem. Tucking Jesus away in a manger with cattle lowing and everything calm and bright “‘round yon virgin” creates a Norman Rockwell-esque Christmas scene that pales in comparison to the point of the incarnation, the idea that God came to be in the thick of things, in the muck and the mire of human life. Piety and sentimentality, the author argues, have crept in to ruin the true meaning of Christmas.
Now, fortunately, good Episcopalians know they don’t really have to listen to anything the rector says. If the rector says that Jesus wasn’t really born in a stable, they simply ignore him and go on humming “Away in a manger”. But this is just the kind of thing someone like me needs. Not only can I say “Happy Holidays” and “Keep the Mass in Christmas” when I’m standing in line at the mall, I can stand in the greeting card aisle and correct people’s biblical history. This is the best gift a Christmas curmudgeon can get. It’s like the church version of Adam Ruins Everything, a TV show you should check out if you haven’t already.
Actually, there is a real problem here when it comes to the Christmas story. Whether Jesus was born in a stable or in a house doesn’t particularly matter to me. But some of the details do. We say, for instance, things like “mother mild” and the stable “where ox and ass are feeding” in our hymns. Aside from making the teenagers giggle when the rector says “ass”, the problem is that we sentimentalize the story and take out the gory details. The curmudgeon in me likes to put the sharp edge back in the story: an unwed teenage mother gives birth to a baby in a barn and puts him in a feeding trough surrounded by stinking angels. Dirty shepherds show up and add to the chaos. And those stupid angels won’t shut up and let the baby sleep. It’s a train wreck. The carols have it all wrong. Those of you who have given birth know how difficult it can be. Imagine giving birth in a barn surrounded by stinking animals but without much help and without any modern medical expertise or technology. Heck, Mary couldn’t even get ice chips. Then imagine that dozens of strangers keep coming in at all hours of the night.
When we make the story clean and beautiful, when we remove the gritty reality of the story, then we lose touch with what is really going on in the Christmas story. Whatever else the Christmas story is about, the Christmas story is irreducibly about God coming to be in our midst. Whatever the details, the Christmas story is irreducibly about God becoming flesh and dwelling with human beings. Whatever the circumstances, the Christmas story is irreducibly about God making his home in the midst of the joy and pain of human life. The incarnation—a theological word that really means the embodiment, the en-flesh-ment of God—is the crucial piece of the story.
In fact, the whole Christian story, the whole story of God and God’s people as we have it in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, is the story of God getting his hands dirty, so to speak, in the life of his human creatures. Greek philosophy imagined a deity who was distant, removed, somewhere out there. But the God of Israel was never like that. God created the world with intention and purpose, and God called specific people to fulfill his purpose. God showed his steadfast love and faithfulness to his people each time they succeeded and each time they failed. And God’s steadfast love and faithfulness were most obvious in those moments when his people teetered on the edge of oblivion—in the Exodus, in the exile, and in the crucifixion. Christmas is one more instance—if perhaps a particularly bright shining instance—of God’s absolute, unshakeable commitment to and solidarity with humanity. In other words, in the Christmas story and in the life of Jesus as a whole, God continues to be with us in our joy, in our grief, in our triumphs and in our failures. The story continues on, of course, through the rest of the biblical story, in the life of the Church, and in our own day.
When we place Mary and Joseph, the animals and the shepherds, the baby Jesus and the rest, in the midst of a Hallmark-like scene, we take the reality out of the story. When we leave out Mary’s fear and screams of pain, when we forget Joseph’s ambivalence and doubt, when we pass over the blood and the sweat, the filth and the stench, we create a story that’s almost certainly historically inaccurate. We also create a story that is theologically false. When we make everything quiet and calm, peaceful and serene, we take the starch out of the incarnation.
But the truth of Christmas—the real, gritty, ugly, dangerous Christmas story—makes clear that God is with us in the reality of human life. This God is not distant. This God is not distant, removed, or somewhere out there. In Jesus, this God is right here with us. Here the carol we began with, “Once in Royal David’s City,” gets it just right:“He was tempted, scorned, rejected; Tears and smiles like us he knew. Thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.”
The St. John's office will close on Friday, December 23rd
and reopen on Monday, January 2nd.