Christmas Eve 2021
Alleluia, unto us a child is born. O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.
It is so good to be back in church this Christmas, to gather together for our celebration, to welcome the Christ child into the world again as a community. We have longed for this.
Last year Christmas was very strange. It was hard to rejoice in the midst of all the isolation and fear. This year – well, this year we are back in church, and we give thanks for that. But it isn’t the way it was, is it? There have been changes, some of them permanent and others temporary. The cathedral staff was making changes up to just a couple of days ago as the full impact of the Omicron variant became evident and we started dialing back on some of our plans, especially the congregational singing. I’m even singing in the choir tonight due to a shortage of available and healthy sopranos.
God willing, next Christmas we will be able to sing all six verses of O Come, All ye Faithful, as the giant procession wends its way triumphantly up the aisle. But not this year. This year the virus still calls the shots. And then there are the more permanent changes, the chairs that have replaced the old pews, the people we have lost. If you are feeling a little deflated, a little disappointed by the way things are right now, you are not alone. Disappointment has been our constant companion throughout these two years.
It shouldn’t be a surprise – our faith is about people who disappointed. The shepherd and wise ones must have been disappointed by the stable. Herod must have been disappointed when he failed to kill the baby that he was so afraid of. The people who followed John the Baptist and then Jesus himself must have been devastated by their deaths. And we must disappoint God all the time, with our pettiness and self-centredness and unkindness to one another
But this night is not about our self-imposed expectations and inevitable disappointments. This night is about the fulfillment of a promise by the God on whom we can always depend. This night is the moment in which God comes to humanity, descends to our level, dares to risk disappointing , failing, hurting, dying, coming into a world where we build walls and frontiers, where the poor and the mentally ill are treated with contempt, where money speaks louder than love.
This is not only God’s story; it is our story too, and we have a part to play in it. The 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhardt recognized this, writing, “What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1,400 years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”
The Christmas story can be read as a cozy bedtime tale, with lovely pictures of shepherds and angels and plump babies. Or it can be read as a tragic parable of the real world, where women have to give birth outdoors, where children go hungry, where the powerful impose impossible burdens on the poor, where justice is a luxury that only a privileged minority can expect. We live in this world, and we claim to follow the one whose birth took place in such humble circumstances. We cannot ignore the call to action embedded in the nativity story. We cannot ignore the call to be mothers of God.
Anglican Bishop NT Wright tells a story of greeting parishioners after a Midnight Mass service and being scolded for bringing the real world into his sermon: “Christmas has nothing to do with asylum-seekers!” he was told. But a story of a child born in a stable because there was no housing for his mother, a story of a child whose parents fled with him to a foreign country because the authorities were trying to kill him: surely this IS the archetypal story of a homeless asylum-seeker
There are people just a few miles from here who have walked for hundreds of miles from their homes seeking a safe haven for themselves and their loved ones. They walk with Mary and Joseph, looking for a place that will welcome them. Babies are born on the road, a vulnerable but powerful symbol of the hope that has driven these people forward. And they arrive at our border all the time, seeking refuge, seeking safety, seeking a future. The shelters in Tijuana and Mexicali are overcrowded and unsafe. They are under-resourced: ten or twelve beds to a room, most of them without mattresses, just a blanket thrown over the metal frame. What will Santa bring those children tonight? What will be their Christmas feast tomorrow? Do you think God might be disappointed that those families are stuck in the shelters?
And even closer to home are those who will try to sleep in Balboa Park and on the city streets tonight, despite the rain. We all know that we have an affordable housing crisis and there is no room in the inn for too many of our neighbors. Whether you think locally or globally it’s the same – close to home in the park, or far away across the world where people in Syria, Ethiopia, and South Sudan are homeless and hungry, their lives uprooted by war, persecution, and famine. God must be so disappointed in humanity.
Tonight we gather in joy, celebrating once again the incredible fact of the birth of God’s son in a dirty shed in a poor village in an occupied country. As deeply personal as childbirth is, this is a cosmic event: it changes everything. The birth of Jesus tells us that God hasn’t given up on us. Just as the sunlight starts to strengthen after the solstice, so our hope is rekindled by the nativity. Glad tidings of great joy ring out year after year, undimmed across the centuries. As people of faith we will share those tidings and lift them up as a healing balm for all the disappointments of the world. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9)
Many of us long for our lives to return to “normal” – the normal of pre-pandemic days, when we didn’t have to worry about gathering in crowds or singing together or shaking hands with strangers. But our faith doesn’t exactly teach us to expect “normal”. The Incarnation of our Lord is anything but normal: it is an event that changed the world for ever. It has revolutionized humanity’s relationship with God and provided us a guarantee that all humankind, indeed all the Creation, will be transformed in God’s good time: the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, swords will be beaten into plowshares.
“Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord, when he comes.” (Psalm 96)
Our part in this transformation is to be the hands and feet and heart of the Christ Child, to be mothers of God in our time and place, to bring to birth the new creation that God has promised us in the birth of our Savior.
Alleluia, unto us a child is born. O come let us adore him, Alleluia.