Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Eve

The Contradictions of Christmas

Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

Tonight we celebrate the cosmic event of some two thousand years ago. A night when the sky opened, a star appeared, angels sang and life was born again. It all came as a surprise, though it had been dreamed and foretold for thousands of years. There are many who come year after year to celebrate this miraculous feast without having any real belief in the story. And let us be honest here! It is an unbelievable story. A Virgin birth, angels, shepherds? It sounds like the ultimate fairy tale.

So what if it is! What if it is just a heart-warming story! Christmas is a time for joyous celebration. There is no doubt about that. It is not something which needs a whole lot of discussion. We see celebrations going on all around us. There are many homes in Canada where no prayers are offered at Christmas, no carols are sung, no nativity stories are told. But there can be few homes where Christmas is not seen as a time for celebration. The secular world may reject our faith perspective. But who can reject the feelings of joy and happiness surrounding Christmas? Who can reject the warm fuzzy image of the baby in the manger?

Happily, such images transform society. And that is good, even if it lasts only a short while. We greet each other in a different way. It is a time to give. It is a time of outreach to the poor and to those in need. The celebration is everywhere. One cannot miss it.
But we Christians seek a deeper meaning in our celebration. Without the truth of the Gospel story the lights, the trees, the carols, the gift giving, all become something else – something very fine, something well intentioned and desirable, but something quite empty. For Christmas has become secularized in a way that leaves out the most important, and the best part.

And the miraculous truth of the story does not lie in facts, in history. The story of Jesus' birth is a story filled with contradictions. His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph had to uproot themselves, and leave their home in Nazareth to go to Bethlehem, several days journey at the best of times. When they arrive there, the few inns to be found are filled to capacity. And so they are led into a stable. And there the baby is born, and they name him Jesus. The Son of God, the bringer of peace, the king, the Saviour, is a baby whose family cannot find accommodation. The child is born in poverty, without a proper roof over his head.

The contradictions continue, for on a hillside outside of Bethlehem some shepherds are watching their flocks that night. These are poor humble folk, despised for their way of life. It is not the kind of occupation you choose for your sons, scarcely the best livelihood. Shepherds are the outcasts of society, not trusted, even scorned. Because of the nature of their work they are not even able to attend synagogue. But they are the ones God chose to hear the message of the angels and to spread the good news.

As darkness falls, they settle down on the hillside with their sheep. They look out over the rolling hills toward the town of Bethlehem, resting but alert. After all, a marauding animal could decimate the flock if they are not awake to protect them. They warm themselves over the fire. The sky is bright with stars. Although it is the middle of the night, there is a glow in the darkness. Colours begin to dance and weave like the Aurora Borealis in the northern sky. Suddenly the whole sky is a blaze of light. The heavenly messengers come to them with great news. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The jubilant song of the angels rings out over the hills. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.”

It is a story of deep contradictions. And yet it is a story of great truth. The truth of the story lies in the fact of our relationship with God. God took a chance with humanity. We received God's most precious gift. Humanity is threatened by goodness. We resist it. We reject kindness and healing. Yet God sent Jesus into that very world. God continues to love, hope, trust, even as we bungle through our mistakes. Don't you wonder what it is that God sees in us?

So once again I ask, what if it is just a wonderful story? There is a deep mystery at the heart of Christmas that makes it a time of transformation. The secular world cannot begin to understand Easter, but it can identify with the homey human scene of a newborn baby, a courageous mother, a faithful husband, poor shepherds and rich kings. It can identify with our need to reach out to the poor and to those in need. So there in that stable, a strange diverse crowd huddles around a baby. Such is the mystery of the Incarnation. It does not simply symbolize. It incarnates, it embodies what we know to be true. God is with us. The story of the birth of Christ is a perfect introduction to his life, death and resurrection. The clear message of Christmas is that God is love. Love came down and dwelt among us. The purpose of the loving act was so that God could reveal to us the nature of the divine. It came about so that we might come to know and love our creator.

It is a message that continues to be shared. Christmas, even if the person celebrating does not call it that, is a time of giving, a time when peoples’ hearts open to those in need, when they give for once of themselves. It is a time when people make an attempt to reconnect with their faith community. Our churches fill up. Even those who do not make it to church take on some of the festive spirit and reach out to others in a spate of generosity. We greet each other in a different way. It is a time to give. It is a time of outreach to the poor and to those in need. The celebration is everywhere. One cannot miss it. And secularized though it may be, the world continues to get the message. And it becomes a better place, even if for a few fleeting moments.

We may look at the story in all of its improbability. We may say, “Is that any way for a king to be born!” Is it even plausible? And yet he was. For Jesus continues to be born in poverty. He continues to live with rejection and betrayal. He continues to be nailed and crowned. He continues to burst through the tomb of death and echo in the souls of those who believe. He continues to be born in us day by day. He continues to call us, his messengers, to share the good news that Christ is born in us.

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