A sentimental Christmas?

We say that ‘Christmas is for the children’. Especially, parents and grandparents will focus much of their energies to make sure the children are happy: 

That the presents they receive will excite them, 

That the rituals around the Christmas tree and fireplace will fuel their anticipation and wonder, 

That the events in church and community the family attends will reinforce their understanding of the meaning of it all. 

And that all these efforts will bring delight to those who watch and attend them. And make it all worth the effort.

The accounts of Jesus’ birth – the Christ child born in Bethlehem – in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke especially reinforce our emphasis on children: The story of the Word made flesh in Jesus begins with Jesus the babe. The story of Jesus that ends at the cross of Golgotha and the empty tomb begins in a baby’s cries from a feeding trough in a stable for animals. 

Yes, Christmas is by the children and for the children. It is no wonder many of the annual Christmas pageants today are performed by children.

And yet, the story of faith compiled over decades and centuries into what we have in the bible challenges us. What the early Christians give us disrupts our sentimental bias in how we celebrate the Christmas season.

Let’s go back in time a week ago. First, December 21, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, was traditionally the feast day observed for Saint Thomas, the doubting one, who was martyred in India in the mid first century. Then, December 26 is the feast day for Saint Stephen, whose violent murder at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious we read about in the book of Acts.[1]

And, finally, today, the first Sunday of Christmas, the church commemorates the ‘Holy Innocents’ – the children of Bethlehem – who were murdered at the hands of Herod trying to get at Jesus and eliminate any potential threat to his despotic hold on power.[2]

Not exactly a Christmas observance that brings the warm fuzzies. Why has the tradition included these rather violent and distressing facts about Christian faith so close to Christmas? Wouldn’t we rather put off such disturbing elements until long after the holidays when the kids are back to school and we return to the mundane realities of our lives (when we can ignore the truth of the faith)? Wouldn’t we rather preserve the genteel, Hallmark images cradled in soft-white light where all the children are squealing with delight?

The church, in its wisdom, pierces through our illusions and disrupts our escapism. In compiling the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew, the Gospel writer, chose to express a profound care for the children – especially those who suffered under the violent injustices of corrupt and despotic rulers. Matthew will not ignore what happened around Jesus’ birth, but will bring voice to it. Expose it for what it is.

This Christmas story is a very human, and a very real, story of life and death, sin and grace. None of it can be ignored nor dismissed, and certainly not simply in order to cradle our cocktail-numbed minds. The Gospel pours cold water on us and calls us to ‘wake up’ in the face of our reality:

That following Christ will sometimes be a rocky road, to put it mildly – as the ancient martyrs of the faith exemplified by their faithfulness and service. That following Christ will sometimes shock us onto our knees in lamenting the evil in the world – when children elsewhere and in our own communities suffer incredible injustice and violence.

That following Christ will sometimes call us into risky and urgent action that doesn’t give time for proper goodbyes. That following Christ will sometimes call for unconditional grace and acceptance of the stranger – as Egypt welcomed the fleeing holy family refugees from neighboring Judea. 

We don’t care for the children if we turn a blind eye to injustice, especially at Christmas. We don’t care for the children when we insist on avoiding the chaos and upheaval that our faith implies. Christmas isn’t just about sentimentality. It is more about taking responsibility and learning from the witness of the Gospel message.

One element of the storytelling from the Gospel today catches my eye: It is the rapid plot movement. This story reflects anything but a sedate, static tableau:

One moment, the holy family is in Bethlehem being visited upon by the magi; the next moment they are fleeing to Egypt. Then, Herod reacts, is infuriated by the magi’s deception, and sends his murdering squads to Bethlehem. Even though it would have been some time passing until Herod’s death, the story-telling doesn’t permit but a breath before another angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream to ‘get up’ and return his family to the land of Israel. But not to Bethlehem where potential threat still exists, but to Nazareth. And all of this in ten short verses.

The pace of the story-telling itself evokes responsibility, not sentiment – not even a lingering, inert contemplation. Joseph doesn’t even have time to think, just react. And trust himself and especially trust God. The truth of the story is expressed in behavior and action.

The witness of the story-tellers of old have something to say to us, who very much like to sit-back and put-up-our-feet during the Christmas season. Perhaps this word to us is a reminder not to forget to take up the mantle of faith, to do our part in meaningful action and behavior. And be responsible, as the body of Christ, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

“For if the babe does not again take flesh in us today, the Bethlehem star is but an optical illusion leading to nothing. 

“If we are not empowered to offer a gift to the one in need, then there are no wise men searching. 

“If there is no praise or joy within our hearts, then there are no angels singing; no shepherds watching.”[3]

May these days of Christmas bring to us a deepened awareness of the care we have and express for this dark, broken world. And in so doing fulfill our responsibility as bearers of the Christ child.

This responsibility is also a gift God gives us at Christmas. It is a gift that is activated in us by the witness of all the saints of old.


[1]Acts 6:8—7:60

[2]Matthew 2:16-18

[3]Bishop Michael Pryse, Christmas Message from Bishop Pryse (www.easternsynod.org, December 24, 2019)

Christmas, now

Just a couple of years before he died, Martin Luther preached one of his last Christmas sermons. In it, he challenged his 16thcentury German congregation to bring the nativity into the present moment – the present reality.

Martin Luther described the squalor and desperation swirling around Mary and Joseph arriving late in Bethlehem and not finding room in the inn, leaving them to give birth to Jesus in a small barn out back. Then, he said:

 There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen!” … [Well] Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbour. You ought to serve them, for what you do to your neighbour in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.[1] That was preached in 1543.

At Christmas 2018, we are not just called to hear the story again, but to be in it, part of it.[2]

Essentially, Martin Luther was getting at the meaning of Christmas for his contemporaries. And for us, today. How can we be inspired by the children, the music, the gifts we bring at Christmas to step out of the nativity ‘play’, and into the real story unfolding around us today?

We share in the communion tonight. In the chaos, noise and crowd, celebrating the sacrament might not fit our idea of a neat-and-tidy, perfect Christmas service. It’s hard to sentimentalize the Eucharist.

But it’s important to offer it tonight. Because the sacrament brings us to the present moment. The meal tells the story of Jesus being in our hearts—not decades ago when things were golden and sweet in our memories, not two thousand years ago, not in the Martin Luther’s day, not lost in words of scripture alone—but right here, right now, in the present day, in our own experience of life in this world.

Receiving the bread and cup doesn’t mean your life is perfect, doesn’t mean you are now ready for Christmas, doesn’t mean y our life is in order and worthy of God.

When you receive the Communion, you are affirming that God is somewhere in the mess and chaos of your life. Our life. Emmanuel–God with us.

Celebrating Christ’s birth does not bring us outof history, it involves us with it—in the present time.[3]The Christmas story gets lived out by our attention and care for the dark shadows in our own hearts, as well as reaching out to vulnerable people in our world.

I heard with dismay on the local radio station last week that the City of Ottawa is putting up 230 families in cheap hotels this Christmas, where they have to live for over a year before social housing spots open up. Talk about conditions of squalor entire families, all of them poor, need to live in at Christmas. And we’re not talking about a handful. Two Hundred and Thirty families, in Ottawa alone.

Have we considered that when we pray for and help in whatever way we can these people, we are serving Christ himself? After all, our Lord was a refugee himself right after his birth, fleeing to Egypt with his parents to get away from Herod’s violent and murderous intent.[4]

Popular TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie just came out with a book this Fall entitled: “Everyday Hockey Heroes: Inspiring Stories on and off the Ice”[5]

In one chapter about an inspiring Ottawa story, Bob McKenzie relays the words of Karina Potvin, a minor hockey coach. She writes: “So much about Canada is welcoming. Well, except maybe our winters, but they’re a small price to pay in order to play hockey …”

As Karina watched on the news refugees being greeted at the airport, she writes: “I knew I wanted to help these new Canadians feel at home. I just wasn’t sure how.

“A few months later I was at practice when I saw one of my fellow coaches … coming towards the bench … [he had a] new idea for Reach Out. Reach Out is a program in our hockey association that helps low income families pay for equipment and registration fees so that their kids can join our league …

“‘You know how my wife and I have been working with some of the Syrian families who have settled here in Ottawa?’ He went on, ‘We took a family to …[a] game last week, and their sons absolutely loved it. They had never heard of hockey before, but they want to play.’

Karina ended up coaching three boys—Mohammed, Ahmad and Ismael—who quickly got the hang of skating. “They’re all over the ice!”

“The three boys breathed hockey all day, every day. As did their parents. By midseason, the parents were typical Canadian hockey moms and dads.

“One Arabic word I learned was hebbak which means “I love you.” Sometimes when we were on the bench, I would turn to Mohammed and say it. He always gave me a strange look.

“’Yeah, I just told you that I love you. Because you’re playing really well tonight and listening to us coaches.’

“He shook his head, ‘Coach Karina, you’re weird.’

“’If you ever make the NHL and they ask you who was your first and favourite coach, you have to say Coach Karina.’

“’Yes, of course.’ He laughed.

“’And if you ever play for the Senators, you have to get me tickets.’ Every time I said this, he would smile and reply, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’”

Just imagine: The year before, these kids had been in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Now, they were playing hockey just like so many other kids in Canada.[6]

May the first Christmas story become alive and real for you, as the Christ child is born anew in your hearts thisday.

Here are the words of American writer Madeleine L’Engle in a poem entitled “First Coming”:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Merry Christmas!

[1]Martin Luther, Christmas Sermon, 1543; Matthew 25:45

[2]Lcfaithinthenight.blogspot.com, 19 Dec 2018, (Lutherans Connect, @LuTConnect).

[3]Gustavo Gutierrez, cited in LutheransConnect, ibid.

[4]Matthew 2:13-15

[5]With Jim Lang (Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2018)

[6]The full story in ibid., p.45-56

Grant us peace

This evening we find ourselves at the threshold of all that Christmas anticipates. Our sight is therefore narrowly focused on the immediate. After all the waiting and the long journey, Mary and Joseph have finally arrived at the place of nativity, in Bethlehem.

And, like any expectant father and mother, they find themselves embroiled in the hustle and bustle that immediately precedes birth. Christmas Eve is therefore all about a sense of ‘place’.

Everything happens here, on this holy night. We are drawn to this place in this time to remember and re-enact what happened on that very first, special holy night. At one moment in history, God entered the world on that first Christmas. In a specific time, at a specific place — the town of Bethlehem.

The children re-created the version of the Christmas story according to Luke. And they made sure we got into the roles and felt that sense of place — the innkeeper’s door, the manger scene in that town surrounded by shepherd’s fields under a starry night.

It was that small, dusty, ordinary, rather plain and dull place that was to receive the greatest gift of all time — the gift of God incarnate. Bethlehem was the scene of the glorious host of heaven entering into the world. But, “How could anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the condescending yet prevalent attitude expressed by an early disciple of Jesus (John 1:46). How could it be that Bethlehem and its ragtag cast of characters would receive this gift?

Indeed, receiving gifts is just as important as giving gifts at Christmas. I think, in our achievement, accomplishment and success -oriented culture, it is more difficult to truly open our hearts and unconditionally receive a gift of great joy. When we don’t feel like we have to somehow return the favour, or earn it by our hard work. I think for many of us busy-bodies, to stop and just be — before any active response — is tough to do.
We are so used to ‘providing for’, doing it, giving it, expending our energy, performing, succeeding; or, God-forbid failing at succeeding, accomplishing by our acts of heroism — to care for another, to make it happen for others. We are compulsive in our drive to be a champion of something or another.

You’d think we were the Messiah coming to save the world by observing some of our actions.

I heard from several of you this Advent how you haven’t this time around either decorated or baked or ‘checked off the list’ all the things you’ve normally done in years past. And this was cause for moments of anxiety: “Would Christmas be the same?” And what a gift it was to hear from you confess that, indeed, Christmas has come to you at a more meaningful level as ever before.

Could it be, because we are slowly learning, simply, to receive the gift that comes, despite us?

One of the oldest prayers and carols in the Christian tradition, originally expressed in Latin: Dona Nobis Pacem — give us peace. “Peace on earth” is the purpose of Christ-coming. The peace we seek in our lives. And for that to happen, we need first to relinquish our Messianic compulsions. We need to recognize and accept our human limitations. And that is good. Because when we can release our grip — or at least loosen it for a moment — could we, then, have peace.

O Little Town of Bethlehem signifies this gift of peace. Why? Precisely because it is un-spectacular. It is not an exceptional town in the region of Nazareth. You would not find Bethlehem listed prominently in the Frommer’s tour guide books from the 1st century. Maybe that’s why it took the Magi some time to get there. It’s like one of the ‘if you blink you’ll miss it’ crossroad hamlets that dot the rural landscape of our land.

If you drive down highway 41 south from Pembroke through Eganville towards Denbigh, you pass by one of those blue-coloured town signs with the word “Khartoum” written on it. Khartoum, Ontario — do you know it? It is actually a town — but you might count three houses driving by amidst the pine, spruce and rock-lined, winding roadway. Khartoum is like the Bethlehem of Ontario.
Perhaps because expectations are low. Why so many don’t have peace at Christmas is because expectations are so crazy and unreasonable at this time of year. Again, assuming ‘we make Christmas happen’. But this is not the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not make Christmas happen.

The Gospel — the good news — of Christmas is that the baby Jesus had to rely on this ragtag cast of characters to survive. The holy child, the divine made flesh, the almighty God — became vulnerable. God had to wait. God had to receive the gift of these imperfect characters, these unimpressive, un-extraordinary people. Jesus the baby had to receive their gifts of protection, love, care, and support. In order to be the greatest gift for us, God had to receive our imperfect gifts. God waits to receive our imperfect gifts, our offerings, our giving.

I’m learning something as I begin the second half of my life: The art of letting God come to me. It’s not dissimilar from the the concept espoused by those who coach sports, who advise: “Let the game come to you.” They make reference, of course, to players and teams on a winning streak who play loosely, who are not trying too hard, who don’t hold their sticks or bats too tightly; And, who nevertheless concentrate, who are in the flow, in the zone. Yes.

But they are not making it happen. They are not driving it too hard. Doing too much. Nor are they over-stating their presence, pushing it. Let it come to you, rather than trying to make it happen — this is the practical yet difficult challenge at Christmas.

Christian writer and teacher, Henri Nouwen, wrote: “Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid, and let God …be our companion”. Allow God — whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend — come to us. (Henri Nouwen, “Gracias!” in “Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M Nouwen”)

A birthing experience will force all closely involved into a receptive state of being — as uncomfortable as that might be for some of us control freaks. We do need to just let it happen when it will. Let the gift come to us.

The unconditional love, unconditional positive regard, the faithfulness of God in us, the trust of the baby Jesus — these truths bring us all to a level playing field. There is no them-and-us. There is no outsider in God’s realm. There is no hierarchy of social standing. There is no moral-achievement program here. There is no ladder to climb.

Rather, God climbs down the ladder to us, just as we are. Because God’s love for us is so great. That is the message of Christmas. That is the peace that we seek.

Let there be peace on earth and goodwill among all people! Merry Christmas!

An Advent-Christmas funeral sermon

In some churches, the manger scenes during the Advent season are left intentionally incomplete: For example, as in our creche, the manger is empty; during the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the figurine of baby Jesus is not there. Until December 25th.

In one congregation that worships in a large, cathedral-type building, the magi start their journey at the beginning of Advent somewhere in the narthex (the entrance). Each successive Sunday in Advent, the magi move closer to the manger scene which is set up at the front near the altar.

And, each Sunday, the children of the congregation are charged with a treasure-hunt search for where the figurines of the magi have been placed that week — whether on a decorated window sill, or beside a poinsettia plant, or on the steps to the chancel, etc.

Not only do these traditions emphasize the important Advent themes of waiting and watching with expectation for the coming Christmas joy, we are reminded at this time of year that we are, all of us, indeed, on a journey towards the manger, towards a new encounter with Jesus.

I believe Grant’s love of hiking revealed his ability to see the Big Picture. You see, when you go on a hike, following a trail that spans hundreds of kilometres as Grant has done on occasion, you are not just meandering aimlessly. Oh, yes, the trail can take many twists, turns, ups and downs.

But part of the joy of long-distance hiking is understanding in your imagination where you are headed, where you began, and the relationship between the two. No matter where you are along that journey, you can see the Big Picture.

One of my favourite visual effects of modern cinema does this well: From the perspective of the TV/movie camera, a scene of someone or something that happens on the ground in one moment of time is suddenly zoomed out; we move backwards up into the sky — still focused on the ground, but quickly disappears through the clouds and then into outer space. And we can see the planet earth and the solar system. And we can understand how that particular event or person on earth relates to the cosmos!

To have this Big Picture vision is to see our present reality, on the ground, from the perspective of not only history (where you’ve been) but also from the perspective of the future (where you’re going). Grant was a Big Picture kind of guy. He enjoyed the long-distance hike.

The ancient caravan routes through the Holy Land, Judean desert I think informed the prophetic writings, many of which we read in the Bible. These caravan routes were the life-line of the economy, and framed the boundaries of social order.

When you followed a caravan route you were walking a path trodden by generations of people who came before you, and a path that was followed by many once you were gone. This is the experience of people who journey, in every time and place.

I like our Bishop’s repeated advice to pastors whenever we gather for clergy and leadership retreats: “Remember, we are one and all merely ‘interim’ pastors”. Even pastors who are tenured and may remain years, even decades, in one parish are still, only, ‘interim’. They are interim because there were pastors who preceded them in the congregations’s history, and hopefully there will be more pastors coming once they are gone.

The point is not a focus on the pastor so much as seeing that pastor in the context of the larger history and journey of a congregation. It’s to regard an individual from the perspective of the Big Picture.

I can see why Richard Rohr uses the term, Big Picture, to understand the Kingdom of God. Because even though we are in constant transition on the caravan route, both the memory of the past and the promise of the future impinge on the present moment. In the Big Picture, the twin pulls of historical and future vision reveal a “vibrant now” in which God’s kingdom is complete and dwelling among us (Gail Ricciuti, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.94).

Being in the present moment, while informed by the past and motivated by the future promise, requires that you keep both feet on the ground. Hiking is an activity that requires the hiker not merely to keep moving, but to keep focused on the ground, one step at a time. It’s a cliche, but it’s a good one: a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

As such, the journey of faith is grounded in the moment. It is earthy, real. Your boots, feet and legs get dirty, scratched, bitten, sunburned. The Big Picture ultimately, for it to be effective, is anchored in the present, gritty, sometimes ugly circumstance of life.

Even when we experience death, loss, suffering and pain; this is part of the route when we have to go through the wilderness, the desert, and navigate the ‘dark night of the soul’ (St John of the Cross).

When I hiked part of the Bruce Trail near Tobermory on the Bruce Peninsula years ago, I remember first following the trail from the parking lot to a cliff- edge standing over a hundred feet above the crashing surf of Georgian Bay. It was a beautiful vista overlooking the bay, the sky, the water birds. The memory is vibrant: breathing in the marine smells, feeling the warm, morning sun. I relished the moment, standing still, taking it all in.

I didn’t want to turn my back on it, and continue on the hike. I wanted the moment to last forever. I felt that should I continue on the trail, I would never experience such a blissful moment again. It wasn’t easy to rip myself away. However, in the course of the day, there were many more such views I enjoyed along the trail.

The poet T.S. Elliott wrote: “The end is where we start from … or say that the end precedes the beginning” (ibid.). Grant met his ‘end’, we say, in dying. But that ending was just the start of something new. Our faith in God, the promise of salvation, Jesus’ resurrection, and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit — we are, each and everyone of us, including Grant — well equipped for the journey of life and death.

Because even though we might need to keep putting one foot forward and turn our back on the old, there is in each turn only something new waiting for us — a new perspective, something beautiful, something beyond our wildest dreams.

When we finish our walk on earth, the journey to Jesus merely takes on a whole new dimension. This Christmas, like the Magi who finally arrive at their destination to encounter the Christ child, Grant arrives home — his home with the Creator God and his Saviour Jesus. Now, he can experience life and union with God in a whole new, and deeper way.

One thing remains. The caravan is a journey undertaken with others, together. No one would even consider travelling the caravan routes through the desert alone. Jesus travelled with Grant throughout his life on earth, just as Jesus embraces Grant this day, with all the hosts of heaven.

Psalm 139:7-10
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.