Christmas Day – our gift is good enough

This Christmas message begins two months ago, on Halloween night. Yes, Halloween, when the goblins, skeletons, super-heroes and pirates were out in full force trick-o’-treating. 

It was a dark night. And pouring rain. But the children were determined to fill their sacks with as much candy as possible. 

Even the parents were in on it. In Arnprior, this made the local news: One Dad had lifted the large, tented car port from its moorings. Then he found three more willing parents to help him carry it like a giant umbrella down the street, protecting the dozens of huddled, costumed children from the relentless rain. 

When there is a will there is a way. Nothing was going to stop these folks on their mission to get the children as many treats as humanly possible. Talk about commitment. Dedication. Sacrifice. Self-reliance. For a cause.

Then, I heard of one grandparent who decided to give out candy at their door the same Halloween night, but here in Ottawa. He was going to get in on the spirit of it all and dress up himself. But, this time, he was going to shock his costumed visitors.

So, imagine with me the scene: Let’s say on Halloween you are going house to house with your pillow bag already brimming full of candy, pop and chips. And as you walk up the lane to the front door of thishouse, you start noticing something a bit off: 

Bright Christmas lights are hung around the front door frame and porch, blinking in blues, reds, greens and yellows. Ok. And when the front door opens, who is standing there, but Santa Claus! And he is ringing a hand bell and calling in a booming voice: “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

The grandparent who did this (sometimes adults will dress up as Santa Claus, you know!) reported to me afterwards about one little princess who stood at the door, dripping wet from the rain, mouth gaping open, eyes popping out. And she stood there for what seemed as an eternity. You could see the wheels in her head turning, wondering what on earth to do.

Finally, she made up her mind. The little girl placed her snack-and-candy-laden sack on ground and with two hands reached deep into the pillow case, pulled out fists full of treats and handed it all over to Santa. “Merry Christmas, Santa,” she said. I think it was Santa who was momentarily caught off guard, wondering what to do.

At Christmas, there’s a lot of pressure to perform with our giving. Today, it’s almost unheard of to limit a gift to $5. Today, if you’re not spending hundreds of dollars, will it impress? Yet, many will give in impressive ways – their time, energy, passion, money, and a gift for everyone on the list. Yes, we can say that it’s indeed better to give than to receive.[1]Yes, we can perhaps even point to times when it felt good to do so. 

But what if we feel there’s no more gas in the tank? What if we feel like we have no more to give. That we can’t keep up. We may decide not to give out any gifts because of this pressure we feel to impress. The emotional and digestive roller coaster, that is often what we experience over the holidays, may leave us spent, exhausted and hating people, hating ourselves. What more, on earth, can I give to anyone, let alone God?

Long ago, followers of Christ began to commemorate the coming of Jesus at the darkest time of the year. It was probably no accident that God came into the world when everything seemed so dark, so hopeless and helpless.

In the Gospel today from John, we read: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”[2]These words of hope are central to the first chapter in John’s Gospel. It is then no accident that we today celebrate Christmas just days after the winter solstice, December 21, which in the northern hemisphere is literally the darkest time of the year. 

In John’s telling there are no angel choruses. In John’s telling there are no shepherds tending flock. In John’s telling there are no wise men travelling from afar. In John’s telling there isn’t even a baby lying in a manger with Joseph and Mary looking on. Those are the stories Matthew and Luke tell. 

In John, the message is about the meaningof God becoming human, the word made flesh. At Christmas, we’re not just talking about getting ready, waiting and getting prepared for the little baby Jesus to be born. That already happened two thousand years ago! What Christians have been doing every year since is welcoming the Christ that is forever being born in the human soul and into history of every time and place.[3]

Ancient Christians knew very well that this Jesus, his teaching, his message, his life, his spirit, his example, leads us to the way of life itself. The way of life where we take care for one another and the world, loving God and each other as children of God.

In John’s Gospel the way of life in Christ is gift. Pure gift. God is with us – Emanuel. God now lives in us, and is born in us. There’s nothing we can or can’t do that changes God’s intention to come to us in love, over and over again.

When we pray at Jesus’ coming into this world, we are admitting a truth that flies in the face of our heroic attempts at Christmas – attempts to get something more out of it for ourselves or for others, to impress others, to meet and exceed expectations, to perform well. Even when we give for the wrong reasons.

Maybe we do need, again, simply to kneel by the manger side where God is born in a baby – vulnerable, weak and helpless. Maybe we do need, again to kneel by the manger and remember that we did not choose to come into the world on our own. We did not choose our families of origin, our ethnicity, or our sexuality. While we were born with intelligence and with the capacity for learning, we did not arrive fully assembled nor did we come with instructions.

We are children of God, truly. In our honesty. In our vulnerability. In our instinct to turn to God. And that’s good enough for God. For God is with us now. The only instinct we had in the beginning – like baby Jesus did – once our lungs were clear after birth, the only instinct we had was to cry out for help as loudly as we could.[4]And that’s good enough for God. For God is with us now.

God receives us, as we are. At the manger side, there are no expectations, no need to put on a good impression or please anyone. We come as we are. The greatest gift we can bring to God and to life is our presence, our heart, our intention and attention.

What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him – give my heart.[5]And that prayer is good enough for God. For God is with us now.

Merry Christmas!


[1]Acts 20:35

[2]John 1:5,9

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Celebrating an Eternal Advent” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation(www.cac.org, Tuesday, December 24, 2019).

[4]Br. Jim Woodrum, “Help – Brother, Give Us A Word” (Society of Saint John the Evangelist, December 4, 2019)

[5]“In the Bleak Midwinter” v.3 (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006), Hymn 294

Christmas Day – funeral sermon

Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Matthew 13:44-46; 6:21)

“Your mother is always with you … She is Christmas morning.”

Though your mother veered away from the Italian version of her first name, “Santa”, because of its obvious English connotation to ‘Santa Claus’, there is too much about your mother’s journey to avoid mention of Christmas Day, the day she died.

Of course, “Santa”, in Italian means “Saint.” There is indeed something godly about your mother’s journey that can leave for us a legacy of love and hope. She was, after all, a saint. But a human, as well. As Martin Luther said about all of us—we are simultaneously saints and sinners.

The scriptures her brothers sent for inclusion in this service point, also, to an important part of how your mother was with you. Normally when we hear the words of Jesus: “the kingdom of heaven is like …” such and such when someone does so and so, we think of the job we must do to enter that kingdom.

That’s part of it. Your mother certainly demonstrated determination and tenacity. She showed a singularity of mind and spirit about the things she liked to do, and the way she did them: a religious person, attending to ritual and prayer her whole life long; a gardener and craftsperson, committed and caring to her family. Never forgetting birthdays and special anniversaries.

Stubbornness may be the other side of that coin of having a clear, focused intention to what she was all about. She strikes me as a person you would never need to wonder about what she really wanted or what she believed. Indeed, the kingdom of heaven is like when someone knows what they want, and with joys seeks it out leaving all else behind.

At the same time, the words of Jesus point to what God is all about. I also consider those scriptures about the kingdom of heaven as describing the character of God: A God who treasures your Mother as much as God treasures each one of us. And will stop at nothing to find us. And give up God’s very life on the cross—give up everything—in order to be with us and love us. Where God’s treasure is—in us—there God’s heart is also.

Again, this is the message of Christmas, the day your Mother died. A message of One who comes into our life even in the messiness and despair of being human. Born a vulnerable baby to poor, teenage parents in a backwater town of Bethlehem. The message of Christmas is about a God who ‘sells it all’ in order to be with us. In order to know us, really know us. To grieve with us. To enjoy with us. To walk with us this often difficult journey that your Mother knew all too well.

And, to give us a wonderful promise of one day being united with all whom we loved on earth, at the end of the road.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Courage and Joy

Last night, the hustle and bustle of getting ready, and anticipating the birth. Last night, the noise, the anxiety, the smelly stable, the animals, the shepherds, the chorus of heaven singing in the starry, silent night. “Joy to the world” indeed!

Today, however, the child is born. A little more breathing room, perhaps. A little more time for realizing what just has happened. Time, amidst the burping, squawking infant feeding for quiet reflection, to ponder this miraculous birth, this wondrous event that will change everything! “What child is this?” indeed!

As things begin to sink in, to settle, one may ponder the last several months as I am sure Mary and Joseph did — how it all began to take shape. It all started, of course, when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary to tell her the news of God’s intention (Luke 1). 

Looking back, this was the critical moment. In the reverie it almost feels like the Mission Impossible theme song should start up: “Should you choose to accept your mission ….” Da-Da, Da-Da-Da, Da-Da. 

Everything depended on that moment of decision on Mary’s part. The course of history hung in the balance. So much at stake. What does she do? How will she respond?

During Christmas, Mary mother of Jesus figures prominently in the story-telling. Traditionally, Mary has been imagined by Christians as a passive, placid, sweet and quiet girl. Certainly she is portrayed like this in many a Sunday School Christmas pageant.

But the biblical record suggests something more. Listen to the famous poem, the “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov who captures the immensity of the moment:

“We know the scene: the room, variously furnished, 

almost always a lectern, a book; always

the tall lily.

       

Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,

the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,

whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions

courage.

       

The engendering Spirit

did not enter her without consent.

God waited.

She was free

to accept or to refuse, choice

integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations

of one sort or another

in most lives?

         

Some unwillingly

undertake great destinies,

enact them in sullen pride,

uncomprehending.

More often

those moments

when roads of light and storm

open from darkness in a man or woman,

are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair

and with relief.

Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.

But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept

like any other child–but unlike others,

wept only for pity, laughed

in joy not triumph.

Compassion and intelligence

fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous

than any in all of Time,

she did not quail,

only asked

a simple, ‘How can this be?’

and gravely, courteously,

took to heart the angel’s reply,

the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb

Infinite weight and lightness; to carry

in hidden, finite inwardness,

nine months of Eternity; to contain

in slender vase of being,

the sum of power–

in narrow flesh,

the sum of light.

                     

Then bring to birth,

push out into air, a Man-child

needing, like any other,

milk and love–

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,

when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed, Spirit suspended, waiting.

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’

Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’

She did not submit with gritted teeth,

raging, coerced.

Bravest of all humans,

consent illumined her.

The room filled with its light,

the lily glowed in it,

and the iridescent wings.

Consent,

courage unparalleled,

opened her utterly.”

How did she handle the moment of decision before the Angel Gabriel? I must conclude, with both courage AND joy. Often we don’t consider the two together. Either someone has a whole lot of courage, determination, and serious intent about their business. Or, someone tends towards the frivolous, uncontained in their happiness and joyful demeanour — even being silly, unfettered from the cares of the world.

During the memorial service for the late Dorothy Mueller last week, we recalled a moment in Dorothy’s early life in Montreal with her husband Henry. One night all dressed up for going out dancing on the town, she and Henry came across a street fight where a couple boys were beating up another. Without missing a beat she crossed the street, strode right up to the offending boys and demanded that they stop their violence. Which they did.

Not many of us would demonstrate that level of courage in the public arena. And take the risk to stand up out of passionate concern for the underdog, the downtrodden, the suffering, the poor.

What else is impressive is that she showed that courage while out on the night, dancing. Along with any kind of bold, courageous deed on behalf of the poor, we must also be filled with joy, of letting go, of honest and playful engagement with ourselves and our loved ones — all of which good dancing demands and embodies.

Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, and others, have suggested that the most appropriate contemporary equivalent to “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) may be “The Word became poor.” (1) Like Mary, like Dorothy, we too need to express joy in our lives even as we are called to do the right things on behalf of the poor and the needy.

Dancing is a relational/relationship-building activity. And this is what we ultimately celebrate at Christmas. When Mary, with courage and joy, accepted the mission presented by the Angel Gabriel, the God-human relationship was now restored in the incarnation — the birth of Jesus. Indeed, “The Word became flesh.” Because of that first Christmas the divine could finally, truly and intimately relate to all humanity. To us.

God was now human in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the divine-human dance. At Christmas we ponder the love of God that seeks to fully understand each one of us. We ponder this great love which brings God’s comfort, mercy and encouragement no matter the depth of our grief, the extent of our suffering, the measure of our pain and loss. Jesus came into the darkness of the 1st century world. And, Jesus continues to come into the darkness of our lives.

At Christmas-time, this year, the dance continues. Yes, the world, our lives, still have problems. At the same time we can express the grace of God that comes to us in different ways, and to each according to our needs.

Perhaps, on this Christmas Day, we can start by giving thanks to God for Mary — her courage and joy at being the first to receive Christ.

(1) cited in “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion”, WJK Press Kentucky, 2014, p.138

Christmas: Jesus all grown-up in us

In the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, Mary — the God-bearer — is depicted in a magnificent rose window above the altar. What strikes me is the size of Mary’s womb. Mary sits in this glorious stained-glass circle with outstretched arms and a womb so large it contains Jesus standing as a grown man, with his arms open wide. (Trisha Lyons Senterfitt, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p. 90)

Why the adult form of Jesus? After all, isn’t the Christmas story of Mary giving birth to the Son of Man about a baby Jesus? Was the artist of this stained glass window confusing metaphors?

Or, is there something more going on here worthy of our reflection?

After all, the historical Jesus was a man. But Christ was not his last name. “The Christ” includes the whole sweep of creation, and history joined with him, including you and me. We are members, each and every one of us, of the Body of Christ — this ‘mystical union’ we call it in our liturgy; Lutherans have sometimes called it the ‘invisible union’ of the church. Though we cannot claim to be the historical Jesus, obviously, we are, as Martin Luther described it, “little Christs”. We rightly believe in Jesus Christ — and both names — ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ — are important. We, like Mary, are Christ-bearers.

The celebration of Christmas is not merely a reverie about a baby born in Bethlehem. We do the Gospel of Jesus no favour when we make Jesus, the eternal Christ, into a perpetual baby, a baby able to ask little or no adult response from us. That may have been the role of Advent — the season of preparing the way of the Lord, when we consider how to make room for the birth of Jesus in our lives. A baby image can be helpful, to start with: A sign of grace that results in a sweet feeling of love.

But, eventually, we have to grow up. A mature Christianity, today, receives the risen Christ in his fullness. In relationship with Jesus the Christ, there come expectations. God wants to relate to us in our adulthood — expecting a full, free, responsible, participatory (Philippians 3:10), cooperative (Romans 8:28) and mature (Ephesians 4:13) adult response from us. When we pray, “Come, Christ Jesus”, we are asking for our own full birth and transformation. God, in our growth, wants ultimately to have an adult relationship with us.

When we read in the Gospel today that we have the power to become “children of God” (John 1:12) we are not relinquishing any responsibility and mature engagement with our faith; being a ‘child of God’, a wonderful expression, simply indicates that God is God and I am not; being a ‘child of God’ describes a quality of trust towards God, a trust that despite any delusion on my part that I can somehow earn God’s favour. Because God still has faith in me. God will never give up on me.

But Christ has come! And it is the risen Christ in 2014, not the historical baby, of two thousand years ago! (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas” Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 2008, p.8-9)

In our lives we have the capability already born within us to have room for our transformation. We are all ‘pregnant’ with the possibility of new life, becoming more than we are, growing up into the fullness promised to us in Christ. For God is with us and in us.

So, what does that path to our transformation look like?

In a modern painting of the manger scene by German artist Beate Heinen, Mary and Joseph hover over their newborn baby boy Jesus. There are no angels in the painting, neither ox and donkey nor any of the people, who in our imagination usually gather around the crib – shepherds and kings; just the three of them: Mary, Joseph and the child lying in a manger, which looks conspicuously like a coffin. The scene is set in a cold cavern like stable from which a winding path leads to a distant hill with three crosses. (Thank you to Rev. Thomas Mertz for this illustration)

In all the glory and celebration of the Advent and Christmas season this image sticks out like a sore thumb. As we celebrate the renewed life and hope for our world in Christ, the reminder to suffering and death creates a stumbling block. And it always has.

“How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?”(Mark 9:12) The words though spoken by Jesus reflect a nagging question on the minds and in the hearts of the disciples: “How can it be that our salvation comes through the suffering of God?” A few years later Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the message about the cross is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1).

You will notice that halfway between the manger and the hill in Beate Heinen’s painting there are three wanderers – a reminiscence of Jesus meeting two of his disciples on their way to Emmaus; still struggling and pondering the same questions, facing the foolishness of the cross.

As all believers they travel the road between the Good News of Christmas, the pain of Good Friday and the Glory of Easter. And it is not until they gather around a table, worshipping and united in the breaking of bread, that in the presence of God all starts to fall into place and their questions come to rest (Luke 24:13-35).

“The word made flesh” is the proclamation of the festive celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. The word made flesh! Meaning, that the Word — Jesus Christ — comes into our very ordinary humanity. But not the glory of humanity in all its splendour and might.

Rather, as the Christmas story reveals, Christ comes into the darkest night of our souls — in the outcast, rejected places. Christ comes into the impoverished places of our lives, and of humanity. As at least one theologian has put it (i.e. Gustavo Gutierrez), the Word made flesh should read: The Word made poor. That’s where Jesus is born and is at work. As Saint Paul put it, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

As bread is broken around the Holy Communion, Christ comes into the broken places in us and into the world where healing is needed. The circle in the Georgia Monastery stained glass reminds me of the trajectory of my life — the promise of completion, wholeness, fulfillment is there, in Christ Jesus. I am continually being re-made, transformed; I am growing, in Christ Jesus. And so are you.

The rest of the world wants to finish Christmas this morning. But the true Christmas message that begins today does not allow us to keep stuck in our baby Christianity. But invites us to grow up — no matter how young we are — in a maturing faith, deepening commitment, and active Christian witness to the newborn King!

May we grow into a fuller, deeper celebration of Christmas in the days to come, as we ponder the mystery of God’s incarnation, God entering our humanity.