Two Views of Christmas

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Luke 1: 26-38
Lectionary Readings

Looking Down

There are two ways to sing of Christmas. Christmas is a sung gospel, a sung Psalter, a sung liturgy, a sung word of grace.

There are two perspectives on the Gospel read this morning.

One is to look down and see the Gospel. One is to look up and see the Gospel. One is to sing Christmas from memory. One is to sing Christmas in hope. Both are good, both are glad, both are glad tidings of great joy, to all people.

First.

The song of Christmas is one that we remember from days gone by, beginning with the days of Herod the King. Christmas has a depth, a past, a root, a ground. Christmas grounds our being, gives grounding to our souls, grinds out our salvation, generation to generation. We remember the Christmas song.

The other day with a friend I visited the Hattie Cooper House in Roxbury. More than a hundred years ago, a Methodist minister’s wife began teaching and shepherding neighborhood children, needy children in a tough setting. The work continues, generations later. The remembered Christmas song, there, is sung. That morning a class of four year olds, conscripts for music for the visitors, were marched before us to sing. They sang como si fueran angeles. Their last number was ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’. Do you know how many verses there are to that song? About 200. One happy boy in the middle kept murmuring something. Verse by verse passed. The wind and the rain, in his hands. You and me brother, in his hands. You and me sister, in his hands. Everybody, in his hands. But, like Rachel of old, my favorite four year old conscript chorister was not consoled. He whispered: what about the itty bitty baby? He stammered, after the next verse: what about the itty bitty baby? And when the song was finished, and his verse was not heard, he resoundly remonstrated: WHAT ABOUT THE ITTY BITTY BABY? So we all sang together verse 201. From memory.

We may look down as we sing. Down to depth, down to past, down to root, down to ground.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is down deep, down there. We trust that in Christ, contrary to any and all appearance, there is an explosive impulse for lasting good, peace, good will, among all. This is deep Christmas, sung from the diaphragm. We learn this language, and have learned it, our mother tongue.

Such ground, root, depth, past and memory encircled our Christmas tree, here at Marsh Chapel, when on a Thursday night a dozen undergraduates trimmed the tree. One was from Southern California, another from Minnesota, a third from Florida, one from Washington, another from New York, a sixth from Texas. They made up the tree, and made this nave their home, away from home. They remembered, and acted the memory through.

A deep recession is not as deep as the Christmas impulse for lasting good. A deeply disturbing swindle is not as deep as the Christmas impulse for good. A deep darkness of mistaken warfare is not as deep as the Christmas impulse for good. A deep, dark fear of unemployment, real and tragic, is not as deep as the Christmas impulse for good.

We remember at Christmas, remember the itty bitty baby.

We remember the house and lineage of David. David moves from pasture to palace, from shepherd to King. The impulse, an impulse for lasting good, will appoint a place for all people.

We remember the terse Pauline formula of the Christmas impulse for lasting good: “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret but is now disclosed, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16: 26).

We may note, as we look down, that this teaching is found nowhere in the letters of Paul, our earliest record of Christian hope. We may also record that the other Gospels make no place for the teaching. Mark, our earliest gospel, records nothing of the sort. Matthew and Luke, where they share material, make no provision for it. Later stories in Luke 2 seem to assume the opposite, a natural role for Joseph in the natural birth of Jesus. Only the first chapter of Matthew has anything similar, and is drawing on a reading of Isaiah 7: 14 (‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a child, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’)

Absent any first century hospital records, noting the shock and awe of a miraculous birth, we have no possible way to confirm or deny anything of the historical renderings here. Like the resurrection itself, the account is a call to faith, not a proof for faith. In fact, the narrative has a strong and strange effect on us, today, for the following reason. In our time, we tend to focus on the question of the Divinity enmeshed here. How could God enter a womb? How could the Spirit impregnate a woman? How could the supernatural invade the natural? As Sojourner Truth said to her patronizing patriarchs, ‘He was born of God and woman—man had nothin’ to do with it’! Our gospel does acclaim this mysterious and miraculous event. Yet, its purpose drives down into the human dimension. Luke, here and throughout, is not mainly intent on showing a divine birth (of which the ancient world had many accounts). His purpose is to make sure the Christ of God, God with us, is utterly and certainly human.

It is the humanity of Jesus which is at stake for Luke, not his divinity. Jesus was born of Mary. He grew up, like any other boy. He grew older, like any other young man. With the exception of early teaching prowess and later miracles of healing, his life is like ours, early, middle and late, except without sin. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth was meant to secure Jesus’ humanity as much as his divinity. Our modern concern about the latter, in the white heat of Resurrection faith, was not the central point of the story.

It is our sung Gospel, our sung memory, in the first place, which is our Christmas song. For 2,000 years, women and men of keen mind, good heart, and strong faith have trusted the Christmas impulse for lasting good. In that faith, the world has tasted salt and seen light and gotten better.

The gospel of Christmas is a call to faith. Everything lastingly good in my own life has come in Christ: name by baptism, faith in confirmation, community in Eucharist, vocation and employment in ordination, partnership in marriage, pardon by day and decade in forgiveness, and the hope of eternal life on the last day. I am irremediably Christian, irretrievably so. Yet, when I look up, in Christmas song, I have a sense something more. Look with me as we sing.

Looking Up

There are two ways to sing of Christmas. Christmas is a sung gospel, a sung Psalter, a sung liturgy, a sung word of grace.

There are two perspectives on the Gospel read this morning.

One is to look down and see the Gospel. One is to look up and see the Gospel. One is to sing Christmas from memory. One is to sing Christmas in hope. Both are good, both are glad, both are glad tidings of great joy, to all people.

Second.

Presence. Enchantment. The Christmas Story—which, let us note again, we mainly sing, year by year, rather than teach—turns us toward a capacity to live in the new. To be, and be present. To worship, and be enchanted. Christmas calls you to the possibility of a real, religious experience.

We are in the presence of all that enchants. With ears deadened by entertainment, we are turned to enchantment.

To hear of an angel, Gabriel is to move into Presence, to be grasped by enchantment.

To hear the angel voice quoted—the Lord is with you

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