Like other births, Jesus’ own occurs in the midst of trouble. He is hardly born before another dream befalls Joseph, the poor fellow, a man drenched in dreams, and commands the Holy Family to flee to Egypt. So the prophet had predicted.
Like most growth, Jesus’ own develops amid controversy. Herod fulfils another prophesy by slaying the children of Bethlehem, who then as now are in peril every hour. So the prophet had predicted.
Like much childhood, Jesus’ own transpires amid governmental wrangling, religious strife, and existential uncertainty. His family comes to make their home in Nazareth, down at the north end of the lake, and Jesus becomes a Nazorean. So the prophet had predicted.
Jesus is immersed in our full life. Jesus is our childhood’s measure. Day by day, like us he grew. He was little, weak and helpless. Fears and cares like us he knew. And he feeleth for our sadness. And he shareth in our gladness.
The Christmas Gospel is this: God has taken human form, entered our condition, become flesh.
He came that we might have life and live it abundantly. In the next century after his birth, Ignatius was to say, in summarizing his salvation: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
The birth of Jesus penetrates all of the seasons of life.
Even dear, dour Ecclesiastes, who found so little to celebrate in life, at least made space, in his otherwise saturnine perspective, to honor time, the passage of time, the flow of time, and the regular return of times and seasons:
And a time for every purpose under heaven
As we pause between Christmas Sunday and Christmas Day, (and so between past and future, youth and age, life and death, heaven and earth, this age and the age to come ), perhaps we too can celebrate the seasons of life. For to every denomination there is a season, and a time for every perspective under heaven! The birth of Jesus honors the varieties of religious expression. Here is what I mean.
We begin with the Calvinists. You may not be a cradle Presbyterian. But they are good people. You may never have wanted to wade in the dark, icy water of Calvinist despair. You may not see yourself through the lens of a Bergman film. But there is a time and a season. When Ash Wednesday arrives in the next few months, we are all Presbyterians. Yes, if at no other point, on this day we do well to read Calvin. For we are dust, and to dust we do return, as both the Bible and Ignatius of Loyola taught. We do all sin, and do all fall short of the glory of God. We are fully mortal and utterly prone to harm others. In Calvin’s favorite, winning phrase, a personal delight of my own as well, we are, simply, “totally depraved”. His follower, Jonathan Edwards, described us as sinners in the hands of an angry God, held like filthy spiders over the pits of hellfire, and spared only by God’s strong wrist, who in holding us to save us, nonetheless averts his eyes from the hideous sight. Yikes! That is serious Ash Wednesday stuff! Really to sense this, you need the mind of John Calvin, the voice of Jonathan Edwards, and the heart of John of Patmos. I admit, it is not an invariably happy creed, but it is a right and good and sober one. As my Scottish Presbyterian relatives from my mother in law’s side might say: “Bob, you are so often, so wrong!.” Buy a Presbyterian lunch early in Lent, and appreciate the gifts of their season.
Speaking of Lent, we may enjoy the gifts of the Jesuits. Perhaps you attended a Jesuit college, or teach in one, as I have. Maybe you have wondered about Ignatius of Loyola, born in Pamplona, a Spaniard and a warrior, who was converted through illness to a beatific vision of Jesus, the Christ, Lord and Savior. Believe me, in Lent we are all Jesuits. In the season of Lenten discipline and preparation, you know, March of ice and snow and cold, we rely on some form of Jesuitical discipline. You may not precisely use his “Spiritual Exercises”, his daily devotion of silence and prayer and vision of Jesus. You may be sorry that he set loose the Inquisition and Index as tools of the Counter Reformation. You may feel he carried too much eye and too much military into a faith that is primarily auditory and irenic. In that, you would be a Lutheran, you Lutheran you. But in Lent, we are all soldiers in the Society of Jesus, ready to drill and train and prepare and exercise and submit. As Teresa of Avila put it, “even
when we are thrown from the mud-cart of life, God is with us.” Everyone is a Jesuit, come Lent.
Since, though, you brought up Luther, we must also give credit where credit is due. Come Good Friday, when we survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, our greatest gain we count but loss, and pour contempt on all our pride. I know that the ground at the foot of the cross is pretty level, but the view of the cross that is best is found from the perspective of the Lutherans, who stoutly recall, with Luther, crux sola nostra teologia. The Cross alone is our teaching. Luther’s grave is not found in Lake Wobegon, but you can see it from there. We need to remember, especially on Good Friday, that all of our best intentions fall short. Especially when we think we have it just right, whatever it is, we invariably have it just wrong. It was Katie von Bora, a former nun, who in marrying Luther reminded him of his humanity and “brought out the most winsome traits” of the Reformer’s character. All our symbols, personal and familial and national and denominational, lie prostrate before the cross, all need right interpretation to avoid idolatry. Even the cross, our own central symbol, needs that interpretation, which is why we consent to a 25 minute sermon every week, even though the Baptists would rather shout and pray. Did we in our own strength confide, our winning would be losing! When it comes to the Cross, we remember Luther.
I have just mentioned the Baptists. They are such great hearted people!. Freedom and joy that sometimes gives anarchy a bad name! But t there is a season for everybody. For in June, or late May, when the world is young again, we will celebrate Pentecost, the day of Spirit. After 50 days after 40 days, that is 90 days from Calvin’s ashes, we pause again to remember that God is with us. Wesley died saying, “the best of all is, God is with us!” (Relax, I will get to the Methodists, in due time.) Baptists are all Spirit, whatever the Trinitarian Orthodox say. The Baptists are almost Unitarians of the Third Person of the Trinity! I tell you though, come Pentecost, that’s the day, Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love, please look down and see my people through. When that wind of God is blowing (I do not refer to your preacher sermonizing), then you need some Baptists around to shake things up a little. Rembert Weakland said that Christians are always in a little bit of trouble. Isabella Van Wagener (Sojourner Truth) said, “That man says women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him!” See what I mean?! You need to shout when the Spirit says shout!
The Greek Orthodox do not do a lot of shouting on Sunday. Or on Monday. They’re not big shouters, except during their festivals, which happen to come, properly I think, about the time of Trinity Sunday. The more liturgical churches, Episcopalian and Catholic, remember this Sunday better than we do. This is the season when we remember that God is more than Almighty Creator, and that God is more than Lordly Savior, and that God is more than Mysterious Spirit . God is three, three, three Faces in one. Leave it to the Orthodox to remind us. When you come to June 15, go to a Greek festival and dance to the Triune God. Go ahead. Hug a Trinitarian in June! William Ellery Channing may be angry about it, but you go ahead and love your Trinitarian neighbor as your own self. As Constantine’s mother, Helena, may have said on her many 4th century pilgrimages to Jerusalem, “let us remember well those who have revered God before us.”
Now that we are knee deep in liturgy, let us honor the Roman Catholics. Every third member of our congregation and listenership today comes out of a Roman Catholic background. Our history, liturgy, nave, location and personality as a Marsh Chapel congregation have regularly made this service accessible to women and men of many different interests and backgrounds. Come October, on World Communion Sunday, we are all Catholic! With the universal church we celebrate the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. With the universal church we acknowledge one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism. With the universal church we recognize the global character of the Christian communion. It has been the Catholic church, more steadily than most, that has defended the human body in our time. It has been the Catholic church that has regularly regarded the poor and those of low estate. It has been the Catholic church that has kept the long history of Christendom before us. Our liturgical ties to the universal church should not be loosened by the very real doctrinal differences we have with Rome. From our Anglican heritage, we are a moderate people. We know the value of an olive branch. On World Communion Sunday we affirm one holy, catholic and apostolic church. We remember, among so many others, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose simple deeds of service to the poorest spoke volumes to her time.
Did you notice, just now, how the Anglican or Episcopal tradition found its way into our Christmas Sunday seasonal review? Typical. You will usually find an Anglican sidling up alongside you in discussion, listening and careful in discourse. To the Episcopalian a smile comes before a frown, a “quite so” before a “not so”. Anglicans are like everybody else—only moreso. They revere the variety and diversity of the communion of saints. They agree to disagree, agreeably. They are peaceable people, nearly Quaker in character. Not for them the starch of Lutheran polemics, nor the bitter herbs of Calvinist dogma. A little sherry in the afternoon, a little Handel, a little wooly conversation—jolly good! Tallyho! Pip-pip! Cheerio! It is reason, rather than revelation alone, that has guided the Church of England, reason and a stiff dose of liturgy, including the veneration of Saints. One a soldier, one a priest, one slain by a fierce wild beast. On All Saints Day, we are all Anglicans. (And on Halloween, too!!!). They
are princes of peace, these sons and daughters of George III. They are optimistic people! Said Queen Victoria, “we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat”.
And now it is Christmas. Sing we now of Christmas, Noel, Noel! A song greets the dawn. It is the singing of the birds before daybreak that heralds a new morning, and it is the singing of the church of Christ, in season and out, that heralds a new creation. The birds sing while it is still dark, and the church sings while sin remains. People do change, for the better, even when we are reluctant to notice. To come to Christmas, truly to come to Christmas, you must come singing. In church, in the shower, at prayer meeting, in the choir, carolling, at a neighbor’s party, by yourself. To sing is to be a Methodist. A singing Methodist, as our common speech declares. All sing, but none so sweetly. All sing, but none so vibrantly. All sing, but none with a list of rules about how to do so pasted in the front of a hymnal, whose reproduction every generation is the church equivalent of world war. All sing, but none with the theological bearing of singing with the Wesleys. To sing the Wesley hymns is to plant one’s standard upon the field of battle and roar: let the games begin! And what shall we sing? Carols of course. And which carols. Those of the English tradition of course. And which of these? There is but one of the first rank. It is the doctrine of the Incarnation, more than those others from Crucifixion to Resurrection, which so marks the people called Methodist. So the Wesley’s adored the Gospel of John, and “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. So they hoped for a new creation, finished, pure and spotless. So they built churches, great and beautiful, but just for appetizers to the real meal—orphanages, mission societies, colleges, universities, medical schools, hospitals, including Africa University in Zimbabwe, which mission, the greatest Christian mission of our time, your apportionment supports. So Susanna Wesley bore 20 children, one of whom, John, died saying, “the best of all is—God is with us!” Charles, his brother, wrote:
Hail the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark the herald angels sing!
Glory to the Newborn King!
~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel