December 31

Ruminations at Christmas

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 2: 22-40

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The story of Christmas, the birthday of the Lord, begins with the nation of Israel, ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’, the longings and dreams of God’s chosen people for a clearer sense of His presence and a clearer vision of his purpose.  In the reign of King Herod, only 60 generations ago, a poor carpenter and his pregnant wife went to Bethlehem to pay the state tax.  Mary was close to her time, and so, rather than camp as usual with the other poor travelers, Joseph decided to get a room in an inn.  He was too late.  They camped in a cave that also was a covering for the innkeeper’s animals.  And that night a child was born, among cattle, yet visited by Kings, a child whose mature life would change the course of time and history. ‘Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all people!’.  This story is very close to us. Bethlehem is not that far away.  The year 1 is not that long ago.  The conditions into which Jesus was born are not that different from the conditions into which poor babies today are born.  This story is close to us.   As Galatians teaches, ‘born of woman, born under the law’.

The message of the birthday story is a glorious one.  The message: a simple Hebrew word ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’, ‘God with us’, ‘Gott mit uns’.  ‘Dios con nosotros’.  ‘Dieu avec nous’.  “God with us’. ‘Emmanuel’.  It requires a lifetime, a full exposure to the patterns of grace, to know this truth.  We hear of it in the greatest words in Western literature and language:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  Those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness on them has light shined (Isaiah).  Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke).  In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them (Paul). The Lord will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations (Isaiah, today). There is something shattering about this message, this mystery:  that the Lord God Creator, the first, the last, beyond all thought, would stoop so low as to become a poor peasant child.  But that is the simple, shocking, difficult message.  ‘God above, man below, holy is the name I know’.  ‘God with us’ is the message. Emmanuel.  With us, as in today’s Gospel, in others:  Simeon, Mary, Anna, others.

The meaning in the message of the Christmas story is that God is with us in our weakness, limitation, and smallness, in order that we might respond to Him, that we might become like Him…

God with us, miraculously, in weakness.  God touching us before and without our response.  This is the meaning of baptism.  In the light of God’s care, one can never be or become a means to an end, become commodified.   One baptized is an end in himself.  He has been blessed by God.  This is a saving act, being born again.  Martin Luther knew it when, locked in the Wittenberg Castle and tormented by demons cried out, ‘I am baptized!’

God with us, miraculously, in our limitation.  The most hateful aspects of life—we all know this—are its limitations:  illness, poverty, society (warfare), mind (ignorance), heart (we do what we would not do), relationship (we glide past each other), nature (winter weather), and the final limit, death itself.  God with us in suffering, with the victims of fire in the South Bronx, God with us even—especially—at the point of limitation (sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness).

God with us, miraculously, in the smallness of our lives, the pettiness, to be negative, and the delightful detail, to be positive, of our few days on earth.  God taking on our smallness to give us a model of how to live.  We all need models, like the French architect of the Statue of Liberty, who modeled that on his own mother.  If we are to grow in the knowledge of God we benefit from a model, a model on our own level, of our own scale.

God with us, miraculously, in our response to Him.  This is the church, the Body of Christ, God with us in our response to God.  Where does change occur?  In the church.  At best, the church embodies ultimate reasons for real change.

The hope in the meaning of the message of the story of Christmas is the oreal hope for this world, that we will live together in the spirit of Christ, as Longfellow sang at Christmas: ‘till ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day, a voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of ‘Peace on Earth, Good will to Men’. This is the hope in our gospel in our fellowship, in our preaching, in our life together, now.

Included in our gospel as pronounced today are the sick, the broken of body.  The rail at which we gather is their rail, too.  The hymns and prayers are theirs, too.  The spirit of love is present to the broken of body.  In this political season, we may be subtly encouraged to forget the broken.  In the rush to build and develop our church, or our nation, we may be encouraged to leave the weak behind.  But for whom is this preachment, if not for the sick?  For whom is the life of the church, if not for the sick?  For whom has Christ died, if not for the sick?  For whom has Christ died, if not for you in your brokenness?  You have time to visit one sick person this week.  The sick are included, centrally, in our Christmas gospel.

Included in our fellowship are the poor, those still left outside the party.  This rail is their rail.  Hymns and prayers are meant for them.  The spirit of love struggles in our institutions to take from the rich and give to the poor.  Right now we are set to take from the poor to give to the rich.  Yes, the poor ye have always with you.  Yes, the poor share responsibility for their condition (one dime on a dollar at best).  Yes the poor—with us all—stumble in the sin of sloth. They are able to give us, we lucky enough to have so much more, nothing.  But love becomes mercenary if it depends on the advantage each wants to gain.  The poor depend on the free service of our wills, and so, strangely, and powerfully, can help us love.  For whom is this preachment,  if not for the poor?  You can remember the poor this week.  The poor are included in our fellowship at Christmas.

Included in our preaching come Christmas are the brokenhearted, who have lost an irreplaceable person or dream.  The rail, hymns and prayers—and another day, the supper of the Lord—are comfort to the heartsick, to the poor in spirit. When we are heartbroken, heartsick, when we are poor in spirit, we lean on God.  Faith is most faith when it is all you have left.  We need God, heartsick, because, just now, we have a gaping hole, a crying need, a sorrow.  In the desert, we learn to appreciate water.  In the tundra, we learn to appreciate warmth.  In isolation and loneliness, we appreciate a kind word.  You can speak kindly to someone today and tomorrow.  You can.  Think how good tomorrow might be if you will brighten it with care, with kindness.  The brokenhearted are included in our preaching here.

Here is hope at Christmas, and with powerful specificity, hope for the sick, the poor, and the brokenhearted.  We give thanks for the story, the message, the meaning, and the hope of Christmas, the birth of the Lord.

My father died seven years ago.  One of his set of gifts to me was his genuine, authentic unsentimental experience and endurance of poverty, of illness, and of sorrow.  Those of us who have not known lack, poverty, loss, or need much in our own lives, keenly need to remember, in 2018, what life outside in the cold is like.  We may need to delve into memories that are generation or two or more old, when we, our people, you, your people, knew what it meant to be poor.  Much of our civil strife right know is enforced by this amnesia, this lack of memory of hurt.  This month I came across a story my dad had told, for me and my congregation, on Christmas Eve, 1995, the day on which his sister died.

Christmas 1938 came a few days before December 25.  Not only did my mother and uncle, with whom we lived, have to work on Christmas day, but my sister and I were to travel by train to Norwood, NY, to spend Christmas with my Grandfather Hill, another Aunt, and my Dad, separated from my mother for years.  So on the evening before we were to go the adults in our family arranged to have a full fledged Christmas morning, in the evening!

After a holiday supper, my sister and I were allowed into the living room where our stockings were filled, presents were wrapped and under the tree, and carols were playing on the Victrola.

That Christmas was very special because we knew my mother did not want us to be so far away on this very special day, but she recognized that our father and his father and our Aunt needed to have the sound of our young voices on Christmas morning.

She arranged fantastic gifts:  a Shirley Temple doll for my sister and a pair of hickory skis for me.  I still have them.  How she found the money in the depths of the depression for those fantastic gifts I’ll never know.  How she could have let us go I’ll never know.  But that was my mom.

In retrospect through this experience she taught Jean and me the meaning of giving and sacrifice, love and hope, joy in faith.  It changed our view of Christmas.

My sister died this morning full of grace and now has answers that some of us will continue to search for!

Christ came into the world filled with grace and truth to show how God wants us to live from birth to death and beyond death and until we can demonstrate that we have learned these lessons we will be living by faith, through these difficult penultimate days—but we know God is with us!

(Irving Hill, Erwin UMC, Syracuse, 12/24/95)

How shall we resolve then to hear this gospel of love, to acquaint ourselves with it and adjust ourselves to it, and then, with gladness to live it, as 2018 opens out before us?  Upon what actual, special interests and explorations shall we, shall you, shall I, bring our faith, lived in the glorious shadow of the faithfulness of God in Christ, this year?

Shall we attend to one or another of the issues of personal health which may have impeded our glad living, in the past?

Shall we give ourselves in extra measure to the growth of some dear institution, dear to us, now, for many years?

Shall we go ahead and go out and write a book, or write another book, under the apprehension that everyone has at least one good book in them?

Shall we bear down, and buckle down, and make a plan to make a plan to invest ourselves in the betterment of our culture, our society, our civilization, by joining up, attending to, giving for a just, participatory, and sustainable common hope, in our time?

Shall we learn another language, koine greek, or esperanoto, or Japanese, in order to see in detail another way to see in detail the detail of every day?

Shall we return in reading and thought to an abandoned farm, barns and fences all a-kilter, that of biblical theology, biblical theology, as a way of understanding not just sincerity and authenticity, but irony as well in the spiritual background and moral accompaniment of our time?

Health, growth, book, betterment, language, theology—et toi, and you, and me, and all?  What ruminations have you this Christmastide, this New Year’s Eve?

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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