Christmas 2010. 24, 25 December 2010.
The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail
This sermon is offered to the Glory of God
and in loving memory of Susan Poindexter Massie.
I want to begin by welcoming you all to this feast, especially those of you who may be new to this church, or who are visiting with family or friends. You are very welcome here, and I hope that you will feel very comfortable coming forward to receive the Holy Eucharist later on.
It may be seem strange, but it isn't easy to preach on Christmas. It isn't easy to put words together. This is a "blessed event," as the old expression goes. But more than that, it's the most blessed event.
People want to hold the baby. If you wash your hands and ask nicely, quite often the mother will let you. When that baby comes into your arms, it changes everything about you. You'll notice how small and frail babies are when they are newly born. Their eyes are still adjusting to the light. They have no control over their faces. They can't hold up their heads.
And if you hold that baby you will find yourself making little noises, shushing, rocking, singing, all sorts of behavior intended to communicate that the world is a safe place. "Go ahead, little guy. Open your eyes. Look at my smile. Smile back. Look in my eyes. Don't worry. We're here for you."
After we try to communicate those ideas—really more for our benefit than theirs—there will come a silence. It's a sweet silence, but it can be a little awkward. Here is this little life—just a couple hours old, human like us, same everything, just very very small. And this experience brings so many emotions and thoughts together that they can get all tangled up, and we almost don't know what to think.
And that is why it is hard to preach about the birth of Jesus. What can you really say when you hold the baby…who is God? A silence comes over you. An awestruck silence. This is not the time to quibble over parables. To eat loaves and fishes. To journey from town to town and village to village. He isn't even able to stay awake long enough to hear the end of a lullaby. What can you say? All you can do is look at him and love him.
But tonight/today, you might have difficulty feeling full of affection for this little one. It may be that too many other thoughts and feelings have intruded into your life. It might be hard to clear your mind long enough to hold him in your arms.
The story of Christ's birth does not take place in elegance. It takes place in a stable with animals. …a struggling young family who can't get a room to spend the night…and then there are the shepherds. Over the years, our Christmas cards have cleaned up the manure and the squalor, but that's what it was really like. Christmas comes in the squalor, and in the need.
Some time ago I was sitting in church. I do that from time to time. You might try it. Just come sometime and sit in church. Look around at the windows and the pulpit. Look up at the sanctuary lamp and remember that Christ is sacramentally present in this holy space.
I sat in church, looking around at the space, and asking God on a level too deep for words, what I should say tonight/today. And as I did, I heard this little voice say, "Daddy, I'm hungry." It wasn't an audible voice, but I heard it echo in the little chapel of my heart.
I was reminded of a sermon I heard in which the preacher said that he was in a worship service where a young lady got up to speak, and she said just one sentence, but she said it each time in a different language. Imagine it. Just three words, said over and over in a different language, until finally—for the last time—she said it in English, and it was, "Mommy, I'm hungry." Every language needs that sentence. Mommy, I'm hungry. Daddy, I'm hungry.
When my little boy was just learning to talk, he would come and ask for a snack with a specific request. And it never got my attention to hear, "Daddy, can I have some pretzels?" "Daddy, can I have a banana?" But one day, he just said, "Daddy, I'm hungry." And that was different.
There are a lot of people in our world who are hungry for food–so many people that if our minds could encompass the true amount of need, it would overwhelm our capacity to think about it.
One of my brother clergymen in town was telling me about a man who came to the church with his daughter, looking for food. And the man said, "I have never in my life had to ask for food. But we need food."
God created us beautifully, but he created us with a need to be nourished. Our bodies can store energy, which, in an emergency, will serve to keep us alive, but once those stores are depleted, we can die. And many people, old and young, die everyday from hunger.
Of course, you can have lots of food and still be hungry. If you are not physically hungry tonight, you might be hungry in other ways. Jesus said, "Man does not live by bread alone."
There is a hunger that you can have that you can live with for weeks, even months. You can feel it, and at the same time, not feel it. It's hard to describe. It's a feeling of being alone, and a little scared, and not really sure what to do. But because you can wake up and manage a smile and go on about your day, you could dismiss the feeling. You're just a little down at this time of the year. Perfectly understandable.
And you could even intellectualize some of it, and chalk it up to the death of a loved one, or the end of a relationship, or you know…there are plenty of reasons. Add them all together and it makes sense…But just because it makes sense, it doesn't take away the feeling… The feeling of being surrounded by familiar things and people, and still a little lost.
I listened again for the little voice, and there it came again, "Daddy, I'm hungry." It was a voice that sounded so familiar, but I couldn't place it. I thought at first it was my son's voice—that my memory was playing its old tricks. So I asked to hear it again, and then I became convinced that it was my voice. That in the little chapel of my heart where I desperately want to be with God, my own voice was asking God—like a child—for help. "Daddy, I'm hungry." I thought surely this was my private prayer.
But then I realized that there was nothing unique about it, and I started to hear it in all the languages. "Daddy, I'm hungry." Over and over. And I finally recognized that it was the voice of every human being. Young and old, rich and poor, male and female. Not just a child's voice, but a grown-up's voice as well.
This is the prayer that our hearts are constantly praying from the deep need that is first within us. The need to connect in an ultimate way to what is truly ultimate, which is God.
Tonight/today, you may be feeling this poverty of spirit. And the hunger might be so acute that you almost can't hold the baby in your arms. Life has heartlessly rolled itself over your dreams—those cherished yet unspoken expectations that life would be easier and freer than it is right now.
It may feel that to embrace the Christ child is to lie. How can you look into those eyes and tell him that the world is a warm and safe place, when it has not always been a warm and safe place for you? Your heart has been broken. Your needs have not always been met. After the bottles and diapers and teething, he's going to learn the truth.
Yet this is the mystery of Christ. He is born into our poverty. He is born with our eyes and our hair and he will come to feel all our feelings, including these feelings.
God heard our prayer—the prayer that is simply, "Daddy, I'm hungry." And God sent Jesus, who said, "Take this all of you, and eat it. This is my body." This is the food that is not just food for the hunger that is not just hunger. Whoever eats this bread and drinks this cup will not be hungry.
So come and eat, and then hold him, and love him.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.