To the Glory of God and in memory of The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Minister of the Memorial Church, Harvard University
Born May 22, 1942 – Died February 28, 2011
Before I begin my sermon, I want wish you all a very happy Christmas, and to say, especially to those of you who are visiting, or returning to this holy place as a spiritual home, how grateful we are that you are here to celebrate.
Christmas has a long and interesting history as an observance. We believe that the Church celebrated some sort of anniversary of the Nativity of Our Lord on or about May 20th. After all, there is nothing in the Bible to confirm that it happened "in the bleak mid-winter" as Christina Rossetti's poem reads. But somewhere in the latter part of the fourth century, the Nativity of Jesus began to be observed on December 25th. It was likely moved there to oppose a festival known as Natalis Solis Invicti, the birth of the Unconquered Sun, or perhaps Saturnalia, another winter Roman festival celebrated with joy and merry-making.
But whatever the reason, I think we can be grateful that this is the time of year we celebrate the birth of Jesus. There is something so very fitting about placing it in the context of the winter months, when the sky is grey and dreary, and we are all in need of new life and family and warmth. The shepherds are never depicted as shivering, but we shiver with them in their loneliness out in the pastures near Bethlehem.
The lack of a precise date for the Holy Birth is also somewhat fitting in that the time frame given by Luke's account also poses some historical problems. There is no other record of a census or a registration of the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus. Neither is there any other source to suggest that people had to return to the home of their ancestors in order to be enrolled. Also, Luke writes that it happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria, though it is likely that he was appointed governor some years after Jesus was born.
Now, before you pick up stones to throw at me, let me explain why I think these facts are not a threat to the story, or, more importantly, the deeper meaning of Christ's birth.
The simple truth is: this is how we remember it. You can change the date we observe it. You can raise questions about how and when, and what—but the plain truth remains that we will always remember Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem, because they were being obedient to what they were told.
We see, in their story, a young family having to jump through hurdles to do what was right. And in the midst of that, we find Mary giving birth to Jesus under less than desirable circumstances. Instead of some cozy story of Mary and Joseph staying put in Nazareth, and having the baby surrounded by their family and synagogue, we find them this evening, and at every Christmas, alone, probably afraid, and the infant placed in a feeding trough.
Shake away for just a moment the cozy depictions of the greeting cards and the nativity scenes, and see them as they are: a young family, "harassed and helpless, like sheep needing a shepherd." And that is the mystery. That God comes through the womb of a human mother and is born humbly—some might even want to say, shamefully.
And so Christmas, like Easter, confronts our notions of stateliness and dignity with a depiction of the complete opposite. Should you go from here, this evening, and encounter a young family holding a baby in their arms, not knowing quite what to do next, you will see a much more realistic depiction of the first days of our Savior. Is that good news? Yes. It is the news that "lifts earth to heaven, and stoopes heav'n to earth." It is the glorious news that God's ways are not our ways, nor our thoughts, his. His ways and thoughts are higher, ironically, in sending the heir of all Creator to be placed in a lowly manger.
We celebrate not only the birth, but the ironic circumstances of the birth, which altogether preach their own sermon: that God is pleased to be with humanity in all its broken beauty.
Such a mystery. Such a never ending mystery that is the person of Jesus Christ: Son of God and Son of Mary; fully God, fully Human. And by his holy Incarnation, God takes your hand and says, "I know what this feels like. There is no more us and you—now, there is only us." Even if he had never been crucified and resurrected, God had embraced humanity simply by being born and living among us. (Pause.)
In the Western rite of the Church, it is traditional that three celebrations of the Holy Eucharist are offered—once for each facet of Christ's birth. Once at midnight—or late at night—symbolic of the birth of the eternal Son, who would come to be born of Mary. Once at dawn, symbolic of the birth of Jesus from the womb of Mary. And once during Christmas Day—and this one delights me to no end—symbolic of the mystical birth of Jesus in the souls of faithful Christians.
So it should not bother us at all that we cannot know the precise date of the Nativity, or the exact date of its anniversary. In a sense, that is completely and utterly fitting, because neither can we know the precise moment when Christ is born in our hearts. As with all other actions of God: It happens then, and it happens now. It is timeless; it is eternal.
When your heart makes the space for him, he will, like a baby be born there in your soul, which is often "harassed and helpless, like a sheep needing a shepherd."
And Jesus, will be both infant and shepherd—leading you like a little child to discover meaning in the smallest of things, and in the simplest of joys.
If you have never really believed in Jesus authentically … If it has been difficult to see him because the Church has gotten in the way, or because it seemed too trite or unsophisticated to believe that God is real, and his Son loves you—well, then I really am very sorry about that. The Church is not always the best example of Christ's teaching—and we are painfully aware of that.
But these things are not apprehended merely by intellect. Christianity in its fullness combines the spirit and mind. So when the candles start to be lit, and the music starts to play, you may discover a little baby of a thought in your lap. A little baby looking up at you they way you once looked up at your mother or father, seeing you for who you are, and what you hope to become. The baby comes into your life—however imperfect you may be, however harried and uncertain—and changes everything.
Like a child, he will come to ask you why you do certain things, and say certain things. He will wonder if you care about others the way you care about him.
The little Messiah will grow in you—perhaps difficult and uncomfortable at times, but always somehow delightful. And one day he will grow up, but he will always be your little boy. (Pause.)
If time has made you cynical, and the slings and arrows of life have pierced and deflated the joy you once knew—I want to tell you tonight, from the bottomless love of God—that it can come back.
It will happen when you respond to the Angel the same way Mary did, when she said, "Let it be with me according to your word." The Holy Spirit will overshadow you, and the power of the most high will come upon you.
When it happens, how it happens… That is a complete mystery, but it does. And then you will understand the words of Isaiah (9:6), "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given." God's Son, and our son. So fully human as to understand and question and ponder, and so fully God as to save us from ourselves.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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.