CHRISTMAS EVE HOMILY
Preached at the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
On Monday, December 24, 2018
By the Reverend Brian J. Mason
Titus 3:4-7 – But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit God poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by God’s grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
I expect most of you are quite familiar with the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of St. Luke we heard read by Danika this evening. It is the Christmas story, after all. But I expect many of us are unfamiliar with St. Paul’s letter to his co-worker, Titus. That is precisely why I chose it as my text for this Christmas Eve. I justify this choice on the grounds that in Titus, St. Paul is talking about gifts. In this case we are told that God saved humankind not for anything we’ve done or will do. Rather, we are saved by two simple, yet miraculous things: Love and Grace.
But there is another kind of gift on many of our minds this evening, and those are the gifts brought to us by Santa, and those other ones given to us by our mothers and fathers, and grandparents, and uncles and aunts, and godparents. I expect, especially for those of you with children in your house, you have about twelve hours before your festive living room is transformed into a sprawling wasteland of wrapping paper and bows and boxes. But it is worth it.
It is worth being woken up too early to see the faces of children beam with happiness and thanksgiving. It is worth it to have spent all that time deciding just what to get your parents or spouse and see them gasp as their eyes well up with tears as they say, “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” It is a treat to receive a gift, and even better to give one. It was worth it to wait until two hours ago to buy that one last gift, because what would Christmastime be without a little anxiety in the home stretch.
As a boy I used to gaze at the presents under the tree, dreaming about what lay behind that colorful wrapping paper. I recall how eager I was to open the presents that I could feel the excitement coursing through me. By the time I was old enough to be left home alone I had developed what I thought was a clever tactic to discover just what lay under the tree. I’d select one or two gifts from under the tree and I would carefully slice the tape on the folded paper’s edges and peak inside to see just what was hiding within. I wouldn’t do this to all the gifts, I do have standards.
One year I remember begging my mother and stepfather for the Beatles’ White Album, on CD. I saw under the tree a gift with my name on it that matched the description of a double-CD case. Carefully I lay on my belly and using my Boy Scouts pocketknife I carefully performed surgery on the box, folded back the paper and peered inside to my absolute delight. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, whenever my parents left me alone, I would repeat this act over and over again: I’d carefully perform gift surgery, slide the box out, and play “Rocky Racoon” and “Blackbird” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” as loud as my stereo would go and then carefully slide the case back into the paper and seal it up just so. This tactic worked flawlessly until one morning my parents went out to run some errands and I grabbed the familiar gift, slid the case out of the paper, and discovered a note attached to it that read, “Santa’s watching you, Brian.” I haven’t opened a gift early ever since, and I never will.
Christmas has this magical ability to interrupt us. Christmas doesn’t call in advance to warn us of its arrival. It just shows up, year after year. Of course, we’ve known it was there on the calendar all year long, but unlike St. Patrick’s or Valentine’s it cannot be ignored. And it is just like that that Christmas has been coming for centuries.
Christmas has always come to us at a time when politics are a mess. I don’t know about you, but there appear to be a few politicians in Washington, D.C., who seem to be auditioning for the roles of Herod and Caesar these past few weeks. There are people like Mary and Joseph in our time, immigrants forced to flee their native lands and register as aliens in foreign ones; there are people who find inn-keepers everywhere they go and are forced to spend each night in a barn or worse. Then as now, there are wars and rumors of war and children born with diseases, and people poor and out of work, forced to choose between food or medicine.
And yet Christmas comes. And right there in the heart of the Christmas story is a gift from God, and not just any gift, but God himself. Despite everything, despite the wars and the hunger and disease, God chooses us and appears not as a ruler or military general, not as a rich man or woman, but as a helpless child. God chooses us. God becomes flesh and bone and blood, God says yes to human passions and weaknesses, yes to human sexuality and brokenness. God says yes to life!
God enters a world where the headlines read: “Government Shutdown to Last Through the Holidays”; “Stocks Cap Worst Week Since 2008”; “US Troops Head for Afghanistan”; alongside reports of starvation, epidemics, addiction, and sorrow.
Should you allow current events and history to shape your expectations then you will likely reason that Christmas will always enter a world starved for love just like ours; the truth is, it always has, and it always will. Still yet, in the heart of winter’s darkness and amidst all these trials and changes, for generations upon generations people have gathered in churches and living rooms and banquet halls to sing and embrace and give gifts—to celebrate Christmas.
I expect we do this because we need an ounce or two of hope. We come to be reminded that hope once came to us in the form of a child. I pause to acknowledge that some of you likely question whether this child was actually born on December 25th, two thousand-plus years ago, whether shepherds were really tending their flocks in the middle of winter. I am sensitive to those questions and will take just a moment to address them. These questions, by my lights, have to do with two things: with facts and with time.
Let us consider facts for a moment: News stations give us facts every day and we often accept them without question. These facts tell us that some people are aliens, that some people aren’t allowed to keep the very hair that grows out of their heads if they want to wrestle in high school, these facts tell us that some people live in nations where wars never end, these facts tell us that some people who commit crimes are allowed to get off without punishment provided they have a full enough checking account.
These are facts, but they don’t tell us anything true. This isn’t how the world is supposed to be, is it? It’s so easy to believe a lie when all we’re consuming is facts. Facts have very little to do with what’s true from time-to-time. And there’s also the issue of time.
Anthropologists have taught us that time hasn’t always been understood as a linear concept. We haven’t always thought that time moves forward, from A to B. Throughout the centuries, humankind has experienced time differently. When Jesus was born, most people experienced time in a cycle, the seasons come and go, the crops are planted and harvested, people are born and die, and so it goes over and again. Ancient people experienced time in a cycle, but they also believed in something called mythic time, what Paul Tillich called the “Eternal Now.” The eternal now is where Santa lives, where Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker live; it’s where the gods live, and Jesus Christ too. Mythic time cares little for facts and figures. Mythic time is where elves build toys and Ebenezer Scrooge learns to love; mythic time is where dreams are born; mythic time is where Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of a world where the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice; it’s where you go to dream impossible truths. Jesus didn’t come to spread facts, he came to preach a gospel of impossible truths: Love your neighbor as yourself; consider the lilies; forgive your enemies; live simple lives; sacrifice your own wants for someone else’s; and to always, always remember the widows and the orphans, and the migrants and the outcast. Christmas, real Christmas, is an impossible truth breaking through the world of hard facts.
Christmas has little to do with Hallmark cards or made for TV movies. Everything wrong with the world and with our own lives won’t be resolved on December 26th. All of you know this, perhaps better than I do. I’m not saying anything you haven’t thought on your own. But it is this world that the Christmas miracle enters into. It is into this world of hard facts that impossible truths are born. A world where shepherds and magi follow a star to a barn in Bethlehem; it is that same impossible truth that drew us here tonight: the dream that despite all the risks, love entered this world in the most surprising of forms. That love comes despite the warnings.
Any one of us who has known love knows the risks involved. There is the risk of disappointment, the risk of having our hearts broken, of having our love denied, and perhaps worst of all, losing someone we love long before we’re ready. Real love takes a good measure of courage. It takes courage to be loved as well, to accept that someone in this world has chosen to love you despite all the risks. It takes courage to accept that someone beholds you as the very purpose of their life. It takes courage to know that someone in this world loves you, not for anything you’ve done, not for any future assurance of what you will do, but because they believe they have been called to do it. To be loved is a gift; to be loved is a simple elegance; to be loved is to know grace.
In this season of magic and light we tell and retell the story of a God who chooses to become just like us. A God who becomes a child and later a man who does little to teach us how to worship him, who leaves no instruction manual, save a few strange sayings about sacrifice, and grace and love. For those of us who believe and for those of us who question whether any of this is true, I can think of no better way to test a hypothesis than to run the experiment, to draw near to it. To do just as Jesus says to his disciples, which is this: “Come, follow me” (Matt. 4:19). It doesn’t have to be for keeps. We can quit if we get bored, we can throw in the towel if the going gets tough.
The real truth about Christmas is that we aren’t waiting for the Christ child to be born at all; that happened over two thousand years ago. The truth is that what Christ taught about goodness and grace, and sacrifice and love is available to us every single day. It’s there just beyond the headlines, waiting for us to reach out and grab it.
Let those headlines lead you to where you’re needed; let the lines of hungry people usher you to where you are to go; let the images of children taken from the arms of their mothers show you out; let grace lead you; and when you come face-to-face with doubt let love and courage guide you.
In Christina Rossetti’s poem, “In the bleak midwinter,” which we sung at the beginning of this service, the poet writes:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
Give my heart.
Every year, in winter’s darkness, amidst the business of our lives, and in a world that dies for lack of love, we tell the story of a gift given to anyone brave enough to accept it. This gift, in the form of a child, tells us to love this world with all our minds, with all our souls, and with all our hearts. In this season we are told of a man who was born homeless, and yet tells us to make a home for all people. Only the brave can love and be loved; love takes courage; and it takes grace. But most of all, it takes joy. It takes joy on this day of all days to find the courage needed to accept the greatest gift we are given: the gift on life, and the gift of one another.
Give your hearts this Christmas, dear friends. Let courage and grace guide you. May joy surprise you and may love find you now and in all that is to come.
Amen. Merry Christmas. And may God bless us, each and every one.