Your Own Christmas Story
December 25, 2003
There is nothing quite like a beautiful story. The Christmas story, the story that I just proclaimed to you, is one of the most beautiful stories ever written. It includes an emperor and a frightened band of shepherds, a long journey, and a mother’s love. It radiates with glory and the angels’ song. It would be hard to imagine a better story. Yet, the story as it is told is quite different from the story as it was lived. The story, as it stands today, moves easily from one scene to another. The difficulties have been softened and the rough twists and turns have been made smooth. But for those who lived this story, for Mary and Joseph, this beautification was not provided. Mary and Joseph lived this story through all its crises and painful decisions. For them, the Christmas story was a story of courage and faith.
Two vignettes. Two conversations between Mary and Joseph.
“Joseph, I’m pregnant.”
“But Mary, I don’t understand, we didn’t.”
“Yes, I know we didn’t, nor did I with anyone else, but what’s happening to me is unusual, strange. I only began to understand it when I saw an angel and even now, I find it hard to believe. But one thing is clear, I am pregnant.”
“Mary, I’m not ready for this. We are planning a big wedding next year. Who will this child be? I thought I knew what it was to be a father, but how will I feel about this child? Will I be able to love him as my own?”
“Joseph, I’m afraid, too, and I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted out. But somehow I believe that God is in this.”
“Yes, Mary, I think I believe that, too. If God is in this, then somehow we’ll find a way to work it out. We’ll just take it, one step at a time.”
The second conversation:
“Mary, get up, we have to go.”
“Go where? Go when?”
“Go now, go to Egypt.”
“Egypt! Joseph, I don’t understand.”
“You saw a vision of an angel. One just appeared to me in a dream to tell me that the child is in danger. We must go and go quickly.”
“But Joseph, I have barely recovered from the journey that brought us here and Egypt! Do we even know how to get to Egypt?”
“I’ll ask around. We’ll find a way. But we have no alternative. The child is in danger. It is our job to protect him. How we will protect him, I don’t know yet. But I believe that God will help us.”
“Yes, Joseph, God will guide us. I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Two conversations between Mary and Joseph. Two conversations of courage and faith. If Mary and Joseph did not have such courage and faith, we would not have a Christmas story to tell.
How many of the beautiful stories in our life result from the courage and the faith of those who came before us? Grandparents that crossed the ocean to start a family in a new world. Parents who worked and saved so that their children might have an education and a better life. People in our family who believed that God was with them and that God would help them to become the people that they needed to be. It is because of the courage and faith of those who came before us that we have the stories of our life today.
On this Christmas day, we should not only remember those who gave us those stories and be thankful for them, we should also imitate them. We should try to live our lives with a similar courage and faith. We need to be able to say to ourselves: yes, life will often be difficult and frequently I will have to face things for which I am not prepared: loss and disappointment, insecurity and danger, illness and death. In those moments I will not be sure what will happen next and there will be no guarantee that what I do will be successful. But what I can do is believe that God is with me and find the courage to take the next step. By walking in courage and in faith, I trust that I can see the journey through.
The stories as they are told are different from the stories as they are lived. The beautiful stories that we treasure today, are the results of the courage and the faith of those who lived them. Had it not been for the sacrifice and difficult choices of Mary and Joseph, we would not have a Christmas story. Had it not been for the love and dedication of those who came before us, our own stories would not exist.
On this Christmas day, the Gospel calls us to live our lives in courage and in faith. I cannot promise you that if you choose to do so, your life will be easy. You can be sure that there will be many times when you will be afraid. I can give you no assurance that you will always know where you are going. But I can promise you this: if you can believe that God is with you and be brave enough to take the next step, then some day—you will have your own beautiful story to tell.
A Compromised Christmas
December 25, 2006
I know that you have all heard of a white Christmas and that you know about a Christmas that takes place on a silent night. But have you ever heard of a compromised Christmas? A compromised Christmas is not as attractive or poetic as a silent or a white one, but I assure you that it is ever more valuable and certainly more original. It is highly doubtful that the first Christmas was white. It simply does not snow in Bethlehem, or at least not to the degree of accumulation we see on most Christmas cards. And as for being silent, where do you think the stable was in which Christ was born? It was not located out in some idyllic pasture. It was connected to the inn where travelers could put up their animals. And the inns were located in the most crowded and hectic parts of the city. Through the feeble walls of that stable where Mary and Joseph stayed, they could hear the pushing, shouting and perhaps fighting of many of other visitors like themselves looking for a place to stay. So much for a silent night!
So the first Christmas was not white or silent. But it was compromised, that we know for sure. That first Christmas was not the Christmas that Mary or Joseph would have chosen. They wanted a Christmas that was more familiar, more safe, more clean. From the time that they began to adjust to the unexpected news of Mary’s pregnancy—and believe me that was quite an adjustment—Mary and Joseph were planning to give birth to their child in their own home surrounded by family and friends. They had no desire to make a long and dangerous journey across the country into a city filled with strangers and have their child born in a decrepit barn filled with animals. Mary and Joseph would have chosen none of those things.
But that is the way Christmas happened. By all accounts it would have been major disaster had not Mary and Joseph been willing to compromise, to let go of what they wanted and instead receive the good things that they were given. And there were good things: the baby was healthy, the mother was safe, they did find a place of shelter and even some clean hay, and there were kindly strangers coming to give support and to offer gifts. All good things, but good things that Mary and Joseph would never have been able to enjoy them, if they were unwilling to compromise, if they insisted on focusing on the things that did not happen rather than the things that did.
The Christmas story is a story of compromise and its value is not to simply give us information about what happened 2000 years ago but rather to point to a way we are called to live. This story tells us that the way to happiness is the art of compromise. This is a difficult lesson for us as Americans because we live in a consumer culture in which we expect to have what we want and to have it now. Compromise is seen as a failure, not as an opportunity. When we need to compromise, we feel that we are cheated because we cannot have what we want. And feeling cheated robs us of the happiness of living.
I am sure all of you here have already told Santa what you want for Christmas: a new X-Box, designer jeans, maybe a pony. But what would happen Christmas morning if the gift you wanted was not there and something else was there instead. Could you compromise? Could you find the goodness in the gift that was given or would you make yourself miserable by regretting the gift which could not be yours. There are people here today who want their spouse to be different: more patient, more understanding, more organized, more flexible. But you have lived with your spouse for a while and you know little is going to change. Are you able to compromise, to see the good that is in your spouse, a good that could bring you joy and happiness, or will you choose to live in the resentment that the person you married is not the person you want him or her to be?
There many things that none of us want to deal with at Christmas. We do not want to struggle with poor health, shaky finances, or a loss which comes from divorce or death. But there are people here with those realities right in the center of their lives. Can you compromise? Can you choose to find the good that is still in your life, the people who love you, the opportunities that are still yours, or will you insist that there can be no joy until things change, until things return to the way they once were?
The way to happiness is the art of compromise. For people of faith that art takes on an ever deeper dimension, because we believe that God is present in our life. We believe that when God takes one gift away, God gives another. It may not be the gift we want, but it is a real gift nonetheless. In faith we believe that the gift which is given has enough life, enough strength to bring us happiness. So if you look at your life this Christmas and you find issues you do not want to have, do not be afraid to compromise. Do not insist on focusing on the things that you do not have. Try to find the goodness in the things you do have. In faith believe that such goodness can lead you to life.
The first Christmas was neither white nor silent. It was a compromise that worked, because Mary and Joseph let go of the kind of birth that they wanted and accepted the child that they were given. Accepting that child was enough, more than enough. What they received was not only a son but the Savior of the World. The compromise which Mary and Joseph were willing to make brought them joy, the joy of the son who was given, a joy greater than anything they could have imagined. If we are willing to compromise, we can find that joy too.
The Love of God is Coming to You
December 25, 2009
On this Christmas night it is important to keep certain things straight. On this feast we must not confuse Jesus and Santa Claus. Now the difference I have in mind is not the usual complaint that Santa Claus is associated with buying gifts and commercialism. The difference I am thinking about goes much deeper. Both Jesus and Santa have a story. Their story reveals who they are and what they stand for. When you compare the two stories, it becomes clear that there is a significant difference between Jesus and Santa.
So what’s Santa’s story? You hear it in many places, but perhaps the clearest summation is found in a song that we hear this time of year. I am sure you know it:
You better watch out.
You better not cry.
You better not pout.
I’m telling you why.
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He’s making al list.
He’s checking it twice.
He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good.
So be good for goodness sake!
This is Santa’s story. It tells us who he is. And who is Santa? He is a wonderful old man who brings gifts to those who are good. But only to those who are good. If you cry or pout, if you’re nasty or bad—forget it—Santa is not coming to you. Now I’m not here to complain about Santa or his story. There is nothing wrong with being good. In fact, parents find Santa and his story very useful this time of year. They remind their children that Santa is watching and that they should be good for goodness sake.
Santa’s story is fine. But it is different from the story of Jesus. That difference can be heard in today’s gospel. It is expressed in the song of the angels. They reveal who Jesus is. Jesus is the one who brings “joy to all the people.” Jesus is the one through whom God’s favor rests on all. You see, Santa comes to those who are good. Jesus comes to those who are good and bad alike. What is revealed in the story of Jesus is that Christmas is not about our goodness, but about God’s goodness. What we celebrate on this feast is not the good things that we have done, but the great thing that God has done in Christ Jesus. Jesus’ story reveals the love of God, which is prior to any of our merits and present despite all of our sins.
So, unlike Santa, Jesus comes to us, not because we are good, but because we need him, because we are sinful and broken and weak. What that means is that there is no person in this church tonight whom God does not love. No matter how much we have sinned; no matter how deeply we have failed; no matter how selfish we have been, God still loves us. God’s love is not based on our goodness, but upon God’s free choice. Therefore the love of God that we celebrate at this Christmas feast comes to everybody. It comes to those who are healthy and to those who are sick. It comes to those who are happy and to those who are grieving a loss. It comes to those who are hopeful and for those who are struggling with despair. It comes to those who are holy and to those who are sinners. In fact the whole message of Christmas aims to move us off of ourselves, around our troubles, out of our successes and failures, and enfold us in the universal love of God which is recreating the earth. This is Christmas joy. This is the Good News.
Now Santa has his good news. Santa’s news is that if you’re good, you might get a Wii or maybe even a Lexus. But Jesus’ news is better. Jesus’ news is that anyone who opens his or her heart can receive the love of God—a love that can destroy evil, a love that is stronger than death itself. This is why we must not confuse Jesus and Santa. We must keep their stories straight. I know that this task can be difficult. So I thought that if Santa has a song for his story, maybe Jesus should have a song for his story. Try this one on for size and see if it works.
There’s no need to watch out.
It’s okay if you cry.
You can sing or you can pout.
I’m telling you why.
Jesus Christ is coming to you.
He’s forgotten his list.
He forgives more than twice.
He’s the Lord of us all,
Both the naughty and nice.
The Prince of Peace is coming to you.
He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He saves you if you’re bad or good
With a power no sin can break.
So—put sadness aside.
Let loose with a cry.
There’s no reason to hide.
I’m telling you why.
The Love of God is coming to you.
Dreaming Is Required
December 25, 2012
Isaiah 9:1-6; Luke 2:1-14
In 1868, Bishop Phillips Brooks, who was Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, wrote a Christmas poem. His music director, Lewis Redner, set it to music. Today it is one of our most popular Christmas carols. [Here piano plays the melody of the first line of O Little Town of Bethlehem.]
You all know the melody, but how often have you reflected upon the words?
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
This carol clearly situates the city of Bethlehem in a deep and dreamless sleep. This should cause us immediate confusion. We know from the passage of Luke’s Gospel which we just heard that above the city of Bethlehem was a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest!” So how is it that—with the exception of a few shepherds—the people of Bethlehem were not awakened by this heavenly chorus? What manner of sleep was this that could not even be broken by the music of heaven?
The problem with Bethlehem was not that it was asleep but that it was caught up in a deep and dreamless sleep. Dreaming is required to hear the music of heaven. Dreaming and faith are connected. Dreaming allows us to imagine something beyond the world and our lives as they are today. Unless we are able to imagine something new, we will never be able to believe in the promises of God.
The promises of God are on full display in today’s first reading from Isaiah. Isaiah describes a world where the yoke of slavery is smashed, where the implements of war are destroyed, where there is a rule of peace and justice. The world that Isaiah describes is not our world, but it is the world that God has promised us. If we are going to believe in God’s promises, if we are going to hear the words of Isaiah as something more than pious poetry, we must be able to imagine something new, something different from our present situation. Dreaming, therefore, is necessary.
Every time we say to ourselves, “You know, the world will never change. It will always be ruled by greed and injustice”—every time we say that, we disempower ourselves from being part of the new world that God is creating. Every time we say to ourselves, “My life is set. I will always be afraid, always lonely, always grieving”—every time we say that, we block the new grace the God intends to give us.
I don’t know whether we will be able to find the wisdom and courage in light of the tragedy last week in Connecticut to bring down the level of violence in our country. But I know that if we are able to do that, it will be because there are more men and women who can imagine an America in which partisan politics and ideologies are set aside so that we can together find ways to protect our children.
I don’t know whether those of us here who are struggling with difficulties in our families, in our marriages, and in our relationships will be able to find healing. But I know that if we are able to make such progress, it will be because we can imagine a new way of listening, a new way of forgiving, a new way of loving.
I don’t know whether those of us who are growing older and losing energy will be able to live the rest of our lives positively and joyfully. But I know that if we are able to live with enthusiasm, it will be because we can imagine ourselves as still loving, still giving, still sharing our wisdom even as our physical abilities fade.
Contrary to saccharine Christmas cards and touching Christmas TV specials, the birth of Jesus is not primarily about innocence or the love of a mother and child. The birth of Jesus is a blast of hope that is meant to energize our dreams. If God could become one of us, if God could take flesh in Mary’s womb, what can’t we imagine? Set conclusions about life and death, about war and peace, about wealth and power, about love and forgiveness can all be reconsidered anew. The birth of Jesus is meant to shake us from the still, deep sleep that paralyzes our imaginations.
We have been promised a world of justice and freedom, a world of safety and peace. Let us in the name of Emmanuel, God with us, dream that world into being.
God Uses Small Things
December 25, 2015
The birth of Jesus was no big deal. It happened without notice or fanfare in the world of its time. The emperor of Rome did not know that it happened, nor did the high priest in Jerusalem, nor even the mayor of Bethlehem. Anyone who might have noticed the birth would not have been very impressed. A child was born to a working-class family who had been displaced from their home and took up lodging in a barn. This might have been unfortunate, but it certainly was not that important. Although the angels greeted the birth of the child with “Glory to God,” most people of that time would have responded with, “So what?” The birth of Jesus was an ordinary and seemingly insignificant event.
Today, of course, we gather with millions of people throughout the world to celebrate that event. We blow trumpets and sing our praises to God. But as we do so, we should remember how this celebration began. It began with the simple birth of a homeless child. Jesus’ simple and humble beginnings are a reminder to us that God can take what is small and ordinary and use it for God’s own purposes. God can take what seems to be insignificant and use it to change the world.
This is an important truth to hear and believe, because all too often we wonder whether the good things that we try to do will make any difference. There may be problems in our family: a son or daughter who never seems able to find happiness, a brother or a sister dealing with alcoholism, an elderly parent losing the will to live. We try to help. We offer our advice, our love, and our presence. But the things that we do seem so small and weak compared to the problems that beset us. Christmas tells us not to lose hope. Our actions may be small and ordinary, but it is not yet clear how God might use them.
There are problems in our world: poverty, war, ignorance, and political dysfunction. We want to do something. So we bring a Christmas basket to someone in need. We volunteer to teach children to read. We stand up at work in opposition to someone who is promoting prejudice. But these actions seem so commonplace and ineffective compared to what our world needs. Christmas tells us that we should not despair. God can take our small actions and make them more significant than we can imagine.
We believe in a God who takes what is small and weak and uses it to save the world. The Christmas story tells us that the Christian story began in that way. So we should embrace the confidence that story reveals. Love your family. Care for those who suffer. Work for justice in our world. And do not be discouraged when your actions appear small and insignificant. It is not yet clear how God may choose to use them.
Silent Night at Gunpoint
December 25, 2018
Janos Varkony was fleeing for his life. It was 1956. As a student at Budapest University, Janos had participated in the October revolution that had attempted to overthrow the communist Hungarian government. The revolution failed. Two days before Christmas, Janos was told by a close friend that his name appeared on the government’s execution list and that police would soon be arriving to take him away. His only hope was to cross the border into Austria. But he knew that that border was carefully guarded by police with instructions to capture and kill anyone who would attempt to escape.
Nevertheless, on this Christmas Eve, Janos found himself making his way through the frozen grain fields toward the Austrian border. He carried with him only a few things: a pistol tucked in his belt, some money, and a silver cross on a chain. The cross had been given to him by the friend who had warned him to escape the city. The cross was an unusual item for Janos to be carrying, because growing up in communist Hungary, he considered himself an atheist. But as he made his way through the snow on that Christmas Eve, his thoughts went back to the last Christmas that he could remember. He was a child, the year before the communists came.
In Hungary, there is no tradition of Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, all the children of every household placed candles in the windows of their houses to greet an angel who is to come from heaven. When the angel descends, the church bells ring and all the children together sing “Silent Night.” In those days you could hear their voices floating throughout the cities and the countryside.
As Janos made his way toward the border, he saw no lights in the windows and heard no music in the air, because these things were now forbidden. But he began to hum to himself the melody of that childhood carol as he made his way through the fog. When the fog cleared for a minute, he saw the Austrian border. He was close, close to freedom.
Suddenly a dog jumped on him and held him down in the snow. Two guards stepped out of the fog carrying machine guns. They pointed them at his stomach. “Get up,” they said. Janos got up. “Empty your pockets.” Janos handed over his gun, his money, and the silver cross. Then one of the guards said to the other, “Take him to the guard house. I am going back to the watch tower.” So, the guard who had been so directed placed his gun in Janos’s back and said, “Move.” They walked together for a while in silence.
Suddenly the guard said, “Stop,” and he dangled in front of Janos’s face the silver cross, saying, “Take it.” Janos did not understand, but he took it. Then the guard said, “Do you remember the song that the children used to sing to greet the angel when the bells chimed?” Janos said, “I do.” “Will you sing it with me?” the guard said. They did. Janos was amazed at how easily the words of the song came back to him. What an improbable scene: an atheist refugee and a communist guard together singing “Silent Night” at gunpoint. When they had finished, the guard seemed to be listening for something. Then he said, “Sometimes on Christmas Eve I still think I hear the sound of children singing and church bells. I say nothing, but I think you might understand.” Then he said, “In a minute, I am going to shoot my gun into the air. Run as fast as you can, and if you make it across the border, help the children to sing ‘Silent Night.’” When the gun exploded, Janos ran as fast as could until he was safe in Austria. Every Christmas since then, he sings “Silent Night” with his family. He is convinced that it was as the two of them sang together that song on the cold December night, that the guard decided to let him go.
The religious songs of Christmas are expressions of faith, and not simply the faith that Jesus was born 2000 years ago. They express a faith that because of that act of love by God, people can change, and the world can change. If God loved us enough to give us Jesus, then all things are possible, even in this violent and corrupt world.
I would like to end my homily by inviting you to sing “Silent Night” with me. You can find it in the centerfold of your worship aide. We will only sing the first verse. But I ask you that as we sing this hymn together, let it be a prayer, a prayer for hope for our world. Let us sing it for all the children born this year into poverty who will never receive a formal education. Let us sing it for refugee families seeking a place to begin a new life. Let us sing it for victims of sexual abuse, for those who are dying and those close to despair. And as we sing it, let us pray that God’s grace may soften our prejudice, our partisanship, our pride, so that knowing how much God loves us, we might find a way to extend mercy and peace to one another.
Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon virgin, Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace