December 25 – Christmas

Update By: Norm Barr
Date: January 2, 2016

Sermon for Christmas
December 25, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
I dreaded going to Bethlehem. Whenever your tour guide tells you he’s arranged a “special treat” for you, be wary. On the diocesan mission pilgrimage, which I went on together with a few members of our congregation, we had a great guide, but I did not share his tolerance of early hours. I was glad to go back to Bethlehem, to the majestic gloom of the Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in the world, and down into the Grotto of the Nativity, the cave where the people of Bethlehem have always said Jesus was born. The cave is about the size of the Thompson Room, with a tiny alcove, about the size of our Narthex, a few feet even lower in the Earth, where Mary once rested Jesus in a food trough for animals. It was awful. We had to wake up at 3 a.m., board the bus at 4, so I was in a bad mood before we even got there, when two other tour groups crammed into the grotto with us.

We sleep then awaken
we rest on the way
our sleep might be troubled
but hope is our day
we move on for ever
like children astray

This is a stanza from “The Flight,” the carol commissioned for this year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The text is by Szirtes, himself a refugee, connecting the great refugee crisis of our day with the Holy Family, who enjoyed only a moment’s peace in Bethlehem before taking refuge in Egypt from Herod’s genocidal campaign. I will quote it two more times.
Down in the grotto it was dark and stifling and maybe half a dozen of us, could see the Franciscan priest who was celebrating in Italian at the little altar down in the pit; all the way in the back, I couldn’t see anything. I only knew it was time for communion when people started moving around. But up front it wasn’t much better. A pilgrim from a different group insisted on taking pictures all through the Mass, to the intense irritation of Bishop Alan Gates who was standing behind her, trying to worship. She got so close to the altar that she almost set herself on fire, and when he brushed her scarf away from a candle, she gave him a dirty look for his trouble. At least I wasn’t the only one who was frustrated and disappointed.
From there we went on to “the wall,” the Orwellian concrete scar separating Bethlehem, which lies in the West Bank, from Israel proper. Not a sight I thought would lift my spirits. But just like the Berlin Wall, this wall has become the people’s canvas, decorated with bright graffiti, a manifestation of potent yet invisible determination and hope that Bethlehem will regain the peace and hope that God promised to humanity there. Some images, like the broken heart, tall as a man, being pushed back together expressed this hope directly; others, like the one that just said “Fragile,” less so. But all the art that clings to the wall and the indomitable spirit it represents are like the light that shines in the darkness, an image of the divine light that came into the world nearby, and was undimmed by its immediate rejection.
But the wall was not our destination. We lingered there only because we were waiting for the nearby gift shop to open. From the carol:

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark.

We were heading up, into the hills, to the Shepherds’ Field and by that time the sun was shining and all of our moods had likewise brightened. There, overlooking the modern University town of Bethlehem across a wide valley and under a brilliant cloudless sky, we had a simple experience that ranks for me as one of the most sacred moments of the pilgrimage. Bethlehem hosted another refugee family, Ruth and Naomi, a millennium before the birth of Jesus. We had already established a practice of telling the Biblical stories associated with the places we visited but this time, a member of St. John’s congregation, our own Naomi, told the ancient story of embracing a stranger from memory, giving it new depth from her own life story. Then we walked up to the Shepherds’ Church and sang Christmas carols around the altar.
All this because Saint Luke said Jesus was born near there, and that angels appeared to shepherds in those hills, and the shepherds became the first pilgrims, and then the first evangelists. Luke’s story sounds like a fairy tale, but it is a story of great hope, a new vision of who God is and how all of us can connect our stories to God’s story, and our lives to God’s love. God loved the world so much that becoming part of the world, taking on the humility and humiliations of humble flesh, was not too much. God revealed his face as the boy in the food trough, destined to die in agony for the sin of the world, destined to be the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
One last quote from the carol, the refrain:

May those who travel light
Find shelter on the flight
May Bethlehem
Give rest to them.

We enjoy Christmas because Jesus, lying in holy silence, demands nothing of us. We imagine that we can be simple bystanders, making of the event what we will. But his birth marks the beginning of our discipleship, just as the shepherds answered the call from heaven to go down from the hills and worship the newborn savior, their fear turning first to hope, then to joyful proclamation. We only share in the experience of Christmas when we give ourselves to Jesus the way he gives himself to us, completely and unconditionally. As it was for the shepherds, who were nobody special, so it is for us. We go down to worship Jesus, but we do not crowd the cave; we go out, transformed by meeting the light of the world, to share that light with the world.
And I am grateful for the journey I once dreaded. Jesus took on flesh not despite the sins of the world, but because of them, and because God responds with grace, born of love. Meeting Jesus in the darkest places, we become like him by responding to the brokenness of the world not with destruction, but with the grace of God’s love. Saving the person who is frustrating us, painting our faith and hope on the occupiers’ wall, joining our story to God’s story and telling it to the world, these are all Christmas moments. This is our worship, this our journey to Bethlehem, down into the cave and up again into the light.

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