A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
[Isaiah 52P7-10; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20]
Christmas. I do love it so, but I also find it a perplexing time. On the one hand, Christmas is a joyous, festive occasion; and on a very personal level, I am grateful for the fact that our family is now into the fourth generation of sharing this special time and its faithful traditions together, and that our house continues to be the basecamp for it all. Yet, Christmas can also be a time of deep disappointment and painfulness; and in this, Christmas being Christmas, our losses are also amplified. Yet, the truth is that it all depends upon what feeds our notions of Christmas, what kind of soil (if you will) our sense of Christmas is rooted in, and how deeply seated are those roots.
Most of us have high expectations for Christmas quite frankly because Christmas matters. It truly does. In one way or another, just about everyone knows this. Yet, what reference point feeds our expectations? What are our notions of Christmas that do -- or do not -- bear the fruit our hearts and souls and lives need? With wars in Gaza and Ukraine, with antisemitism and Islamophobia, with the bitter polarization of our country, is it any wonder that Christmas has been canceled this year – in of all places, Bethlehem?
Christmas matters. This past October – mid-October to be precise -- I encountered a sign that “Christmas matters” and that expectations leap from its approach. I was in West Springfield’s Costco doing some errands; and with the skill of a racecar driver, I guided my shopping cart through the maze of humanity and into the main shopping area. To my amazement, what I found was a full-blown display of everything Christmas that Costco had to sell. Two weeks before Hallowe’en! Even in the face of such bald commercialism, the “world” knows that Christmas matters, that Christmas is about something that matters. The problem is that the world doesn’t know the reason Christmas matters.
I think the central issue at hand has to do with not only knowing the story of Christmas but also knowing the story that holds the story of Christmas. Unless we can see the large, transcendent story of the life with God, then the important story of Christmas risks being lost – certainly and even dangerously distorted. – two weeks before Hallowe’en or not. So, in this Christmas sermon, I simply and clearly want to help all of us (including me) see God’s forest, in which stands God’s illuminating and lovely Christmas tree.
At its eternal essence, Christmas is about a scandal -- the scandalous reality of Incarnation. To my knowledge there is no more profound or wondrous expression of Christmas’s scandalous import than the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel. With some of the most beautiful and profound words in the realm of human expression, St. John reveals the unadulterated and radical reason Christmas matters.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of [all]. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us , full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father. [John 1:1-5, 14]
The Christmas story speaks of the transcendent Creator of heaven and earth (the God beyond us), yearning to be known, recognized, and even understood by all people. With its message of God-beside-us, Christmas itself speaks to what all the Law and the Prophets foretold and promised. Emmanuel: God coming all the way to us in the simplest human form, a baby, a child, swaddled in bands of cloth, nursing at his mother’s breast.
Incarnation: the enfleshment of the divine; the holy in fully human terms; God with us, naked and vulnerable: A Savior not a superhero. This is the reason Christmas undeniably matters. And we feel it, even to the extent that what it registers within us is rejected precisely because Incarnation portends to change too much, too deeply, too close to the human bone. Incarnation is all about that kind of closeness with God and God’s life.
The registration of Christmas, which proclaims that God’s own trusted and creative Word is beside us now in Jesus’ birth, strikes the human heart most tellingly in the poetic and artistic forms. Such profundity, such a scandal of divine enfleshment outstrips the precision of science and even history. Christmas requires imagination, not measurement, if we are to begin to apprehend what God has done and continues to do in our midst, beginning with Christmas.
One Christmas hymn states the mystery and poetic wonder of Christmas quite simply, if not too simply, by saying: “Love came down at Christmas”. [Hymn 84]. Another toehold comes from our dear neighbor, Robert Frost, who reminds us of what God always knew: namely, that “earth’s the right place for love”. [“Birches”]
And yet … And yet, we live in a world that provides so little evidence of the Christmas story’s saving truth: of Emmanuel: God with us; of the God-life overlapping fully with the circle of human life. Who among us doesn’t sense and experience what so often looks to be a separating gap between what God is and does and what we are and what we do. I think Poet Annie Dillard speaks to this painful reality and then implicitly to the matter of Christmas. She writes:
It is a fault of infinity to be too small to find. It is a fault of eternity to be crowded out by time. Before our eyes we see an unbroken sheath of colors. We live over a bulk of things. We walk amid a congeries of colored things that part before our steps to reveal more colored colored things. Above us hurtle more things, which fill the universe. There is no crack. Mountains and hills, lakes, deserts, forests, and plains fully occupy their continents. Where, then, [the poet asks] is the gap through which eternity streams? [“Looking for Infinity”]
Christmas matters. Christmas is the “gap through which eternity streams”. The answer comes in the birth of Christ. God’s answer comes in and through Incarnation: God’s reliable Word, now manifest in human life. This is the reason Christmas matters.
But as I said at the outset, Christmas is a story within a much greater, all-encompassing story. Christmas stands as a beautifully illuminated tree in God’s great forest. If we cannot or dare not realize the place of Christmas within the overarching God-story, then there is no problem at all with starting Christmas two weeks before Hallowe’en – or not start at all!
Let me close by offering an image of the story of God’s forest with Christmas’s brilliant tree. The image is that of an hourglass. If the biblical story is shaped like an hourglass, then Christmas is the narrow neck, through which all that came before is refined, and all that follows is shared. At the narrow neck of Christmas, there is only room for what flesh and blood can convey. Christ is born. God beside us comes to us to provide us with the life we have always needed and almost forgotten about.
So, with this in mind, enjoy our Christmas trees. Tend them. Celebrate in their light. But don’t forget that the God-story continues with what Christmas has uniquely begun. Thanks be to God. Amen. Merry Christmas!