Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Scott Wesley Borden, OHC
RCL - Christmas – Thursday 24 December 2009
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Tonight we celebrate not one, but two great holidays... one of them is called Christmas. And the other is called... Christmas. Its convenient, but perhaps a little confusing that both should have the same name...
There is Sacred Christmas in which we celebrate the incarnation of God in human flesh, Emanuel, God with us.
And there is Secular Christmas in which we celebrate warm feelings which we mark with extravagant gifts.
Secular Christmas takes many cues from Sacred Christmas - which is probably good. Perhaps the greatest of these is the period of anticipation leading up to the event.
Sacred Christmas has Advent - which starts, coincidentally, shortly after Thanksgiving. And Secular Christmas has the aptly named period of anticipation called “shopping days until Christmas.” For the traditional, this period also starts shortly after Thanksgiving - the very next day in fact. There are some revisionists who now start this period the day after Halloween, and some radicals who start their “shopping days until Christmas” on the day after Labor Day. But we will not speak of them...
Christmas, sacred and secular, is so important that we need an anticipation period to prepare.
I’m not enough of a Scrooge to think Secular Christmas is bad or evil. Capitalism can’t work if capital doesn’t move around - and gift giving is surely one of the more benign ways to get capital flowing. Secular Christmas plays a vital role in our economy. Gifts bring joy to many. And a healthy economy brings comfort to many more. These are good things.
Like sacred Christmas, secular Christmas has a gospel. The Gospel of Secular Christmas is a bit less evolved than that of sacred Christmas. It fits neatly on a Hallmark Card. It’s a simple message - “We Should Feel Good.” It is a message of pure sentimentality. Its nice. Its sweet. Its warm and fuzzy. In fact, the fuzzier the message, the warmer it makes us feel.
Its fine for Secular Christmas to borrow stuff from the sacred event. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
But when Secular Christmas begins to inform the way we think of Sacred Christmas, then we are in trouble.
Hallmark sentiments are lovely, but they are not the Gospel. Wide-screen, flat panel televisions may bring entertainment into our homes, but they really won’t shine light in a darkened world. Jesus was, and is, many things, but sweetly sentimental is not one of them.
Sacred Christmas is not, ultimately, a “feel good” event.
The interaction with angels in the Gospels has been catching my ear these past few weeks. For example, the shepherds, abiding in their fields... The angels appear and the first words are “fear not.” This is the standard way angelic encounters to start.
I’ve generally accepted the notion that the angels must be a bit frightening, hence a natural fear response. But this year what has struck me is that the fear might come from a different place.
Imagine you’re driving up the Thruway - perhaps in a hurry... perhaps moving along at about 85 miles an hour... Then the flashing lights appear in your mirror. You pull over, pulse rising... the officer walks up to your window and the first words are “fear not...”
Or a couple of young teenagers home alone for an evening... First they mess up the kitchen, then the living room, and then perhaps they invade the family liquor cabinet... and then, earlier than anticipated, headlights appear in the driveway, steps to the front door, and in walk mom and dad... and the first words are “fear not...”
But there was good reason to be fearful.
The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light - Jesus comes to bring light into our darkened world. And perhaps we have some reasons to be fearful...
Sitting in darkness isn’t always a bad thing - it can be very comfortable... very familiar. The intimate darkness of a bar, for example, coupled with the gentle haze of a few drinks makes things seem pretty good. But when its closing time and the lights come on you see how dirty the place is, how decrepit its appointments, how pitiful its denizens... the comfort flees away.
The people who sit in darkness may not, after all, mind sitting in darkness all that much... they may be accustomed to is... they may even be up to no good. The clear, unflattering, unforgiving light of day may not be all that welcome. The people who sit in darkness includes us... includes me.
The light of Jesus coming into our world will not make us feel all warm and fuzzy. The light of Jesus exposes things that darkness has kept out of sight. The coming of the light is the end, not the beginning, of the party.
A short while from now during the Eucharist we’ll have an anthem - a setting of Christina Rossetti’s wonderful poem: “Love came down at Christmas.” Its possible to hear this as a very sweet, sentimental song, but if you really attend to it, it’s much more than sentimental.
In one verse of this poem Rossetti asks “worship we our Jesus, but wherewith for sacred sign?” In other words what will our worship of Jesus look like? What will it be?
And she answers the question so beautifully: “Love shall be our token.” By our love we shall be known as followers of Jesus.
James Otis Sargent Huntington tells us that love must act. And Martin Luther King tells us that justice is the calculation of love. Love must act by making justice.
This love which comes to us tonight, this incarnation, this Emmanuel, this Godly in-breaking is as real now as it has ever been and ever will be. When you come to receive the Eucharist hold in your heart that you are truly receiving the love of God incarnate. It truly becomes part of you.
As the light of God’s love shines in our darkened world it will reveal ugly truths. We tolerate a great deal of injustice. This is, as Dr King tells us, revolution against God’s love.
We accept as normal that the mentally ill will often be homeless and living on the streets. We accept as normal that some people in our country will become sick and die because they can not afford basic medical care. We accept as normal that some in our own land will go hungry, some will live with the danger of crime and violence always about them, some will be beaten and abused. We accept as normal that we can foul all of God’s creation.
We can all add to this list. And I ask that during the prayers of the people you hold in your heart the ordinary injustice that we allow to be normal.
We sit in darkness. And Secular Christmas tells us that its OK... that we should feel good - and it offers us many diversions to make us feel happy.
But Emmanuel, God with us, calls to us. God’s perfect love will transform us. In the name of that love we have to act. In the name of God’s love we must work for God’s justice. In the name of God’s love we have to be instruments of God’s peace.