Homily given by Rev. Frank Clarkson on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018.
Have you ever asked a child about Christmas? If you looked into the eyes of a little one and said, “Tell me what you know about Christmas. What’s it all about?,” what would they say?
I imagine it would be something like, “There was this lady, who has a baby, and it’s born in a stable, and there are animals, and guess what? the baby is God. There were angels and candles and singing. But it was a silent night. And then there were presents!”
For me, this Advent has been all about embodiment: about how earthy and fleshy the Christmas story is; how it’s not all sweetness and light, there are shadowy parts too, like in our lives. And here we are, arrived at this night, when we are invited to see, and remember, that if we meet God anywhere, it is right here, in this present moment, and in these lives we have been given, in this flesh that we embody for a while.
Two hundred years ago, in a church in Austria, just before Christmas the priest discovered that mice had chewed through the bellows of the organ, wrecking it for the Christmas Eve service. I have to imagine he said a choice work or two, and maybe he had the thought, “And Christmas was going to be perfect this year!”
But he didn’t cancel Christmas, just because the organ wouldn’t work. Instead, he wrote down a few words about the quiet spirit of this night, and asked the church musician to compose a tune. They sang it on Christmas Eve, accompanied only by a guitar. And “Silent Night” was born.
They didn’t feel the need to go out and find a brass band. Or to download some new music from the internet. They worked with what they had, trusting that it would be enough. Is that a lesson for us, these days?
There’s a hymn we’ve been singing (by David Tamulevich) here lately, which sums up this theology of embodiment that we remember and celebrate here tonight. It goes,
Ours is a simple faith
Life is a short embrace
Heaven is in this place every day
Hope is the ground we till
Make each day what you will
Thankful for dreams fulfilled every day
It’s not complicated, the life that Jesus and other great spiritual teachers call us to. To have reverence for life, and to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s easier said than done, of course, but how different would our world be if more of us practiced this simple Christmas faith? To see ourselves as belonging to God, as bearers of light and love?
One hundred years ago, as the first World War raged across Europe, on Christmas an unplanned truce broke out along the Western Front. Soldiers sang carols across the barbed wire; they came out of the trenches and into no man’s land, they shook hands and shared food and cigarettes. One solder said, “It was a short peace in a terrible war.” After the war, another solder reflected, “If we had been left to ourselves, there would never have been another shot fired.”
I hold to the faith that people really are good at heart. That there is within us a goodness, a wholeness, a longing for peace and reconciliation. Like what those shepherd heard the angels sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to everyone!” The invitation of this night is to trust in that goodness, and follow where it leads.
Over the centuries the church seemed to forget how Jesus lifted up ordinary people, and saw the divine in them. The church made it more about hierarchy and power, and less about embodiment; that Jesus tried to help regular people see themselves as holy too. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of this teacher and healer and prophet; but we miss the heart of the message if we neglect his call to see ourselves as bearers of light and love
It’s simple, and Rebecca Parker sums it up:
You have to know your body
as the home of God
And this is the purpose of Christmas…
Mary is you
God in your body.
Joseph is you
sheltering God in the world.
This is the key to the mystery,
The Word became flesh.
We are the dwelling place.
The way to celebrate Christmas is to carry the spirit of this night with you, tonight and in the days ahead. To remember, and keep telling yourself, “I am the dwelling place for God! Not the only one, but I have this light in me, and I’m going to act like it, and share it, everywhere I go. I’m going to practice this simple Christmas faith all the year ‘round.” This is our happy task, and it’s how we will help heal and bless our world.
Merry Christmas, my friends!