Please bear with me/us.
Category : Christmas
The same thing happens to Father Kendall Harmon every year during the 12 days after the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
It happens with newcomers at his home parish, Christ-St. Paul’s in Yonges Island, South Carolina, near Charleston. It often happens when, as Canon Theologian, he visits other parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.
“I greet people and say ‘Merry Christmas!’ all the way through the 12 days” of the season, he said, laughing. “They look at me like I’m a Martian or I’m someone who is lost. … So many people just don’t know there’s more Christmas after Christmas Day.”
And there it is. Born to give them second birth. Bound up in the many promises of the manger is the promise that the babe born in Bethlehem has power to reconstitute human beings, which means he can start them over again, spiritually speaking from scratch. This is what the Bible means by “born again,” or what Wesley meant by “second birth.” And this is indeed what Scrooge needs. After all, neither we nor he wish to trust his eternal chains to the fragile and fickle powers of human resolve. Better to enter into the mystery, terror, joy, and dark night of Christmas Eve as one man only to emerge hours later through miracle (or magic?) another man.
Flinging the curtains open on Christmas Day, his spiritual pilgrimage through the past, present and future complete, the first thing Scrooge does is laugh.
Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs.
“I don’t know what day of the month it is,” said Scrooge. “I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!”
“I’m quite a baby.” Indeed. Christmas magic made the man new. He had started all over gain. He had been born anew. Dickens’ point was not about ghosts and phantasms but rather about Christmas itself.
Come to your heaven, you heavenly quires!
Earth hath the heaven of your desires;
Remove your dwelling to your God,
A stall is now His best abode;
Sith men their homage do deny,
Come, angels, all their faults supply.
His chilling cold doth heat require,
Come, seraphim, in lieu of fire;
This little ark no cover hath,
Let cherubs’ wings his body swathe;
Come, Raphael, this babe must eat,
Provide our little Toby meat.
Let Gabriel be now His groom,
That first took up His earthly room;
Let Michael stand in His defence,
Whom love hath link’d to feeble sense;
Let graces rock when He doth cry,
And angels sing this lullaby.
he same you saw in heavenly seat,
Is He that now sucks Mary’s teat;
Agnize your King a mortal wight,
His borrow’d weed lets not your sight;
Come, kiss the manger where He lies;
That is your bliss above the skies.
This little babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmÃ¨d wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.
With tears He fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield,
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows, looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns, cold and need,
And feeble flesh His warrior’s steed.
His camp is pitchÃ¨d in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib His trench, hay-stalks His stakes,
Of shepherds He His muster makes;
And thus, as sure His foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.
My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that He hath pight;
Within His crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard;
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.
Saint John has described the character of Jesus in just two words, grace and truth. He said Jesus was “full of grace and truth….”
How would someone describe you? Are you strong on truth but weak on grace- quick to judge and slow to forgive? A whole lot of people are. Or are you strong on grace and weak on truth? A whole lot of people are. But grace without truth is not grace, it’s denial.
It’s easy to fall off the slippery slop in one direction or another. In our marriages, parenting, our work places, and even in ministries there is often a lot of one but not much of the other.
Look at our churches. Some churches are deeply immersed in truth, but awfully thin on grace. One of the greatest novels ever written, in my humble opinion, is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Talk about a story of truth with no grace. Mistress Hester Prynne was sentenced to wear the scarlet letter, (an A for adultery), as a mark of shame upon her breast all the days of her life until the letter be engraved upon her tombstone. If she entered a church, trusting to share a comforting word from God, it was often her mishap to find herself the text of the sermon.
How sad that accurately describes many churches today- a lot of law, a lot of truth, but thin on grace. There is a story of a clergyman who had an argument with a vestryman about whether a young man who had a bad reputation should be made welcome in the church. Finally the minister said, “Well, didn’t the Lord forgive the woman taken in adultery?” “Yes,” replied the old gentleman, “but I don’t think any more of him for having done it.” And so it is with many churches- strong on truth, but weak on grace.
And on the flip side, there are many churches that cheat people out of truth, churches that vow never to offend, to make everybody feel good and comfortable. It may feel good and comfortable, it may sound like sacred tolerance, but there is no abiding peace there. There is no new life, no liberation, no transformation.
I knew a man who once asked a much younger woman to marry him, but with a pre-nuptial agreement. In the pre-nuptial it was stated that she was not suppose to nag him about his drinking. She agreed, and little by little, instead of speaking the truth in love she sat by and watched him die of alcohol. Now it could be argued that she stuck nobly to the agreement, but it could also be argued that she lived a marriage of no truth.
Now had the body been brought down from heaven and not taken from our nature, was there any need for him becoming man? God the Word was made man for this reason, that that very nature which had sinned, fallen, and become corrupt should conquer the tyrant who had deceived it. Thus it should be freed from corruption, as the Divine Apostle says: ‘For as by a man came death, and by a man came the resurrection from the dead’ (1 Cor. 15:21). If the first was true, then so is the second.
–Saint John of Damascus: Writings, Frederic Chase ed. (Washington DC: CUA Press, 1958) Book III, 12, page 293
We sing the songs of progress in the gospel of an ever-improving world. Today, this is the purpose that motivates almost every undertaking, both public and private. However, the cult of progress is the repudiation of grace….
There are habits of the heart worth pondering in this context. The train of thought geared towards progress and the greatness of our achievements is rooted in discursive reasoning’s efforts to judge, weigh, measure and compare. It becomes a habit that blinds us to many things. Of note, the faculty that judges, weighs, measures and compares is not the same faculty that sees beauty. It is the faculty of utility, made for tools.
This faculty of the heart that sees beauty is also the faculty that sees the small things and the things that “do not signify.” It is not a practical place nor given to usefulness. The Fathers describe it as the nous, and often simply call it the heart. It is that place through which we have communion with God. It is, interestingly, also the place that recognizes Him in the “least of these my brethren.” It is that place which sees personhood in its proper form, in its utter uniqueness and never as “one of many.”
It is worth considering that our real day is almost completely populated with “small things.”
When the early Christians wrote about Jesus, this was the story they believed themselves to be telling. They didn’t see him as simply a teacher, a moral example, or even as one who saved people from a doomed world. They told his story as the point where the dark forces of chaos converged, in the cynical politics of Herod and Pilate, the bitter fanaticism of the Pharisees, the wild shrieks of diseased souls, the sudden storms on the lake. They invite us to see his death on the analogy of Jonah’s being thrown into the sea, there to be swallowed by the monster called Death. They insist that in this death God has taken upon Himself the full force of the world’s evil. As a sign of that, the final book of the Bible declares that in the new world, now already begun with his resurrection, there will be no more sea.
Saying this precisely does not give Christian theology an easy explanation (“Oh, that’s all right then”) for the continuing presence of evil in the world. On the contrary, it tells a story about Jesus’s own sense of abandonment, and thereby encourages us to embrace the same sense of helpless involvement in the sorrow of the world, as the means by which the world is to be healed. Those who work for justice, reconciliation and peace will know that sense, and perhaps, occasionally, that healing.
This isn’t the kind of answer that the Enlightenment wanted. But maybe, as we launch into the deep waters of another new year, it is the kind of vocation we ought to embrace in place of shallow analysis and shrill reaction.
A Berliner and longtime member of St. Mary’s church choir, Christian Beier attempts to explain the mystique and tradition behind this piece of music….
“It makes Christmas Christmas,” he adds with a chuckle.
But as gorgeous as the music is for Beier, the core of this yearly event is something deeper.
“It is getting into some dialogue with God. It is being moved by whatever is around us,” he says.
….one could learn a great deal from the question, “What do you hope to get for Christmas?” For if you know our hopes, you fairly well know us. If you want to know who a person really is, and plans to be, inquire into what that person is hoping for.
What are you hoping for?
I expect that is what most of us think religion is about, the fulfillment of our hopes. We hope to find peace in our anxious lives. So we come to church on Sunday morning hoping that the music of the hymns, the words of scripture and preaching may fill us with a sense of peace.
We hope for thoughtful, reflective lives. So we come to church on Sunday morning hoping for an interesting sermon, something that will help us to use our minds, something that will test our intellects, make us think about things in a way we haven’t thought before…..
The trouble is that the Gospels seem to engage in a continual debate with people’s hopes and expectations. Jesus came, light into our darkness. But the problem with Jesus was he was not the sort of light that we expected. That is where the trouble started. Jesus was the hope of the world. But he was not the hope for which the world was hoping!
The Word of the Father, through which time was made, became flesh and made his birthday in time, and willed a single day for his human birth, he without whose divine permission no day rolls round. With the Father he precedes all the spaces of ages; born this day of a mother, he inserted himself into the courses of the years.The maker of man was made man [homo factus hominis factor]so that the ruler of the stars might suck at breasts,bread might hunger,the fountain might thirst,light might sleep,the way might be wearied by a journey,truth might be accused by false witnesses,the judge of the living and the dead might be judged by a mortal judge,justice might be condemned by the unjust,discipline might be beaten with whips,the cluster of grapes might be crowned with thorns,the foundation might be hung from a tree,strength might be weakened,health [salus] might be wounded,life might die.He suffered these and like indignities [indigna] for us so that he might free the unworthy [indignos]. He who did no evil suffered such great evils for our sakes, while we who deserved nothing good through him have received such great goods. For the sake of all this, he who was the Son of God before all the ages, without a beginning of days, deigned to be a son of man in the last days, and the One who was born, not made, of the Father was made in the mother whom he had made, so that he might exist here and now, made from the mother, from the woman who except for him would never ever herself have been able to exist.”
(Sermon 191, 1; PL 38, 1010)