Christmas Year A 2010
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I never remember if it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six… All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. - Dylan Thomas, A Child's Christmas in Wales
Like Dylan Thomas, we all have a bundle of Christmas memories, and when I plunge my hands in the snow of Christmases past out comes heading home from college around 1970.
My hair was a lot longer back then as I sat at the gate at Bradley Field with a high school friend who attended a nearby college. A young man approached us who had no shoes. He asked if he could borrow some shoes to get on board the flight since the folks at the gate would not let him on bare foot. Shows you how different things were back then! Now they make you take them off!
So I lent him a pair of sneakers out of my carry-on bag. He thanked me and headed off to the men's room. As we boarded, he was nowhere to be seen. But as we were standing in the jetway, I overheard a more corporately attired traveler say to another, "Just look at all of our 'hopes for the future' getting on this plane," drenching with sarcasm. Forty years later and on has to wonder: who has provided our country and the world God loves more hope, the corporate types or the outsiders? Of course the kid never got on the plane. I never saw those shoes again. Great scam! But I was happy for him!
Just where do we place our hope these days? For that is what Christmas demands to know. Washington? Politics? Science? Whatever passes for "progress" these days? The Arts? Young people, old people? The Economy? To quote the King of Siam, "It's a puzzlement!"
At Christmas all kinds of people return "to their own cities" just like Mary and Joseph had to that winter a long time ago. The government required it. Everyone had to be counted so that they could be taxed - so that Rome could drain the maximum amount of resources from that backwater province surrounding Jerusalem, Israel.
The times were dark back then under Rome. Just as they had been dark some 600 years earlier when Isaiah proclaimed a word of hope: "The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light. Those who live in the land of deep darkness, on them light has shined." The land was under occupation back then as well - the Exile, the Babylonian captivity, call it what you may. In the 1970's it would be called a big bummer, man!
Despite the desperate nature of the situation, Isaiah declares that there is hope. It is just that hope comes from the strangest places. For those in Isaiah's time, hope arrived as a gentile messiah, Cyrus of Persia - modern-day Iran roughly. It is safe to say that no one expected that! Yet, Cyrus liberated God's people and returned them safely home.
Then one night, six hundred years later, in the back streets of Bethlehem, a light shined in the darkness - a child was born. A baby in a manger - basically a feeding trough for barn animals. The animals in the shed sacrificed breakfast so the baby could sleep. Isaiah echoed through the night in the singing of angels, the arrival of shepherds, as the child lay there in a wooden manger of hay. The child, says Isaiah, is to be called "Mighty God!"
Do we get that? This child in a manger is God - we do well to just stop and try to take that all in for a few moments. Hope arrives in the strangest of places in the most unexpected people, but now hope arrives as a baby - a tiny child. A child who would grow up to bear the weight of the whole world and all its attendant woes and darkness upon his shoulders.
I grew up believing Chicago was the "City of Big Shoulders." Nothing like his, though. All the sin, sorrow, loneliness, sadness, brokenness and desperation of the world will one day rest on the shoulders of this tiny child - the wood of the manger turns out to be the Hard Wood of the Cross. Our hope, our only hope, is a baby lying in a manger.
Note that we do not have to go looking for hope. Hope goes out of town to the margins of Israelite society to find the shepherds and announce hope is here - the hope of the world is here, and you silly, filthy shepherds are the first to know! Hope comes to find us wherever we are! The question remains, will we respond as immediately and excitedly as the shepherds did that night in Israel?
And if we do, what do we do with this hope? Many have tried many things and have just made things worse. Take the Church, for instance. We tried to impose this hope on every and all peoples - using force whenever necessary. Force is to tepid a word - violence and even torture have been employed to convince others to let this hope into their hearts. We became the Empire to which we had been the alternative. Most people, however, could sense that what we offered was false hope - untrue hope based in our own sinfulness and greed.
Yet, even up to modern times many have seen using Jesus to establish a new political order as a promising strategy. Woody Guthrie of all people wrote a song: Jesus Christ for President:
Let's have Christ our President
Let us have him for our king
Cast your vote for the Carpenter
That you call the Nazarene
The only way we can ever beat
These crooked politician men
Is to run the money changers out of the temple
Put the Carpenter in
Christmas 1940, Dietrich Bonhoffer, who died in a Nazi jail cell, wrote that it will not work this way. Jesus will not establish his government of peace by force, but only when people submit to him freely, and allow him to rule over them. Then he gives to them his wonderful peace. When Christians are torn apart by war and debate, and churches cannot come together, that is not the fault of Christ, but the fault of people who do not allow Christ to rule over them. This does not mean that the promise is not fulfilled. Peace will have no end when we allow the divine child to rule over us.If we accept the Word and sacrament, if we accept his rule over us, if we recognize the child in the manger as our Savior and Deliverer, we allow him to give us the new life of love.
- Christmas 1940, The Government upon His Shoulders, Bonhoffer, Werke, vol 8
So where do we find him, this child who is God? How do we recognize him? In 1998 I was attending a Stewardship conference in Syracuse, New York. I was leading some music in a room of about 60 people. At a table in the front of the room was a group of deaf Episcopalians. Someone was signing the proceedings for them. As we sang, Seek Ye First The Kingdom of God, they were all signing the song as we sang. One by one people behind them began to join in signing the Alleluias, until soon everyone in the room had left our world of hearing and entered into their world. Finally, the person signing for them urged them to turn around to see what was happening. The looks on their faces was the light of Christ shining into our darkness. We were no longer singing about seeking the kingdom of God, we had entered into God's kingdom, God's world, God's rule of love for God and neighbor.
It turns out more often than not, as it was for the shepherds, we need not look for hope - we need only recognize that it is already here and submit ourselves to Him to allow Him to give us a new life of love. For He is here. He is wherever there are people who are shut out of the usual structures of power. He is wherever people are lonely, in need of feeding, healing or a helping hand to reach out. He is wherever we enter into the lives of those who are hurting in this world.
God will accomplish God's purpose with us or without us. The kingdom this child brings to us this day shall remain forever, and in the end bring down all human guilt and resistance.
Whether we are there or not, it will arrive. God himself lays his plans and reaches his objectives, with us or against us. But he wants us to be with him, not by compulsion, but willingly. God with us, Immanuel. I believe that Jesus Christ, truly man, born of a Virgin, and also truly God, born of the Father in Heaven, is my Lord! - ibid.
Bonhoffer's final Christmas in 1944, a letter from a Nazi prison cell to his fiancée included this message which has become Hymn 696 in our hymnal:
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.
Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation,
for which, O Lord, you taught us to prepare.
And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again in this same world you give us
the joy we had, the brightness of your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be yours alone.
Even in the darkness of prison and his pending execution, Bonhoffer embodies the hope of the Christ child, a light that shines in the darkness and which the darkness has not and cannot overcome.
Where do we see our hope? Christmas wants to know. Christmas means to show us, if only we will open our eyes and see. When we do, we know that God is with us night and morning, and never fails to greet us each new day. When we do, our whole life shall be Christ's alone. Immanuel, God with us.
Jesus, God on earth, was touched by human hands. I believe that Jesus Christ, truly man, born of Mary, and also truly God, born of the Father in Heaven, is our Lord. Together may we live out of this simple declaration of who we are and whose we are. Hope has been born and is with us night and morning. God bless us, every one!