This is my homily for Christmas Eve.
The New York Times published the year in pictures the other day. Scanning through them I saw several photos of the presidential election. There were pictures of cities destroyed by violence and war and the refugees who had to flee. One picture reminded me of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Another showed a picture of Bolivia’s second largest lake, which is now a dustbowl, and a picture of the Seine in Paris overflowing its banks. Both were due to climate change.
On Wednesday mornings I have breakfast with four colleagues. The other day we talked a bit about what we will preach tonight. We all agreed that this was not what we would call a stellar year. I doubt we’re the only ones who felt this way.
Meanwhile, we’ve been bombarded for weeks with commercials for the Christmas gift your spouse or your child or your parent or your grandparent or your special person in your life would love. We’ve watched Christmas specials about Scroogelike characters and their miraculous transformations, where dreams come true and the true meaning of Christmas is discovered.
Frankly, it all seems bizarre. They’re disconnected and have no bearing on each other. We come into this place tonight to celebrate the birth of Jesus and reaffirm the Christmas message of peace on earth and goodwill to all people. For awhile, we’ll forget that the state of the world is distressing (well, at least from the perspective of five pastors). We’ll say “Here we’ll find the real message of Christmas and not the commercials for the perfect gift and not these miraculous transformations which are hokey beyond belief.”
But they are related in a weird sort of mash up because they collide on Christmas. However, we have to understand Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus. It is far more significant and profound than that. Seeing Christmas as just the birth of Jesus saps it of its transforming power for each of us and for the world.
Christmas is the moment when God came into this world to share our common lot, to struggle with us, to suffer and to die in order to free us from sin and death. In Jesus, as one of my systematic theology professors frequently said, we are loved into freedom. God came to us this night over 2000 years ago squeezed into a tiny infant. Think about that for a moment. An infant without any protection other than Mary and Joseph. An infant born not among the wealthy, but the common people. An infant who commanded no army, but came into this world to transform it through love. An infant who grew to become an itinerant rabbi who proclaimed that transforming this world did not take weapons of destruction, but the bread and the cup.
Transformation comes through love lived out in our relationships with each other and with all of creation. Love is not a just an emotion, but is actions rooted in gratitude, generosity, patience, compassion, and joy. The Grinch’s heart grew two sizes larger because he recognized that Christmas was not about presents and decorations, but having gratitude and joy. Ebenezer Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning transformed because he saw kindness and compassion in his nephew, Fred, and Bob Cratchitt’s gratitude and forgiveness.
We show our generosity by giving gifts at Christmas. Finding that perfect gift makes it special, which nurtures our relationships and is a sign of caring. Commercialism in its own way tries to convey that in its advertising, but the gift we really need and want can’t be bought in stores or on-line. While we can be generous on Christmas, true generosity is an attitude and way of life. The commercials encourage us to give material gifts as tokens and signs of our affections. The commercials are, however, imperfect messengers because they are constrained by the fact that what they promote are products of human endeavors. Christmas is one time during the year when we are commanded and reminded to live out love. The gifts we need and can give away are rooted and found in the spiritual values which were set in each of us while we were in the womb.
Transformation and gifts. They are around us despite what seemed like an awful year. It’s not as though we haven’t had other “bad” years. It‘s not as though the state of the world has declined, either. Though we see devastating destruction in Syria and lament the resulting flood of refugees, here in the Berkshires there is a generally favorable environment to receive 50 Syrian refugees for resettlement in 2017. Though we have many people in our community who will struggle without adequate food or shelter, the Eagle Santa Fund and the Watson Fund in Great Barrington are raising tens of thousands of dollars from the community’s outpoured generosity. The students at the Richmond Consolidated School had a collection of personal hygiene products and household items plus twelve food baskets to support women at the Elizabeth Freeman Center. Many of our churches, including this one, and synagogues at this time give money to the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations’ emergency fuel fund, which provides a one-time 100-gallon grant of fuel oil to families who have no heat.
Christmas’ message prompts us to continue the mission and ministry begun by Jesus. That message filled with hope inspires us every year to lead better lives by strengthening our hearts with love so that we can increase God’s peace, shalom, in our lives and in our community, locally, nationally, and globally. Christmas renews it. We need Christmas. The world needs Christmas.
Despite this year, we should not forget that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. Though we’ve had other bad years, 1968 comes immediately to my mind, God’s radical inclusive, steadfast love ultimately prevails. True peace and justice are not always on a steadily constant upward trajectory. Though they suffer setbacks, the powerful message that comes with Christmas ultimately prevails and over time the world gets another step closer to God’s realm of peace and justice.
Christmas softens hardened hearts. Christmas overrules crass commercialism. Christmas instills in us hope and reaffirms the reality that love overcomes fear and that Creation’s bounty means there should be no such thing as scarcity or deprivation. Christmas reminds us that shalom is possible when we live as God intended and as Jesus taught. Christmas reconciles heaven and earth in love.