Christmas Eve 10:30 p.m. December 24 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016
In her twelfth year, my sister, Rebecca, was selected to play Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her Los Angeles parochial school Christmas program. Her classmate, Todd, a toothsome young man, was tapped for the role of Joseph. And the newborn Jesus would be played by a large plastic doll set in a makeshift manger. The plan was this: at the program’s beginning, the lights would come up on the holy family positioned on stage left
as the first graders, dangerously holding burning candles in their hands, processed into the hall singing “Away in a manger.” But, then, the person in charge of lights forgot to lower the light beaming on the holy family, and – under orders from the drama coach to move not an inch until the lights went down (at which point they could leave the stage) – Rebecca and Todd stayed in place until, an hour into the program, my sister, who had knelt the entire time, passed out cold on top of the manger. The force of her crash separated from his body, the head of the baby Jesus that went flying into the audience. That is, until Eric, the third basemen on the school ball team caught the head in mid-air, an unexpected catch given that he had a terrible record of missed fly balls and grounders in the previous season. Indeed, his father was so relieved that his son had actually caught something that he insisted on taking his photograph: Eric beaming and proudly holding the head of the baby Jesus in his two hands as if he had just won an Oscar at the Academy awards. As our mother rushed from the back of the hall, our friend, Margot – a martini sipping, Virginia Slims smoking activist – ran to the stage, cradled the still unconscious Mary in her arms, looked at the audience and said with considerable force, “Listen! If you’d just given birth to a baby and had to kneel for more than an hour, you, too, would’ve passed!” To say the least, it was a memorable Christmas program. My sister revived, the doll head was attached to the body, and the sixth graders concluded the program singing “Joy to the world.”
And if the world ever needed joy, it was that year. American troops were returning from Viet Nam after a disastrous conflict in which 60,000 Americans were killed in action, a disproportionate number of them African Americans; a conflict in which 1.3 million people lost their lives. The CIA supported the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected president of Chile, a coup that began a reign of terror in that beleaguered country. And Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate Scandal, boldly announced to a group of 400 reporters that he was not a crook. My guess is this: no one sitting in that school Christmas program thought for a moment there was any relationship between the ancient story being told on stage and what was happening in the world outside the hall. After all, this was Los Angeles: a city that sustains fantasy and frequently provides cinematic escape from the world in which we live. I wonder: will our service this night be any different?
Luke would have us see this: in his account of Jesus’ birth, he tell us the name of the Roman Emperor who used military force and political subterfuge to colonize and thus dominate other nations, a leader who was hailed by the imperial poets as “the Savior of the world,” the one who made Rome great again after he brutally crushed uprisings among the colonized. Luke would have us see that the “census” which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem had one purpose only and that was to impose burdensome taxes on the vast majority who were poor while wealthy elites benefitted from tax breaks and perks handed them by the imperial family. Luke would have us see the working poor in the face of Joseph and the startling pregnancy of Mary who, against all odds on earth – but not in heaven – would become the mother of the one who is hailed by the angels – did you hear it? – as the Savior of the world, chosen by God, to offer human beings a Way of Living in this World so different than the apparent normalcy of a nation’s violence, retribution, economic domination, and social division rooted in gender, class, and race – all of which creates an unforgiving and loveless society.
As a boy I learned that the sole purpose of Christ’s birth was, in the end, to save us from our sins (an odd phrase when you think about it) and thus gain heaven for you and for me. That is, from heaven above, Christ came to lead you and me out of this world into
heaven – as if being Christian immunizes you and me from life in this world. One then wonders what the angels meant when they sang, “glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth
” – on earth
, and sang their brief song in the midst of a conflicted society and a people fearful of the future. What did the angel say? “Do not be afraid for I am bringing you good news.” I wonder: is it possible that their good news is this – that the birth of Christ signals his coming with the power of heaven to lead you and in me into the world
, this coming with the power of heaven to animate our personal and communal commitments – not to saber-rattling, but to peace building
; not to favoring the few over the many but to an equitable sharing of God’s gifts
here on earth; not to the practice of retribution when harmed but to the politics of telling the truth in love
in order to restore broken relationships; not to the demonization of those who are different from you and me but, as our beloved and challenging Prayer Book says, to respect the God-given dignity of every human being
What I mean to say, dear sisters and brothers, is that the ancient story we mark this night in word and song, in art and ceremony, is not simply a cherished memory from the past but a startling revelation in the present of how you and I might yet live, might lean into the mystery of the holy gospel with hope in the days and months to come. Let us hear the angels’ invitation and go now to Bethlehem, to “the house of bread,” to the altar where the prince of peace offers himself freely to you and me, to be our nourishment in his life for the life of this world. Amen.