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Christmas Eve 10:30 p.m. December 24, 2017 - The Rev. Janet Campbell
Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, December 24, 2017
The Rev. Janet Campbell
A gentle, charming story,
the way Luke tells it . . .
at least,
so I thought,
          as a child:
the travel-worn woman and man
          finding shelter in a stable
                    among its animal inhabitants; 
scruffy shepherds and their scruffy sheep
          dozing in the dark
                   of nighttime fields;
a sudden angel
          blazing golden like flame
with an astonishing message,
joined, like the sun rising in the dark sky,
          by a vast angelic chorus,
then the rush into the little village
          to see a newborn baby
                    lying in a manger.
When I was growing up
          we never talked about
          God or Jesus in my family . . .
          we were not Church people . . .
but still, at Christmas,
we read the story of Jesus’ birth
          for its gentle charm.
I loved the thrift-shop crèche
          my mother bought
          with its painted plaster figures . . .
I would carefully set it out
every year
          under the Christmas tree . . .
The rugged little stable
made of splintery wood  . . .
the three-legged cow and the little gray donkey
          to nestle into the crumbly straw . . .
          (the cow had to be propped
                   against the back wall) . . .
Mary and Joseph gazing expectantly
          at the empty manger
          through the long countdown
                   to Christmas . . .

Mary, kneeling
          in perpetual adoration,
Joseph, standing guard
          in that posture of leaning on his staff,
          except his staff was missing
                   and he was prone,
                             so to speak,
                   to falling on his face.
The tiny baby,
(he was, wondrously, made of wax,
          and had a soft glow about him)
kept carefully in his box
until I snuggled him into the manger
                    on Christmas Eve.
(It wouldn’t do to hold him too long
          or he would start to get soft . . .)
Then, the shepherds arranged
with their woolly sheep
          all around . . .
And the angel,
          dangling precariously
          from a tree branch overhead.
(Actually they were all
in a pretty precarious situation,
because of the cat.)
But it was not until adulthood,
when, by a series of events
          that still leaves me breathless
                    when I think of it . . .
I became aware of God
          and began my journey
                   into the church
                   and to baptism . . .
It was not until then
that I began to understand
why the people who went to church
          thought that one particular birth
                   was so important . . .
It was not until then
that I became aware of
what lay in the shadows
          of that cozy manger scene
                   under the Christmas tree . . .
what was hidden between the lines
of Luke’s gentle, charming story
          of God who chose to be
          born into the world
                   in Jesus . . .

born into
the precariousness of life
          in Roman-occupied Palestine . . .
to live among
          a conquered
          and brutally-oppressed people.
A people suffering under
the heavy burden of taxes
          that returned no benefit to them,
but filled the coffers of the emperor,
          while his subjects
                    lived in grinding poverty . . .
with the exception of
some wealthy landowners,
the elite priests of Jerusalem,
and local government officials appointed by Rome.
          The archaeologists
                   who study Roman Palestine
          have uncovered some of the great mansions
                   in which they enjoyed lives of luxury.

It was into a world and a culture
          completely foreign to us,
yet, in the most important ways,
          so like our own,
                    that Jesus was born . . .
. . . a world and a culture
power and privilege,
position and possession
          meant everything,
and the exploitation
          of the many to obtain them
                    meant nothing:
the tragedy of the human condition
          in every place and time,
driven by
what our baptismal covenant
“the spiritual forces of wickedness
          that rebel against God,”
“the evil powers of this world
          which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”
“the sinful desires that draw us
          from the love of God,”              
                                      [The Book of Common Prayer p. 302]

We renounced
those forces, powers and desires
at our baptism,
and yet,
they creep back
into our lives,
sometimes covertly,
sometimes blatantly . . .
and we are much in need
of rescue
from them and from ourselves.
What God chose to set
over against those powers
          that wreak such havoc
is God’s defenseless love . . .
revealed in the vulnerability of the baby
          born in Bethlehem.
If Jesus’ birth
confined to
that one brief moment
          in all of time’s long trajectory,
that one small pinpoint of a place
          in all the vastness of God’s Creation,
what would be the sense
of making such a fuss about it
          some two millennia later?

Our celebration tonight
would be nothing more 
than a lovely and sentimental recounting
in word and song,
of the gentle, charming story
          I loved as a child. . . .
But there is more . . .
what we are doing,
what we are making such a fuss about,
is what this night reveals to us:
God’s magnificent gamble . . .
“The hint half-guessed
the gift half-understood,”
Anglican poet T. S. Eliot rightly called it.   
                                       (Four Quartets, The Dry Salvages, from stanza V)
God’s astonishing response to
          the tragedy of the human condition:
coming into the world
          of God’s own creation
to share the tragedy of the human condition
          as one God’s own creatures:

born to working-class parents,
temporarily homeless in the city
          to which the Roman census
          had forced them to travel
                   at a difficult time,
                    to register for taxation . . .
in a chilly, dirty stable
smelling of the animals it sheltered,
born into a life of poverty among
the poor,
God born fully and in every way
          one of us.
And it was to the lowliest of us,
to shepherds,
rough, dirty, uneducated,
poor, sheep-smelly,
that the good news came first,
the good news of “great joy for all the people
not just for some people,
but all the people . . .
The good news of God’s justice and peace,
and the inestimable worth,
the indisputable dignity,
          of every human being.
“The hint half-guessed
the gift half-understood.”
The presence of God in Christ
alive in the world
not just in that one place and time,
but the goodness and loving kindness
of God in Christ
alive among the followers of Jesus
          in every place and time.
Alive among us now,
in the Word of God proclaimed,
in the bread and wine prayed over
broken, poured out,
and shared,
          Christ’s own life in us,
Alive among us now
in neighbor, friend and stranger,
in the person next to us,
in the people we love,
          near and far,
          and the ones we most miss tonight . . .

Alive among us now
in people who sorrow and struggle,
who are lonely or grieving . . .
Alive among us now
in our own sorrows and struggles,
losses and defeats . . .
Alive among us now
in these cruel and perilous times
in our nation and the world . . .
Tonight we celebrate,
not the end of a hectic season
          of getting ready for the big day . . .
as if all will be over tomorrow
          along about sunset . . .
and the infant Jesus
          can be put back in his box      
                   until next year.
We celebrate
the beginning of the season  
          of Incarnation . . .
          the gift still being unwrapped . . .
          the hint still being explored . . .
          the movement of God
          in and among us
                   for the life of the world.
Now the shopping is finished,
The cooking and feasting will soon be over,
          the dishes done and pots scrubbed,
The decorations put away . . .
And the real work of Christmas begins.
the work of participation
in the ongoing incarnation of God:
to seek out the lost,
bring joy to the sorrowful,
feed the hungry,
visit the lonely,
house the homeless,
bring justice to the oppressed,
          and peace among the people . . .
It was for this
          Christ was born.
It was for this
          we were reborn in baptism
and are daily renewed by the Holy Spirit
          poured out on us richly
                    through Jesus Christ our Savior.