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Christmas Pageants, Joseph, and Peace

We don’t have a true Christmas pageant at St. Paul’s.  What we have is a pop-up version, where all the children in attendance at the early service of Christmas Eve are given a costume upon arrival, and conscripted into being one of the characters in The Friendly Beasts, which the choir sings in the middle of the service.  They then walk forward, looking adorable, and stand there as the gospel is read.  It’s pretty foolproof.

But this year, one of our resident 5 year olds became alarmed that we were lacking a Joseph.  Deciding to take matters into her own hands, she raced out into the congregation, and cornered every boy she could find of reasonable age.  “Could you please be Joseph for us?  Because we need one VERY BADLY.” she explained to everyone, eyes wide in the do-or-die seriousness of small children.  After she had approached about 5 boys, and left one crouched in the corner of his pew in terror (she really was quite persistent), I finally figured out what she was doing, and suggested that we might leave him alone to think about it for a bit.  She brightened, “Ok, Mother Megan! He can come and find us when he’s ready. Maybe there are more people on the street outside who haven’t come inside yet!” To the front door she ran, the flock of costumed children trailing behind her, to shout an invitation to everyone outside.

I told my rector later that she should probably be put in charge of PR relations and evangelism for St. Paul’s, if not the diocese.  I was only half-kidding.  Children haven’t learned yet that religion isn’t polite to talk about in public, lest you offend someone, or that you shouldn’t tell everyone you know about this wonderful place you go to every week because you might get laughed at.  Really, we should let them do evangelizing.

Here’s what I said Christmas Eve.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve, Year C

Luke 3

 

The opening of the Christmas gospel is just plain weird.  The real opening now, not the part that Linus starts with, in A Charlie Brown’s Christmas, because he’s a kid, and he’s allowed to cheat.

The writer of Luke’s gospel starts out, not with that peaceful scene in a pasture somewhere, but with announcing a census.  Not exactly an attention-grabber. “In those days, there came a decree from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  Well…alright.

This seems neither Christmas-y, nor very interesting, and yet, the writer is VERY CONCERNED ABOUT IT.  This census, we are told, was so important that every person had to return back to their own town and village–their ancestral home.

And so it is that Joseph and Mary hit the road for Bethlehem, along with a thousand other people.  It is this census that gets Mary and Joseph stranded in a barn for their baby’s birth.  It is this census that starts the whole thing moving in the direction we know so well.

If you know a lot about history, then you know that this emperor mentioned here was real, and really important.  Caesar Augustus reunited the Roman Empire after his uncle–another famous guy named Julius Caesar, was assassinated.  Augustus ushered in what’s been called ‘the pax romana’–those two centuries where Rome itself considered itself stable, peaceful.

Rome was the strongest thing in the world, able to conquer almost anything in its path.  From one end to another, Rome proclaimed that it had finally established peace on the earth.

They had to announce this pretty loudly, you see, because there was a lot of fighting happening.  The way Rome held onto its empire was through constant expansion–invading and subduing new people and new territory.  And then, of course, they had to put down the constant rebellions, which they did in brutal fashion.  Stomping down the various conquered peoples until everyone was frozen into compliance.  Augustus Caesar had brought peace, all right–but it was peace at the end of a pretty bloody sword.  

The gospel writer takes pains to remind us that it was THIS emperor who is the background here…so recall Augustus Caesar, when you think about that lovely scene with the shepherds in the fields, watching by night.  Now, shepherds, despite how idyllic they seem to us busy city folk, were not popular back then.  They were dirty, smelly people at the lowest level of society, who grazed their sheep on other people’s land, and neglected their families in order to hang out with barnyard animals.  They were nobodies.  Literally.  Because while Mary and Joseph have to report for the census–the shepherds haven’t gone anywhere.  The census hasn’t included them–they literally do not count in Rome.  The pax romana, the glories of the empire do not include them.

And yet.  

And yet, it was to those who didn’t count that the angels brought the message of the holy birth.  It was to these uncounted people that the angels announced the coming of peace on earth.  

And how did that peace arrive?  Did it arrive with military might and power, crushing the weak and laying low the countryside with fear?

Not at all.  This peace arrived in the person of a tiny, helpless baby. It came born to a young couple, scared and alone, left homeless.  It came among the left behind and the lost.  

The peace the angels proclaimed was worlds away from the pax romana.  The peace that Jesus brought into the world at his birth rests, not in the power of weapons, or the rule of fear.  It rests instead in a tiny baby, born to us, into this terrible and wonderful drama of humanity.  

When God became human in that manger in Bethlehem, the human experience changed forever.  No longer would we be alone in our human joys and sorrows.  Now, God would know what it felt like to grow, to learn.  To laugh and to cry.  To love, and to grieve.  Now, there was nothing in all creation that could separate us from the love of God, because that love had come down to where we are.  And that love would prove to be stronger than anything.  Even stronger than death.

The shepherds must have been entirely confused, when they got to the stable and saw what was going on.  What sort of king was this, that was just a baby?  What sort of victory, what sort of peace could this baby, hours old, red and squalling, possibly offer?  

But it is Christ’s peace that comes to us where we are, that gathers us all in, villager, shepherd, wandering traveller alike.  It is Christ’s peace that proves more persuasive than armies, and more mighty than emperors.  It is that humble, vulnerable peace of Christ that nothing can shake.

Christmas this year finds us again facing a scary world.  Everything seems frightening and off-kilter right now–even the weather.  There’s violence on the news at night–wars around the world, and the threat of sudden catastrophe again looming here at home.  So there are many who would urge us to be afraid.  Politicians march across the screen and tell us that the only answer to an uncertain world is power, strength, and more of both.

But the truth of Christmas, the miracle of Christmas, is that neither power, nor unlimited strength, nor unending violence make for peace.  For everything that Caesar Augustus tried, lasting peace eluded Rome.  

Peace, true peace, comes to us on this night, in this way, in the shape of a helpless, tiny baby.  It comes to us as God comes to earth, becoming human, so that God might better love us.  It comes to us in humility and weakness.  It comes to us as the nameless are seen, and the poor are glorified.  It comes to us as God’s love shines bright upon the earth as the stars above. It comes to us as we embrace that love, living out our lives in the way that Jesus Christ showed us.

This is the peace the angels sang about, the peace they proclaimed to a bunch of smelly shepherds in a field.  This is the peace that nothing can shake.  This is the peace that appears in the midst of chaos, war, and brokenness.  And this is the peace that God gives to us tonight.

So glory to God, and peace to all on earth.

Amen.

 

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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