My first Christmas as a solo rector has come and gone. I thought to myself, whilst collapsed on the sofa after the Christmas morning service was over, and I was safely ensconced in flannel PJs, wrapped in a wooly blanket, “Wow. Why I am so tired?” It’s because Christmas is a forking lot of work.
Not only for us clergy are there services, pageants, where-is-that-creche? and why-does-the-Baby-Jesus-appear-to-have-a-broken-arm? issues to deal with, there are also all the usual stresses that everyone else has around the holidays: shopping, cooking, cleaning, families people-ing, and the looming knowledge that if this is not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, You are Doing It Wrong. Compared to all this, Holy Week and Easter’s daily march of intense liturgies feel like a cakewalk.***
I should add quickly that I love being a priest at Christmas. It means I get to talk about the Incarnation a whole lot, which is one of my very favorite things.
To this end, I give you the sermon from Christmas Eve. Christmas Morning’s sermon is currently in note form. I will (possibly) work on getting it into actual sentences, but that may take a while.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 24, 2018
Vigil of Christmas Year B
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is a tiny little book—only about 100 pages, max. It was written way back in the early 1970s, so it’s fairly dated, and was even when I first read it. It tells the story of a family of troublemakers—your basic town outcasts—the Herdmans, who lived in some nondescript, Midwestern town. Not for any sobering reason, but because the kids were chronically unsupervised, stole, swore, and were generally badly behaved. No one liked being around them, until one year, at Christmas, due to a perfect storm of small town catastrophes, the Herdmans end up involved in the local church pageant. Hijinks ensue.
I ADORED this book when I was a kid—it was funny, the stakes were pretty low, and the mental image of the very proper church ladies being continually scandalized by the Herdman kids’ honest confusion over the basics of theology was a delight. (The Herdmans first show up to church because they were promised crackers and grape juice. They stuck around because they discovered coffee hour. As an 8 yr old, this was reasoning I could get behind.)
But what I most remember is what happens during the pageant itself. As the Herdmans step into all the parts, the church congregation begins to see the story anew. Mary and Joseph become scared kids, wondering how they will survive and care for a baby on their own, instead of two shining saintly figures. The shepherds become the unkempt, unwashed guys you see around town, who nevertheless come to help out when you need it. Jesus’ birth in a manger becomes—not a lovely image straight from a gauzy Hallmark movie—but a slice of life, set in the middle of human existence.
It becomes easy, after these 2,000 years, and countless church polishings of this story, to forget that at its base, the story of Christmas is somewhat dirty and messy. Mary and Joseph aren’t even married yet, when they’re ordered by a distant bureaucrat to go to a far-off town and file some forms. The town’s overcrowded, and small, so there’s no where to stay, and they end up bedding down with the animals for the night, in a cave. (In that region, houses and other buildings were built out of caves, for warmth and security, with the living quarters at the front, and the animals sleeping at the rear.) Mary gives birth to her child surrounded by animals, strangers, and darkness. The only excited visitors are some wandering shepherds.
We make it pretty over the years—we tell stories about sweet-smelling hay, and kindly beasts, and softly falling snow, perhaps to cover up the starkness of the essential story—a couple left homeless give birth to a baby. There had to have been halos, angels, kindly midwives, we reassure ourselves.
And yet, perhaps the glory of Christmas is that there wasn’t. The glory of Christmas is precisely in the mess and the dirt of that first night, when God Incarnate came squalling into a world so broken. Perhaps the truth we witness to this evening is that God came to be among us exactly in the dirt, in the noise, in the confusion, of our lives.
Had the stable been a lovely, pristine place, and Mary and Joseph had everything figured out—had the townsfolk of Bethlehem known what was coming their way, and opened their arms with joy, had Herod realized his responsibility, and conceded his throne to this tiny infant—what would the story have been then? What work of redemption would even have been left?
No, God comes to us not in our perfection, not in the shining, splendid places in our lives, or in the world, but in the broken, lacking places, because God wants to transform them. God wants to bind up the broken hearted, to set the captives free, to bring the poor good news, to shine light into all our dimly-lit corners. And that can only happen if God is present, right in the middle of our mess. Right where it hurts the most.
On this night, we remember how God came among us, promising us for all time that no matter what happens, no matter what we face, or what comes our way, there is nothing that can separate us from God and God’s love. Not poverty, not stables, not emperors, not even death. God’s love endures through all these things, and transforms all these things until the world begins to reflect the shining glory God intends.
This baby grows up, becomes an adult who shows us how to live in the Love God has for each of us. Shows us what the way of sacrificial love looks like, even as that way challenges the powers of the world—he continues in that Love to death, to show us that God’s love is stronger than anything we have known before, stronger even than hatred, violence, even death.
Tonight is where it starts. Tonight is where God’s love is made more real than ever before.
Tonight, in the back of a cave, with a poor helpless baby, born into a mess, come to bring us out of one.
***Remind me I said that in May, please.