Christmas Eve is a romancing of the human spirit by the Holy Spirit. It is magical. It is incense and candles, music and food, friends and family. It reminds us that life can be good.
There is a bittersweet-ness to this romancing of the spirit, however. It can be a night of too much wine. We know that we’ll awake soon enough to another gray dawn with its worries and work to greet us. In that light, we may begin to wonder what that Christmas Eve night was all about. Was its magic just a dream?
Indeed, the real stable—assuming that Jesus was in fact born in one—had few amenities. And Mary was likely exhausted before the pains began, having made the journey to Bethlehem on foot. And Joseph, in spite of angelic reassurances, was probably still wondering what he had gotten himself into.
Likewise, our daily world is rarely magical. It is filled with alarm clocks, schedules, expectations, defeats and fears. Perhaps we look back, as we make our way to work, or through the bills, or people we don’t like, to nights like this and wonder, “Is Christmas little more than escapist fantasy?”
If so, perhaps we can just take it for what it is, and not expect more from it, not expect more from it than it can give. But that’s the problem: it seems to promise more than it can give. It doesn’t satisfy, but only feeds the hunger. So, we wonder if it’s worth it. We wonder if the holy night can hold its own against the gray dawn. Maybe it would be better to just skip it next year… and then the next year…until our Christmas ritual is to have none; and make the night be silent, make the inevitable gray dawn more bearable, perhaps.
But we could come at it from the other direction. It’s not too much Christmas that’s the problem; it’s too little Christianity. Christianity has healing for the gray dawn as well as celebration for the magic night. Christmas is only the beginning of the story. If Christmas is all we know of the story, if that is the only place Christianity intersects our lives, of course, we will become weary of it, like too much dessert. We are not just children waiting for St. Nicholas and candy canes; we are grownups living in a real world. Christmas-only Christianity is for children; we are grown now.
Don’t misunderstand: Christmas is, of course, for the child in all of us, adults included. But adults whose Christianity is only that of Christmas Eve cannot but have a childish faith, cannot but be stuck religiously in a place that they have left behind in other spheres of life.
Don’t misunderstand: there is nothing wrong with becoming a child again, rekindling the child-feeling of mystery and magic. Christmas Eve is for that. Enjoy it. But you know and I know that there is more to life than that, and there is more to our Christmas faith than that.
Because of this night there is nothing human that is foreign to God. Because of this night there is nothing that does not have a home in God, a safe home. There is nothing you have to hide. His birth is the beginning of that, of taking humanity—all of it—into himself where it can be both celebrated and healed. Christmas is the beginning of that. Christmas is the birth of a savior, of Emmanuel, “God with us”—among us and for us. Now there is nothing and no one beyond the reach of God’s saving, healing, re-creating love. Because of him, it is a good night; because of him it can be a wonderful life.
Second Sunday of Advent
Romans 15: 4-13
“Accept one another as Christ has accepted you,” we are told by St. Paul. Well how is that? How are we accepted by Christ? We are accepted without prerequisites. Christ doesn’t require anything of us to accept us into a companionship that provides eternal life. We come to him just as we are and just like that, just as we are, he accepts us.
There are no prerequisites; but there are expectations. We are expected, among other things, to return the favor by accepting one another in the same way. In this we are to be, as Luther put it, “Christ’s to one another.” His companionship makes a difference in how we see other people, how we value and behave toward them. While we see them as they are—with their sins and follies and weaknesses and talents and strengths—we accept them regardless of any of that. All this is easy to say, but sometimes it’s hard to do.
When St. Paul wrote about Christians accepting one another, he had in mind, as he often did, Jews and Gentiles. This distinction—that played a major role in the wider society at the time—was to have no part in the community founded in Christ. The community was to model the kingdom of God in which all sorts of people are reconciled and united. For Paul to encourage Jew and Gentile to accept one another would, unfortunately, be like some white people today, and certainly many white people several decades ago, being encouraged to accept Black people without regard to their race into the community of Christ’s body. This distinction—of Blacks and Whites—is to play no role here. The only entrance requirement into this community is faith. Jew and Gentile, Black and White, European and Native American, men and women—all these distinctions are irrelevant when it comes to God’s offer of life in Christ and a place in the church.
That’s the message, and there is no uncertainty about it, as much as we may have difficulty living it. Paul’s point was that the community of the church, the locus of the gospel in the world, is founded on faith in Christ and that alone. There are no other prerequisites; and the expectation is that we should not add any. The church is to be a unique community: open to all the people of the world, open to whoever will come.
God has chosen the world for salvation, not just a portion of it. As St. John memorably puts it, “God so loved the world that he gave his Son to the end that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life.” It does not say that God loved all the White people in the world, or that God loved all the Black people, or God loved all the men in the world, or that God loved all the women or all the smart people or all the clever or educated or rich or poor or short or tall people. It says that God loved all the people in the world. As people who believe and believe in that message, we are allowed to do no less. We simply are not allowed to make the distinctions here, in our life as the Body of Christ, as a community of faith, that are common in the world out there, in the world that God loves even though it may not believe it yet or understand its implications. We are to be examples to the world of what God’s acceptance is like. While acceptance of others is much easier said than accomplished, God doesn’t accept its apparent difficulty as an excuse to disregard it. Apparently God sees acceptance as an all-or-nothing kind of thing, being accepted and accepting are mirror images; lose one and lose the other.
Can we have a community with no prerequisites for membership and still have expectations of our members? Of course, we can and we have to. Without behavioral expectations, we would not be a community, but a bunch of people who happen to be in the same place at the same time. A community must have a character, an ethos. Our character is that of Christ himself. If we take New Testament Christianity seriously, we know that Christ is alive in some mysterious way in our community, a mode of presence traditionally identified as the Spirit. This Spirit is our life. This Spirit gives us life and the call is to allow it to direct our lives.
Again, it is not always easy. When it comes to acceptance, for example, some people are harder than others to accept. It may help to remember that to accept someone as Christ accepts us does not mean that we have to like them. Liking them has nothing to do with it. Liking someone is about personal preference and compatibility; accepting them as Christ accepts us is about the will to see past their faults, and strengths, to the person for whom Christ sacrificed himself on the cross.
I’ll close with a story about St. Francis. As he embarked on his adventure of following Christ in poverty and caring for the least of God’s creatures, he came upon a leper in a ditch. In a moment of inspiration, he leapt into the ditch, embraced the leper in the name of Christ and immediately barfed. Accepting others is not easy, he learned. But Francis persisted; that’s why he’s called St. Francis.
While God may not call us to barf for Christ’s sake, he does call us, as Francis surely knew better than we, to accept all for Christ’s sake, to not redraw boundaries that Christ has erased with his blood, however hard that might be for us.
Accept one another as Christ accepts you. How is that, again? It is without prerequisites but with expectations. The grace that accepts us is the grace that changes us. God accepts us where we are, always, but never leaves us there. God’s acceptance of us is the beginning of a far-reaching journey into a unique community of love.
Luke 21: 5-19
This story is not about the end of the world. It is about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. For many of the Jews, however, it must have felt like the end of the world. For the faithful Jew, the Temple and all it represented was the world. But a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the world: a new world took its place. The Jews reconstituted themselves and their world around the synagogue and Torah. They discovered that their faith could survive and thrive in this new way, without the Temple sacrifices that had shaped their identity until then.
Similarly for Christians: the crucifixion of Jesus must have seemed like the end of the world for the first disciples. They had put their hopes in Jesus and these hopes died with him on the cross. But this cowering band of disillusioned followers had their lives and faith renewed by the presence of the Risen Christ appearing among them. Their world had ended, and a new world took its place, the world of the church in the power of the Spirit.
The New Testament sometimes speaks of the end of the age or end of the ages, rather than the end of the world. There have been a number of these age changes in the history of the world. Those of you with a history background or who at least stayed awake in history class know more about this than I do. There was the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the age of reason, the modern age and now the post-modern age, for example. An age is marked by the way life is put together, by the things that shape people’s sensibilities, values and opportunities. Ages end and new ages begin. This is the way of the world.
We pass through various ages of life as individuals. “Life as we know it” is never constant. This can be depressing. We sometimes deeply connect with life at one age, but have trouble reconnecting as life changes. For some people, high school is that time to feel particularly in sync. For others, it is getting out of the house they grew up in, being on their own, getting married, having kids. But regardless of how good or bad things might be for us during these ages, they all come to an end, and the older we get the more certain we are of the saying, “This too shall pass.”
So what do we do? We can try digging in our heels. We can try to resist the inevitable, and deny the constant of change. But that won’t work. Denial is merely a pain killer. Sometimes we need it, of course; and so it has its place; but if we silence the warning sign of pain altogether, we are likely to hurt ourselves more. At the other extreme, instead of denying the inevitable changes of life, we could leap blindly into them. Perhaps the wild embrace of the present moment will keep the demons of time at bay. But they are always there the next morning.
I used to think that there were two ways to count the time: cyclically and linearly. The seasons are an instance of the first. Now, in the autumn of the year, the leaves change colors and drop from the tress, the days are shorter, the temperatures begin to fall…more or less like last year and the year before that. But, and this is linear time, this year is 2013 not 2012 or 1988. Linear time suggests that life does not merely repeat itself; that, on the contrary, it goes somewhere. But does it really? I’m not so sure, anymore.
I am coming to a fairly hard-core Christian view of the nature of life’s changes. It is: that outside of Christ, all life is cyclical. Apart from the new life God gives through him, we inevitably repeat the past—albeit in different guise, perhaps. Indeed, we are condemned to repeat the past; and that not simply because we don’t learn from it, but because we don’t have within us the resources to do otherwise. Outside of the new reality injected into the creation by God in Christ we are stuck on replay. Christ is the only really new thing out there, and the good news is that God put Christ out there, in the world, for us.
But, of course, God’s offer of something truly new is a two edged sword because we sometimes don’t want what is new. We tend to prefer the old ways. Even when they don’t offer much life, at least they’re comfortable.
In spite of what it is often taken to mean, the word “comfort” originally connoted “strength.” We get that sense of it today when we talk about our “comfort zone.” Our comfort zone is not just the place where we can fall asleep easily, but where we feel secure, and so, where we feel strong. The Christian life is about finding Christ to be our comfort zone, the place where we are not simply at ease, but also where we are strong. In this comfort zone of faith, it is not our strength that we rely on, but his. Consequently, it is not strength to beat our neighbor up with but to care for our neighbor with. And this strength to care for our neighbor is precisely the life Christ produces in us by caring for us. In other words, as St. John put it, “We love because he first loved us.”
Whatever else the end of the world or the change of the ages might entail, for us Christians it must also be about the waning of the world of selfishness and the waxing of the world of love. In the light of this change, the other changes of the world are historical footnotes. This is the change that will survive the end of the world.