Sometimes good news is overwhelming, where it seems so outstandingly good and surprising that the meaning or rest of reality is obscured. Sometimes we see the beauty without pausing to notice the warts and imperfections.
This day, we might be able to recall the kind of begging for a Christmas gift that I’ve heard from nieces and nephews, pleading “can I PLEEEEEASE have a puppy? I promise to take care of it?” The yearning and excitement obscures or overpowers the reality of the hard work and diligence to come.
Or imagine having your name pulled out in a drawing for a new Corvette. The thrill of winning probably overshadows the question, “How in the world am I going to pay for the taxes on this thing? And do I even really want a new Corvette?”
One more example that may be more relatable for some of you: think about learning that a baby is on the way. Some say that’s the most exciting, best news in life, but probably also means the realization will dawn that having a baby will change everything.
That all is to face the dawning realizations of this Christmas morning. Some of you were part of worship services last evening, those moments of ephemeral beauty, the sublime candlelight, the sweet tunes of a silent night. It seems easy to get swept up in the emotion of all of that; I even know people who aren’t really Christian who nevertheless love to be part of Christmas Eve worship services.
Yet, as we’re here today, some of the reality gets to sink in a little more. We don’t just enjoy what was or get bowled over by the emotion of it. If last night was a time of ecstasy—a word literally meaning that we’re in another state, standing outside of ourselves and removed from our normal existence—here in the light of day, things return more to the status quo, meaning the place where we usually stand, our regular state. Rather than the warm glow of fires, Christmas morning is the daylight exposure as we begin to ask ourselves, “what in the world does this mean?”
Did you notice that nice end to the Gospel reading? Amid the excitement of the beautiful story, amid the nativity scene and the manger and swaddling clothes, with the heavenly host singing their glorias and proclaiming peace, with shepherds marching into town to pay tribute and celebrate a birth, to extend well-wishes and good news, that by the time all of that is wrapping up, we almost bypass the summary that Mary “treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Christmas morning, as we gather here, is a time for holding dearly onto these words and beginning to ponder them, to sort through it in our hearts.
That’s also what our other lessons were mulling through. They weren’t straight tellings of the Christmas story. They weren’t poetic glosses or artful characterizations with naïve romanticism. No, they were more realistic. There’s a frequent image for our faith, that it’s about holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That’s what the pondering of these readings try to do, too. They take the ecstatic beauty of the Christmas story and hold it in comparison with our regular humdrum reality, stuck in stasis, with the distinct lack of good news in our lives and across our world and ask “what gives? What does this mean?”
The Martin Luther reading (see below for these) seems so delightful for its honesty. If somebody told you that your savior was snoozing out in the barn, you’d have to be a bit daft to go out for a look, almost like the old spiel of “gullible is written on the ceiling—made you look.” The shepherds might be excused somewhat, since they were made to look under the direction of angelic guidance. Yet still, probably there was no halo, no glowing aura of light. In spite of the carol claims of “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” probably he was actually on occasion bawling his head off, just like any other baby you’ve met. So what would make you suspect he wasn’t just any other baby you’d met? If you had to convince yourself to believe the news, you’d be out of luck. There’s plenty about God and God-with-us that’s straight up incredibly unbelievable, which is worth admitting honestly rather than claiming it was just so heart-warmingly irresistible. The only way it works is because the power of the Holy Spirit is creating faith and trust in you. That’s a valuable thought in the piece from Luther.
The first reading we heard was from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and resistor during World War II who was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Nazis. That circumstance of his biography, and even his words we heard, may need the light of day in order to approach. There’s plenty about being confined in jail, about legal systems or injustices, about atrocities of murder and war and death that we would want to keep at arm’s length from Christmas cheer. We think we’d prefer to look on the so-called bright side, rather than admit anything dismal to interrupt.
Even if we’d disagree that a prisoner would better understand the true meaning of Christmas than the rest of us, still Bonhoeffer almost certainly has a point for us. He is right on spot, insisting on the importance of the glad tidings, of God sharing our lot and binding us all together. This isn’t a festival at the heart of our faith just because we like it or find it quaint or have favorable traditions. Jesus is not born just as a companion to accompany all that is so comfortable and joyful already for us. He is born precisely because our lives need comfort and joy. It is only in him that we can truly trust light, only this good news that brings us away from the dark side. The glad tidings, over and against all else, mark the significance of this day, of this birth, of a savior who has come to you.
That, finally, is exactly what Maya Angelou portrays in her poem—that the thunders and floods of disaster ebb into the background, as Christmas enables us not only to see the worst moments but all of life differently, in a new light. She realizes this is still dawning on us, that this peace-filled whisper that is louder than bombs still is coming in promise in and among us, that we continue repeating it, sometimes even to reassure ourselves, to become the change.
It can feel impossible for our world of anger and fighting and fears. Except that it isn’t. “Peace, My Brother.”
It must be too good to be true. Except that it isn’t. “Peace, My Sister.”
More than our unworthy lives could possibly expect. Except that it isn’t. “Peace, My Soul.”
Martin Luther’s Christmas Book
This is a great miracle that the shepherds should have believed this message. They might easily have thought to themselves, “Are we shepherds worthy that the whole host of heaven should be marshaled for us and all the kings of the earth and the dwellers in Jerusalem be passed by?” I know I would have appealed to common sense and I would have said: “Who am I compared to God and angels and kings? It is an apparition.” But the Holy Spirit, who preached through the angels, caused the shepherds to believe. They were so strong in the faith that they were worthy to be spoken to by angels and to hear every angel in heaven singing a cantata just for them. This is a pure wonder that enters not into the human heart. Our God begins with angels and ends with shepherds. Why does God do such preposterous things? God puts a Babe in a crib. Our common sense revolts and says, “Could not God have saved the world some other way?” I would not have sent an angel. I would simply have called the devil and said, “Let my people go.” The Christian faith is foolishness. It says that God can do anything and yet makes God so weak that either God’s Son had no power or wisdom or else the whole story is made up. Surely the God who in the beginning said: “Let there be light,” could have said to the devil, “Give me back my people.” God does not even send an angel to take the devil by the nose. God sends, as it were, an earthworm lying in weakness, helpless, without his mother, and suffers him to be nailed to a cross. Yet in his weakness and infirmity he crunches the devil’s back and alters the whole world…
God is amazing. The Babe is in a manger, not worthy of a cradle or a diaper, and yet he is called Savior and Lord. The angels sing about him, and the shepherds hear and come and honor him as he lies with an ox and an ass. If I had come to Bethlehem and seen it, I would have said: “This does not make sense. Can this be the Messiah? This is sheer nonsense.” I would not have let myself be found inside the stable.
Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
Viewed from a Christian perspective, Christmas from a prison cell can, of course, hardly be viewed as particularly problematic. Most likely many of those here in prison will celebrate a more meaningful and authentic Christmas than in places where all that survives of the celebration is the feast in name only. That misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment;, that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others. For the prisoner the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And to the extent that he believes it, a prisoner knows he has been placed in Christian community and is a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here in prison walls to insignificance.
On Christmas I shall be thinking of you all very much, and I want you to believe that I too shall have a few hours of real joy and that I am not allowing my troubles to get the better of me….When one thinks of the horrors that have overcome so many recently, then one becomes aware anew of how much we still have to be grateful for. Presumably it will be a very quiet Christmas everywhere, and the children will think back on it later for many years to come. But perhaps precisely this will reveal to some for the first time, the true meaning of Christmas. May God protect us all.
with great gratitude and love,
Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem, Maya Angelou
Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.