Homily: Christmas Eve, 9pm, St. Albans Church
Readings: Is 9.2-7; Ps 96; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20
A Better Story
As I was doing laundry a few days ago, I walked past the TV with the laundry basket in my hands. On TV was A Charlie Brown Christmas, and
it was just at the part where Charlie Brown throws back his head and cries out, “isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” And Linus says, “Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” and he walks out onto the stage and recites the story from the Gospel of Luke that we just heard. And even though I’ve heard the story a thousand times, and even though I was in a hurry to get on with all the things I had to do, I stopped, stood still and listened to the story, the basket of wet laundry still heavy in my hands.
Why do we want to listen to this story?
Maybe it’s because there’s something about it that’s different from most of the stories we hear. Think about this past year, 2015. What were the stories that we heard most often, the stories that were in the news, the stories that had the biggest impact on us as individuals and as a society?
There was the story of the Syrian refugee crisis, of the on-going civil war in Syria and the millions of refugees trying to get to Europe, the barbed wire fences erected to keep them out, the death by drowning of a young boy who washed up on a Turkish beach.
There was terrorism. The heinous acts of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and beyond. The attacks in Paris. The response to those attacks, increased bombing and Donald Trump calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. The questions about what comes next.
There was our own election here in Canada, told mostly as a story of who’s winning and who’s losing, complete with daily polls, attack ads, negative campaigning, and plenty of nastiness on social media. Niqabs and barbaric cultural practices.
There was the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which revealed in intimate detail the cultural genocide of our indigenous peoples which was perpetrated over the course of more than a century, instigated by our government and aided by our church.
These are just some of the stories that we told ourselves over the past year. Stories of insecurity. Stories of conflict and division. Stories of winners and losers. Stories of power and oppression. Stories of anxiety and fear.
And there’s a problem here. It’s not that these stories shouldn’t be told. But the problem is that when we’re immersed stories like these, when they become the air that we breathe, these stories of conflict and insecurity, when we see ourselves as actors, or perhaps as helpless bystanders in these stories, what happens? What does it do to us?
These stories diminish us. They bring us down. They make us less than what we could be. They alienate us from each other. They make us afraid.
But we have a better story. A story of hope. A story of new life. A story of promise. A story that says, “Do not be afraid.”
We heard that story again this evening.
Now, the way Luke tells it, at first it you might think that this story is no different from the others. It seems to begin in the same old way.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
Here we go again. Another story about how the powerful dictate our lives. Augustus Caesar, maybe the most powerful man in all of history, issuing a decree. We know how Rome operates. Power. Decrees. Migrants forced to travel.
But then, as quickly as he appeared, the Emperor Augustus disappears, drops out of the story. And the focus shifts instead to an unlikely couple in an awkward situation.
“Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem . . . He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.” It is an awkward situation, Joseph with his pregnant fiancée, forced to travel at the worst possible time. But we’re given just the hint of promise. There’s an air of expectancy as they arrive in Bethlehem, the city of David.
“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
The birth of a child. Completely ordinary, yet always extraordinary. You know the feeling. But why this child, why has this child suddenly become the focus of our story? What does this birth mean?
Or as Charlie Brown would say, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
And here the story twists again in an unexpected direction, as the people who are about to discover the meaning of the baby’s birth are probably the most unlikely candidates you could imagine. Poor, uneducated, homeless, shunned from polite society, there were in that region “shepherds, living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”
“And lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were terrified.”
“But the angel said to them, ‘Be not afraid, for see, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.’”
A saviour? Do we need to be saved? It’s a word that’s often misunderstood. Sometimes people are told that being saved is about escaping judgement and going to heaven after we die. But that’s not what Luke means. The word he uses for salvation can also be translated as to be healed or to be made whole. The salvation that the angels proclaim is about being restored to wholeness. It’s about being rescued from alienation in our relationships with each other and with God. And it’s about knowing that God is with us and that we no longer have to be afraid. This is good news of great joy and it’s for all people. Even for shepherds. Even for unwed teenage mothers. Even for you and for me. No wonder that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”
This is the story that we tell this evening.
What happens when we immerse ourselves in this story, rather than all the other stories that surround us? What would that do to us?
This is a story that has the power to lift us up. A story that encourages us to live fully, to live into the fullness of who we were created to be. A story that can lift the weight of fear and anxiety from our shoulders, and give us the courage to reach out across divisions even in the midst of conflict. This is a story that can inspire us to be peacemakers, to be agents of reconciliation, to be instruments of compassion, and to love others, because this is the story of a God who loved us so much that he sent his son to be born as one of us, not in the comfort of an emperor’s palace but rather in a manger, in a little village, surrounded by shepherds, because there was no room at the inn.
So tonight, we immerse ourselves in this story. Marvel at the glow of the light that shines in the darkness. Sing the carols, sing the songs that proclaim the story over and over again. Share the peace, come to the table, warm to the company of those around you, open yourselves to awe and wonder, if only for this night. For we have been given the better story: that even in the midst of darkness there is a light that shines in our world; that even in the midst of fear there is a love that will prevail. The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given and he shall be called Immanuel, God with us, the Prince of Peace.