Christmas Eve 2006

Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1-20

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Perhaps it had never happened before, and maybe it is has never happened since, but in the 42nd year of the reign of Caesar Augustus, the whole world was at peace. That was the year that Joseph was summoned to Bethlehem, to his ancestral city, for the census. It was the year when creation was re-made, when God the infinite joined Himself forever to the finite material of Mary’s Womb, when Mankind was elevated above the angels.

That Mary’s Son is God, eternal and equal with the Father and the Spirit, God of God and Light of Light, being of one substance with the Father, is not in doubt. That He, the Christ, being the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is now also a Man, of reasonable soul and body, who did not convert the Godhead into flesh, but who took the humanity into God, is not in doubt either. But it is a bit much to wrap your mind around at the best of times, and none the easier when there is the anxiety of trying to remember who you forgot on your Christmas list or what needs to be done tomorrow before Grandma arrives, or, if you are the organist, what comes next. But that is the thing with Christmas carols. They keep bringing this stuff up.

There you are, standing in line to get your caffeine fix at prices high enough to make Elvis blush and you find yourself singing: “Peace on earth, good will to men.” One moment you’re silently critiquing the fashion choice of the patron in front of you and the next you’re singing “Hail! Incarnate Deity.” Worse yet, you watch the news, or fill out the paperwork to obtain a restraining order or a divorce, or are hanging up after telling your mother a lie, and without the slightest irony the tinny elevator speakers keep cranking out: “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

And that is why I am in favor of the secularization of Christmas. Now I know that all over the world tonight Christian preachers are complaining about Madison Avenue. But here is the thing: if it wasn’t for the secularization of Christmas they wouldn’t be playing Christmas carols in the mall. The fantasies of preachers about a pious and unaffected Christmas are as inevitable as are the dreams of pre-pubescent boys becoming super heroes. They should probably be treated with the same condescending indulgence. For my part, I remain cynically aware that if it wasn’t for the secularization of Christmas there would not be so many of us here tonight. If the Church has given the world a holiday that serves its need for nostalgia and guilt-abating good works even it does miss the coming of Jesus Christ, then the world has given us a once-a-year opportunity to proclaim that coming. If the option to the secularization of Christmas is that Christmas become just as popular and well-attended as Ascension, then I’d say “hurray for secularization.” I only wish that I could come up with a way for Madison Avenue, my great partner at Christmas, to also promote other Holy Days.

The problem, I suppose, is that other Holy Days, don’t so easily give themselves to nostalgia. It is hard to be cute about Good Friday, or to make scenes out of graham crackers and red hots of the Martyrdom of St. Lucy. But the substance of Christmas is not so easily avoided as it first appears. One bit of evidence of this is the perennial fight that pop us somewhere over a court house nativity scene. But where the Message really seems to break through is with Christmas carols. Most of them pack a pretty good punch, and even the weakest of them raises awareness and promises “peace on earth.”

Now only the the coldest fish, the most self-centered and satisfied of men, or the worst of the phoney, modern day Pharisees, could fail to ask: “Where is this peace? What good does it do me in the current strife? Who cares about peace at the time of Augustus? Americans are dying in Iraq.” Those are some of the questions pondered by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And in 1864, having recently lost his wife and having a son terribly wounded in the civil war, Longfellow hung his head in despair and complained: “hate is strong and mocks the song, Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

He was right. Hate is strong. The evidence of that is all around us. The peace of Augustus did not last for long. While it did last, it did not seem to do much good for Our Lord Himself, for He suffered Herod’s plotting violence almost immediately, and after that He endured more plots along with rumors and gossip, outrageous taxes and religious abuse. Finally he was betrayed by Judas, and then wrongly, unjustly sentenced by Pilate the coward. Wars and rumors of wars have been with us ever since. But Longfellow could have really nailed it, and given away the answer a bit more quickly, if, when he had said, “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men” he had capitalized the word “Hate,” as a proper noun, as the name of our enemy. For Hate, the opposite of Love, is that fallen, evil angel who beguiled Eve. He is strong and he mocks the song of heaven.

But strong as he is, Love is stronger still. The devil lost before the war began. His head was crushed in the death of Jesus and he is undone. For the peace of God passes all understanding, even angelic and demonic understanding. It endures in the midst of war. It is a mystery that swallows Hate’s sting and removes the victory of the grave. This is how God has loved us: He sent His Son for us. He sent His Son into our war, for us to murder, to execute for crimes that we committed, and rather that hating us for it in return as we hated Him, He counts that strange sacrifice as payment in full. He uses it to stop the devil’s mouth and welcome us back to Himself again. He loves us through and because of it! Thus has He ended His war with men. He declares peace and good will to us. He has met the terms of the surrender. He has joined Himself to our cause. He is what makes for peace. He is peace. And He has sealed the deal, in the way of kings, by marrying us and forever joining us to His house and inheritance.

Now there we’ve gone again and gotten all theological and deep, maybe even worse the first time. That is the problem with Christmas carols. They sing of Jesus, the Savior and Lover of me, of God made flesh, and there is no other true Theology. That is it, all of Christian wisdom, all of Christian learning, all of Christian knowledge is found in the manger. So these carols are not so innocent or gentle as they first appear, and that is good. Let them have their way with you: tonight, tomorrow, and in the days to come.

One side note: we once had a pastor who recommended we leave something of Christmas out year round, just a single ornament or nativity scene, something. “Don’t put everything away after Christmas” he’d say. “Christmas is for every day.” I’ve always liked that idea. We leave a nativity scene up year round at our house. Here is the idea: we could do this with Christmas carols. When you are sad or when you are joyful, when you are unsure or afraid, when you don’t even want to: sing Christmas carols, not to cheer you up, but to teach you who you are. If that cheers you up, all the better. For Christ was born to be your Savior.

Now, the final thing. Longfellow did not only write: “hate is strong” in his poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” After that he went on:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. But He was born, and He did die, and
now He lives and we are saved. By peace on earth, good will to men.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

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