December 26, 2004
Sermon preached by: Fr. Mark D. Stuart
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John I
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I’ve been to Bethlehem three times (and I don’t mean Pennsylvania.)
Each time was in December prior to Christmas at this dark time of year as our Jewish brothers and sisters reverently lit their candles of Hanukkah celebrating God’s light in the darkness through their faith tradition. I like to imagine the Blessed Mother and Joseph telling the boy Jesus the sacred story and letting him light the candles, his eyes wide with wonder, much like the children of our Parish who lit the Advent candles each week. Holy Scriptures do not specifically record this happening; but it certainly must have, just as the Holy Family devoutly observed all traditions of their Jewish faith.
I think about Bethlehem a lot at this time of year, but as with most life experiences, my first trip there brings the strongest memories. Although Bethlehem is only a very short distance from the suburbs of modern Jerusalem, we were stopped at three check points: concrete barricades where soldiers asked us to get out of the vehicle; inspected our papers; and with those curious long-handled mirrors, checked the underside of our bus for bombs. The normal 10 – 15 minute trip from Jerusalem took an hour and a half.
When our little bus arrived in Manger Square, the center of Bethlehem, we saw for the first time not only the expected tourist shops and cafes, but also the grey fortress-like police station dominating the square with its circles of barbed wire, and the young soldiers who patrolled the roof tops to protect us from snipers, we were told; but it seemed that their weapons were trained on us. Heeding the warning of our guide we did not linger in the square.
We were taken quickly into the cavernous church of the Holy Nativity. After a brief lecture about this remarkable and ancient building, constructed by order of Helen, the mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine, we were taken down to the little grotto chapel under the sanctuary to the spot where Jesus was born. Stooping to enter the small space darkened by years of soot from vigil lamps honoring this holy place, our eyes gradually grew accustomed to the dark and our noses to the smell of oil and incense. We were reverently silent; no words seemed fitting in such a holy place. After a few moments we heard light footsteps descending the narrow stone stairway from the church above and our eyes were drawn to the arched doorway. A young Palestinian boy entered the chapel, and paying no attention to us, went directly to the silver star open in the middle to the bedrock where the Blessed Mother gave birth to Jesus. After standing silently for a moment, he dropped to his knees, bent forward and kissed the rock.
The poignant question begs to be asked: If God were to kiss the earth today would it be in Bethlehem?
Now ten years past since my first visit, Bethlehem is even more grim.
The traditional public Christmas Eve throngs to the square outside the church have been restricted in recent years, making Christmastime a forlorn affair in the town of Christ’s birth. Pilgrims are scarce; most shops are tightly shuttered up; the tourist buses are gone; Manger Square is all but deserted. Fierce gun battles rage between snipers and Israeli machine gunners in the nearby suburb of Beit Jalla. Bethlehem’s three Palestinian refugee camps boil with fury and discontent. Dozens of Palestinian stone-throwers, some as young as eight or nine, have been hurt or killed in cat-and-mouse encounters with Israeli troops guarding a fortified Jewish shrine at the edge of Bethlehem.
“O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by…”
Last year the spokesman for the Orthodox Church in the Holy Lands, archimandrite Attallah Hanna, announced that US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are forever banned from entering the holy shrine of the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The chief priest of the church declared them to be “War criminals and murderers of children.” and went on to say, “Therefore, the Church of the Nativity decided to ban them access into the holy shrine forever.”
“yet in thy dark they dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
There is much darkness, barrenness, and inhospitality in the world and often in our lives and we have to, at Christmastime, defy them. The question is how do we celebrate in a world that is far from perfect? Christmas has come again, whether we were ready or not. Former Beatle John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.” Christmas is a lot like that. It can break in on us, in spite of distractions such as fake halos, fiberglass angel hair, commercial jingles, bright wrapping paper, and mistletoe. As relentlessly as a sunrise or sunset we are bidden to trek to Bethlehem one more time expecting the Christ child to make a difference in our world.
The harsh realities of this season, whether actually in Bethlehem the city today, or in our own City of the Angels, makes that hope seem about as far-fetched as it did in the outer-reaches of the Roman Empire when the angels sang, “peace and goodwill on earth.”
Is it Christmas in Baghdad?
Is the night silent and holy for political refugees?
Is the Christ child born for those living with AIDS or dying alone and rejected?
Is it Christmas for the hungry, the homeless, the despondent?
Absolutely! And for the rest of us Christmas comes as we are in solidarity with those deemed the least among us. After all, the least among us, may actually be us, as we struggle to celebrate in the darkest time of year, yearning for that Light to shine in the darkness, praying the darkness will not overpower it in our own lives.
What might some of the things be which we must defy with the Light?
Perhaps our health is not good or the health of someone we love and care for. Perhaps we wait for test results over the holidays. Perhaps our finances are not what they should be. Perhaps some of our relationships are difficult and in need of repair. Perhaps our job is insecure. Must we wait until all is light and peace and goodwill before we celebrate? Or can we defy darker realities and celebrate in the midst of darkness?
The Christian tradition is powerfully consistent on this. It says the soul is deeply united to God and if we can make ourselves conscious of this soul in us even when the circumstances of our lives that are not completely where we want them to be; then we experience the breaking in of peace, or the growing light which the darkness cannot vanquish. Christianity makes a unique claim powerfully expressed in the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel.
It is the profound reality of the birth of Christ, not in the familiar stories of the shepherds and wise men and angels: “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The divine Word entered the world, the world that would not exist without the Word. The Word took on all the frailty of our human flesh and came to know our condition, with its burden and embarrassment, from the inside out. We call it the “incarnation”, it is the “enfleshment” of that divine Word. The foundation of all existence became as dependent as a baby just born, helpless as a condemned criminal put to death.
A famous painting of the annunciation in the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters in New York shows the embryonic Jesus slipping down a shaft of sunlight toward Mary already carrying his cross. This is the hidden message of the Nativity.
The depth of Christmas celebration is the Incarnation. It means that God wants a relationship with every one of us, not just a chosen few. God wants us to know that we are loved, valued, and worth saving, that we are precious. With that recognition we are given a mission: If God chose to come and live among us and be like us, then our mission is to seek out those especially who are marginal, lonely, lost, in prison, hurt, angry, afraid, and unsuccessful… to be their light in the darkness and then experience God’s grace in solidarity with them… not in mere platitudes or ethereal words, but in concrete service.
A few examples from St. Thomas the Apostle Parish this past week:
Like some of our Parishioners and friends who got up early yesterday Christmas morning to set up, cook, and serve breakfast to the homeless coming to our Parish doors… when there certainly were many other “better” ways to spend an early Christmas morning. Or, it is the many Parishioners who so quickly and generously responded with financial help to the young woman across the street whose apartment caught on fire exactly as High Mass was starting last Sunday. Maybe it’s those of you who helped make Christmas a little brighter by providing a gift to the young people at the Gay & Lesbian transitional living program, which keeps kids who are unwanted and homeless off the streets and away from drugs and prostitution and shows them they are valuable and worth saving.
It is in the dependency, helplessness, utter frailty, and complete identification with our lowliness that enables the eternal Word to do something new, something otherwise impossible; something remarkable through us. It is when the Word becomes frail flesh and lives inside the reach of human touch that we finally encounter, face to face, the glory of which the angels sang that holy night in Bethlehem.
Then the words of the prophet Isaiah stand before us through the eternal Word: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Posted by: The Parish