What do you people want?
What do people want from a Christmas Eve sermon? This is a question posed by Elle Dowd, a Lutheran colleague, on a social media post. A couple responses.
“The sermon can be whatever speaks to you,” one colleague replied, “whether it’s the music, the fellowship, the prayers, etc. It doesn’t just have to be the sermon.” (Paraphrase of Jess Davis)
Another colleague shared, “I cannot remember a single sermon preached on Christmas Eve, including my own.” Some truth telling and on that note, don’t worry if your kids are noisy, restless, or running around. We are happy to have you here. Thank you for taking time out of a busy day joining us for worship at Church of the Cross.
And then a suggestion from another colleague: “I think the thing I most need to hear generally, and on Christmas Eve is that God loves humans and bodies and mess and joins us in the midst of our unplanned disasters and brings her love into them. God is here in the midst of our stuff, and that’s good news for me.” (River)
There is a lot of gospel there. A lot of divine grace. I have heard from some folks around Victoria that they need grace this time of year most of all. Christmas is a time they dread. They just can’t wait until it’s over. Whether there is sadness with missed connections with family, mourning the loss of loved ones, or complicated relationships. There is also the financial stress around presents, meals, and travel. There can be any number of reasons by the lived experience of Christmas is at odds with the bucolic images we see in all the advertising.
So if you’re struggling this Christmas season know that you are loved. You are enough. God is granting you grace.
The Christmas story is first and foremost for those in need of grace. Think about Mary, an unwed teenage mother, preparing to give birth. She is making her way together with Joseph who is bewildered at this turn of events. He is not the biological father. He has his doubts. Right from the beginning the Holy Family defines “normal” as something other than what we expect and other than the church has often projected when we think about a “good Christian family.” In the Gospel of Luke there is a queering of Christmas, where things turn out upside down of “how things are supposed to be.” Notice scripture doesn’t lob any accusations against Mary, asking why she is “choosing” to ruin her life in this way. Instead she is called blessed, angels announce the birth, and she is at the centre of the good news itself together with Baby Jesus.
This is a story that praises bodies in all their messiness beginning with a home birth. Mary’s body is blessed and found good. Baby Jesus, God enfleshed, is blessed as a newborn, dependent on human parents. Here God reveals God’s own vulnerability as a body, subjected to the same kinds of struggles we have with bodies. Which is why Jesus is also called Emmanuel, “God with us.”
“La Familia Sangrada”
The artwork on the bulletin cover is another sign of grace embodied. Divine grace appearing among people grappling with faith in the midst of uncertainty. I invite you to take a moment to look at the artwork from Kelly Latimore titled “La Familia Sagrada” which translated into English is “The Holy Family.” The art depicts a migrant family possibly from Central America seeking refuge perhaps in the US or eventually making it as far as Canada. Think about migrants crossing into Manitoba and Ontario. Like the Biblical holy family there is a sense of borderlands, a great journey with much at stake.
La Familia Sangrada are traveling in search of a better life for their child. Our readings on the First Sunday in Christmas point to this need to flee persecution. What are our own attitudes and commitments towards migrant children and their families? Imagine welcoming the family of La Familia Sagrada as welcoming Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The people in the artwork better resemble the first Holy Family than depicting them as a white family. How would we respond differently believing we are welcoming the Holy Family into community?
Here too is an invitation of grace from God through our hands. Caring for the bodies and lives of strangers through hospitality, living more fully into the Christmas gospel.
Shepherd living in the fields
The gospel reading also talks about shepherds living in the fields. I think about people living in fields around Victoria. People living in tents in city parks and other public spaces.
On a related note, our family recently attended the 21st Annual Sing a Long Handel’s Messiah at Alix Gooldin Hall on Pandora Ave, directed by Brian Wismath, including Nathan McDonald as bass soloist. It was a wonderful experience that tells the Christmas story. We were able to stay for the first half until the intermission with the kids on a school night.
Something struck me as we were locking our bikes before the concert. A security guard came up to us warning us of the dangers locking our bikes in that location close to Our Place, a homeless shelter. The security guard suggested we walk a little further along and lock our bikes in a safer place. He expressed fear that homeless folks might strip our bikes for parts.
In the end everything was fine, but in these kinds of exchanges there is that moment of doubt. Do we need to fear our neighbours? On the one hand I appreciate the security guard’s concern for us, but on the other hand the dynamic reinforces our privilege. Instead of my first reaction being one of care, I am reminded to be afraid, to take precaution, to place distance between me and a neighbour.
Taking a step back, the bigger question: why are our neighbours sleeping outside without adequate shelter, food, and opportunities for flourishing?
I think about what people would have said about shepherds in Jesus’ day. Watch out for those shepherds. They live outside. They’re poor. Not sure if you can trust them. Stay on your guard. And yet it was the shepherds to whom God first reveals the Christmas gospel in the Gospel of Luke.
Let’s celebrate shepherds. People’s bodies that are judged lesser than, less deserving of recognizing their humanity, due to our current economic system.
Wrapping up, wherever you find yourselves this Christmas, know that you are enough. Your body is enough, even if it doesn’t respond how you would like it to. So rather than get guilted into New Year’s resolutions, instead place your trust in the Christmas gospel in which God shows up in the body of a little baby. Know you are loved by God.
Whether or not you get along with all your family members, whether you can’t be home for Christmas, whether you got dragged to church by someone else, whether you are lonely and feel isolated. Whether your body is a difficult place to be right now. Know that the Christmas gospel is about God being down here in the midst of our brokenness.
Just as God is present with the holy family without a permanent home, so too God is with migrant people searching for a better life. God is with us, surprising us, showering us with love this Christmas. Amen.