Christmas Eve and Evening, December 24/25, 2010
For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.
Christmas homilies can be a challenge. Whether the challenge is self-imposed by homilists and preachers, or whether it’s really part of the fabric of the celebration of this very powerfully-charged time of year, I think there is a higher degree of expectation that the sermon, the homily, will be particularly inspiring. And so with that in mind, I began casually asking some people a few weeks ago, “what would you like to hear in a Christmas homily?” Without exception, they said that what they wanted to hear was message of joy and of hope.
One respondent – a friend who is not Catholic, but who regularly attends weekly services at what would be called a “mainstream” Christian church – said that he was tired of hearing about the “heavier” side of this season. You know what I’m talking about; it’s those homilies and sermons which are really intended for those who aren’t in the pews; the ones in which there is lamenting about the over-commercialization of Christmas, about how we’ve lost a sense of what Christmas is “all about,” and there is an almost unspoken judgmentalism with calls to “put Christ back in Christmas.”
And so, I want to make sure that you hear from me a message that truly is one of joy and of hope – and that message is this: Simply put, Christmas, this almost unbelievable feast of the Incarnation in which God becomes one like us – is at its core a celebration not of us finding God, but of God finding us.
Most great religious traditions speak to our inherent human yearning for God, for the divine. They speak to that truth expressed so well by Saint Augustine, the North African bishop of Hippo, who over 16 centuries ago wrote, “God has made us for God’s self; and our hearts will not rest until they rest in God.” Religious and spiritual traditions throughout the world all provide ways intended to lead people to God; paths to the divine that the believer may follow. Christianity – at least our Catholic Christianity, in its best expressions – generally speaks very favorably about such diverse paths that people from various faith traditions may pursue in their life’s journey.
But the uniquely wonderful thing about what we celebrate this night, about our belief in the Incarnation – that God becomes human in the Person of Jesus – is that no matter what happens in the course of our own life’s journey, no matter what paths we take or the degrees to which we may or may not be on the “right path,” Christmas reminds us that God so loved the world and so loves each and every one of us that God is present within our very flesh. The birth of Jesus is God’s way of telling the story of Creation over again … only this time with greater emphasis. It’s the story of creation and re-creation not just in words, but in a Person. It’s almost as if God is saying: “Ya know folks, when I created the world and said it was good; and when I created each and every one of you in My own image and likeness and said that you are ‘very good’ … you really didn’t believe Me, did you?!” Just as in the garden, God came looking for Adam and Eve, so in Jesus, God comes looking for us, comes looking to find each one of us once again.
But why do we even need to be found? Well, we need to be found because of the truth that is expressed so beautifully in that iconic spiritual hymn, Amazing Grace. You know the words, I’m sure, just as surely as you know the words of the Our Father or the Hail Mary. What’s the 3rd line of Amazing Grace? “I once was lost, but now am found.”
In one way or another, to one degree or another, at one time or another – we individually and sometimes collectively do get lost. We sometimes lose our way in the many darknesses of life – and we all know what those darknesses can be. There is, for example, the darkness of war that comes from the desire for power and dominion over others; the darkness of poverty that comes from the greed of those who are never satisfied; the darkness of exclusion and isolation that comes from failing to see the face of God in everyone. But more powerful than these and every other darkness you can imagine, is the Light of God. More powerful than anything that may temporarily lead us away is the bright and enveloping light of the divine that finds us in our darkness and leads us home.
This time of year is often a time for reflection; a time to pause, and think back on recent months, or perhaps the full year, and take stock of our lives. On this Christmas Eve / Evening, I invite you each, even now, to do just that. Just for a moment, perhaps even daring to close your eyes – think back on what has taken place in your life over the twelve months since we last celebrated this day.
- Were there times when you were lost?
- Were there moments or periods of darkness, or hurt, or pain in which you felt lost and alone?
- Were there situations that brought you confusion and disorientation?
- Did you find yourself, on occasion, not sure of where you were going or what your next step should be?
Now think about what happened during those times.
- How did God find you in the midst of all that, and in what small ways did you see the Hand of God at work in your life?
- Did someone offer a kind word, a simple gesture, or even just an understanding look?
- Were you able to see something or hear something or understand something in a new and different way?
- Did a family member, a friend, a spouse or a loved one let you know that you are special and unique and well loved?
These are among the simple ways in which God finds us in the concrete, flesh and blood lives we have been called to live. And it is, I suggest, in the presence and love of others that God finds us again and again and again.
Some of you are probably aware of an event that was held at Georgetown University a few weeks ago. It was called “A Catholic Family Conversation on LGBT Issues.” This ‘conversation’ had a debate-style format in which those with opposing views on LGBT issues were given time to speak, with a moderator guiding the discussion. The person who spoke on what might be called the “pro gay rights” side of the discussion was Andrew Sullivan, the well-known author, blogger, and commentator. In his opening remarks, what struck me was that Sullivan, unlike his counterpart on the other side, didn’t talk about “issues,” trying to present an argument why such things as same-sex marriage or the repeal of DADT were good things. No, what he did was simply tell his own story; the story of how, growing up in a very Catholic family and environment, he came to understand who he was as young gay person. At one point he said: “The first person I came out to was God… and God was OK with that.” Sullivan had a sense early on that he was / is indeed created as a beloved child of God, and that God is not only “OK” with who we are, but that God indeed LOVES us as who we are, precisely because God made as we are. And … if God loves us so much … how can we ever truly be lost?
And so no matter where we may be on our life’s journey today, Christmas reminds us that the light that came into the world 2,000 years ago still shines within each and every one of us … and that even (and perhaps especially) in those times when we’re not quite sure where we are or where we or our world or our Church might be going, we are called to have faith that our Loving God will surely find us once again.