Sermon for Sunday December 29th – First of Christmas – Year A
Lullaby baby, now a-dozing,
Hush, do not wake the infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing,
then in the grave at last reposing;
I wonder how we kept Advent? In what way did we make of Advent a time of preparation for this season of Christmas? How are whatever means we used affecting the nature of Christmas for us this year?
A lot of questions to start with, but note the last one – How are whatever means we used to keep Advent affecting the nature of Christmas for us this year? How is Christmas different because of our preparations? How Is it? For we are of course only a few days into the twelve days of the Feast of Christmas. And being only a few days in, we may well ask, How are we keeping the season of Christmas? What practices are we building into our days to keep our attention on the Word made Flesh?
Of course it almost goes without saying that we live in a culture where it is far from easy to Keep Christmas. As I saw someone in the church say – ‘Christmas trees are very odd here, for come Boxing Day we throw them on the fire and set off on our summer holidays’. The Christmas of out imaginings doesn’t seem to work here in the Southern hemisphere . . . but then the Christmas of our imaginings is by and large a thing of myth, a powerful and controlling myth and Here in New Zealand we might say, ‘A northern hemisphere myth’. Rooted in ancient pagan practices based around midwinter festivals which the church transformed to announce the birth of Jesus – we sing of Holly and Ivy, and ‘Snow on Snow’, we put up fir trees, which are all that grow in cold Northern climes at this time of year . . . It is all too easy to make our own Kiwi Christmas – except it too would no doubt be a thing of myth, and little to do with the birth of Jesus.
I have to say I rapidly tire of those well meant but trite comments seen on FB and elsewhere, ‘don’t forget, Jesus is the reason for the season’. It falls into the category of ‘don’t forget to say thank you for the gift of electricity when you sit down to your dinner’. I’d like to make the perhaps painful suggestion, that as Christians, our Keeping of Christmas, is not much better than that of those around us to whom the name of Jesus is at best incidental to ‘the holidays’. And that our inattentiveness to Jesus is in no small part because of how peripheral the church has become in our own lives.
Let’s just come back to my opening barrage of questions? How did we keep Advent? In what way was Advent for us a time of preparing a space in the depths of our being wherein Christ might find a home? Where had our focus been those few weeks, outward on the ‘many things’ which pressed in on us as we sought to get what we think of as Christmas together? Or was it inward? Did we take the opportunity the church gives us in the season of Advent to preapre our Selves for the coming of Christ? Did we go to work on our habits of Attentiveness to him? Spending time in prayer, asking him to show us how our hearts needed to be changed that we might be fit vessels for the Holy Spirit?
A good test of the quality of our preaprations in this regard would be ‘what difference did you notice in your heart on Christmas day?’ Was there a different quality to the Joy, or the Peace that that celebration brought? The Church gave us Four Sundays with this one focus – preparing to meet Christ? What did his coming reveal in us of our preparations? And now we are in the season of Christmas – how are we keeping that? How Do we keep Christmas?
There are a couple of suggestions I’d like to make as to how we might do this – how we might train our hearts and minds in Attentiveness, that like Mary our Parent in faith, we might ponder and treasure these things in our hearts.
Firstly, play carols around the house! There is no doubt that the deep tradition and faith of our traditional carols work a deep magic when it comes to learning our faith better. Now you may note I said ‘Traditional’ carols. Not modern ones 🙂 And there are two reasons for this. We live in a culture, which is particularly sharpened here in New Zealand, which is continually seeking the new, the novel, and to use a word which should always be treated with healthy scpeticism, The Relevant 🙂 This focus diminishes the value of our roots.
As we demonstrated in Advent through the JEsse tree – we are people whose faith comes to us from the past. Part of the sickness of our age is that we fail to see that we are midgets stood on the shoulders of giants – we tend to see things the other way round, and our lack of appreciation for History and Tradition bears this out. So as to carols . . . are they a hundred years old?? They haven’t stood any tests, they are not deep rooted, they may have sprung up with joy – but will they survive the heat of day? – leave them be – go to that which is tried down through many years.
The second reason for going to the older carols is that they are the ones which speak in the fullest terms of the significance of the birth of Jesus. Over and over they speak of the one born to die. Of late I have been studying contemporary carols, from here in New Zealand and from further afield, and almost without exception they do not speak of the suffering and death which lies ahead of the infant King. That this is The reason He is born into the world. They speak all too readily of Emanuel, GOd with us, not recognising anywhere in their lyrics that this is a word of judgement – that the coming of God into the world is at once his Saving act of Judgement and Mercy. Christmas carols which miss this have not been rooted in the preparation of Advent. They see Christmas as separate, not the culmination of the time of preparing. And they are not Carols which are rooted in the Christmas season.
If we would Keep Christmas then the Church’s calendar gives us Profound and RICH resources to keep us from those myths of Christmas which are not profoundly inculcated with the significance of the birth of Jesus. Firstly, and here it would help if we might speak Christianly, Christmas day is Not followed by Boxing Day, but by The Feast of St Stephen. Of course Old Carols help us here to keep this in mind 🙂 Immediately we see how deeply a mythical Christmas has intruded into our consciousness. How Jarring it is to awake on the day after Christmas Day to read of the death of the church’s first martyr! Like Marley’s ghost it is an unwanted intruder. Yet the Church in her wisdom would have us meditate upon that on December 26th.
Then of course a day which is of Huge significance to us here, December 27th, our Patronal Festival! The Church Keeps our Attention upon Christ in calling us to meditate upon the one who lay upon his breast at the last supper, the beloved disciple who in many ways IS the Church founded at the Cross where Jesus gives John, His Mother. In my household like I am sure in most if not all others, there are no unopened presents under the tree, but there are SO many unopened presents which the Church would give us from her treaure trove of deep tradition. I was recently preaching at St Nicholas, Waverley, asking them to take time to address Nicholas in prayer, seeking his intercessions before the throne of Grace. I wonder if we also have some unopened treasure of Grace?
And Then we come to todays gospel reading, another fundamental tradition of the Church, Helping us to Keep Christmas, not the mythic fake which consumes us. For hot on the heels of St Stephen and St John, on December 28th the church remembers the slaying of the children by Herod in his Wrath. The Feast of the Holy Innocents. Here just a few days into the season we hear the dramatic words of Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Keeping Christmas holds this before our face. The birth of Jesus, sees the eruption of evil into the world, it has always been there smouldering under the surface content to remain quiet when the myths of Christmas do its work for it, But where the light that gives LIFE to all comes into the world, Darkness strives with all its might to extinguish it. In the profound depth of the winter of the human soul, gripped by fear the desperation of our human plight is laid bare. Our deepest need, for One who will save us from our sins.
I’ve spoken throughout of the ‘Myth’ of christmas – Myth is capitalised and in inverted commas – christmas is in lower case. Every year I see example after example of how still the darkness fights against the Salvation that Christ has wrought for us, put another way I see evidence that we as Christians need to live far more deeply into The Myth – THe Story of Christmas. For the dark distortion of Christmas continues to try and undo the work of the Cross. I see it in carolsl which expunge the Cross, and I see it in encounter after encounter with people, where a sense of unreality sets in. I think for example of a man who would spend Christmas day alone, although he had family locally, for he was very ill and felt intrusive if he asked to be collected for the day ‘I don’t want to spoil their Christmas’. Such a Christmas, a sentimentalised ‘time for families’ is a powerful Myth which needs shattering, that those for whom Christ comes, the lost and the lonely, the poor and the sinners might know his salvation. The Church by its insistence on keeping infront of us the harsh realities of Witnessing to Christ exemplified in The Feast of Stephenm by reminding us that the Darkness does not comprehend the Light, through our own St John the Evangelist, and that fear still rules the hearts of those in authority at the coming of Christ with catastrophic effect, in the story of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, The Church will not have us rest easy in the ‘Myth’ of Christmas.
our forebears who were all poorer, whose lifes were usually of far greater suffering than many of us will ever know, knew this. They wrote Carols about the significance of the one who was coming into the world, of the final conflict upon the Cross of the babe of Bethlehem – and through observance of the 12 days of Christmas, of Saints and martyrs and evangelists Kept Christmas Wholly.
At the outset I asked how our obsevation of Advent had impacted upon our clebration of Christmas – may our Keeping a Holy Christmas – meditating in our hearts upon all that happens in and around the birth of Christ – transform our lives in the weeks and months that by the grace of God lie ahead of us. Christ is Born to die for us. Alleluia! Amen