In the beauty and holiness of this Cathedral named after faithful servants Peter and Paul, we gather in the blessed name of your Son, Jesus, to hear and to celebrate once again the story of his birth and to proclaim him as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace!
Christians, followers of your Son, have been gathering on this night since the fourth century to proclaim to the world that miracles do happen, and that you, O Lover of souls and Creator of all that is, still reside in this too often conflicted and broken world as the source of all life, light, hopefulness, and love.
As your faithful people gather in this magnificent Cathedral built to honor and glorify your holy Name, may we once again commit ourselves to the principles of compassionate love, faithfulness, generosity, forgiveness, goodly fellowship, and the strong desire to follow the inclusive teachings of the one whose birthday we celebrate this night.
Your prophet Isaiah eloquently spoke about the impact of his coming when he said, “The people who walk in great darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” May we who are touched by the brightness of this light be strengthened tonight to carry through the doors of this Cathedral the light of Christ to illuminate a world darkened by war, poverty, disease, violence, and a too often selfish unwillingness to recognize that “you are the potter and we are but clay.” Help us all to be better stewards of what it is we say we believe in tonight and help us to live lives that reflect the true miracle that we celebrate at Christmas. We ask this in the name of your only son Jesus, the Christ. Amen.
Last year on Christmas Eve I preached from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, California, never imagining that it would be the last Christmas shared with a cathedral congregation I had come to love with all my heart. To be here this evening, celebrating Christmas with all of you in our nation’s capital, in the sixth largest cathedral in the world, is somewhat hard to comprehend! Such circumstances are a jolting reminder that although we may think we have control over our own destinies and futures, in truth all of our earthly journeys are guided by the steady hand and very breath of God.
Tonight we gather to hear and celebrate the great story of God’s love born into the world. It is a story that defies the rational thinking of our age and challenges the very core of contemporary theological scholarship and thinking. But God’s love for all of creation transcends rational thinking. The birth of Jesus in the humble surroundings of Bethlehem to poor, homeless, uneducated, and marginalized parents named Mary and Joseph is the stuff of fantasy bordering on folly, and yet for those of us who claim to walk in the Spirit, we know that with God there are no accidents, no mistakes.
The other day I was visiting my local Starbucks to warm up with a cafe mocha on a rather cold, bleak early winter’s day when the counter person recognized me and said; “You know, Bishop, somehow it seems as if this Christmas season is not quite right. Customers are coming in with less of a holiday spirit than I remember from years past. Why is that?” I’m not sure if that is in fact true, and standing in line at Starbucks is not the place to engage in a broad, reflective theological apologetic for Christmas, but there did seem to be some evidence that might shed some light on the subject.
I picked up the Washington Post this morning, the Christmas Eve edition, and these were the ominous, front-page headlines:
- IN U.S., TERRORISM’S PERIL UNDIMINISHED (Nation Struggles on Offense and Defense, and Officials Still Expect New Attacks)
- IRAN, NORTH KOREA NUCLEAR PLANS POSE NEW RISK (Both Achieved Progress That Went Undetected)
- SMALLPOX PLAN MAY FORCE OTHER HEALTH CUTS (States Cite Inability To Fund Vaccinations)
- NORTH KOREA WARNED OF NUCLEAR ARMS
- IRAQIS DOWN UNMANNED DRONE
It is rather hard to get into the Christmas Spirit when such headlines jump out and greet us on the eve of Christmas. For it is in fact truth, that we live in very troubled times.
Recently I returned from a trip to South Africa with eleven other pilgrims from the Diocese of Washington. While there we spent time with Bishop and Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu and Johngonkulu Ndungane, the new Archbishop of the Anglican Province of Cape Town. Since our visit occurred during the second week of Advent, people there, especially children, were preparing for Christmas. It is the children of South Africa and the larger world that I cannot get out of my mind as I share my Christmas thoughts with you this evening.
As we focus on the legendary Christmas crèche, the traditional location of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, so I am drawn by memory to another crèche. South Africans call their pre-school and kindergarten classrooms crèches. The crèche I visited in the township of Khayaleitsha was an 8 x 18 foot, windowless shack covered by a corrugated tin room that heightened the internal temperature to over 100 degrees in the hot, African summer sun. Their teacher was paid $150 a month and 45 young people began their educational journey in this inhospitable environment. Lessons and basic reading skills are taught through memorization, as books are hard to come by. Their daily pre-school snack is nothing more than water, boiled to purify it from the many water-born diseases that affect the lives of so many in this part of the world; a far cry from the snacks our children get in this country.
The children introduced themselves to us and with great hopefulness, shared their dreams with beaming parents close by their side. “I want to be a doctor, a pilot, a nurse, an accountant, a lawyer, a policeman.” These are the dreams of six year olds that all of us who are parents have heard from our own children. But for these children the chances are at best slim that they will ever be able to live into their dreams.
Along with the very painful uncertainties that we currently live with in our own country during this Christmas season—a possible war with Iraq, the painful violence that defines the current relationship between Palestinians and Israelis, the continuing threat of international terrorism, the spread of nuclear and biological weapons throughout the world, an economy that is struggling, and the daily reality of violence and racism within our own Nation—we are not burdened with the reality that the children of Africa and other parts of the world must live with each day.
Three billion people on this planet live on less than $2 per day and 1.5 billion live on less than $1. More than 13 million children in Africa have been orphaned as a result of the pandemic spread of AIDS. The number of orphaned children will double in the next decade; 60 percent of all 15 year olds in South Africa will be infected with AIDS in the next calendar year; more than 11 million children will die around the world of preventable diseases caused by inadequate diet, AIDS, non-existent sanitary facilities, minimal or non-existent health care, and domestic violence. In South Africa in 2003 more than 30 million souls will be endangered by life-threatening food shortages. For any of us not to respond to these painful realities in the lives of God’s tiniest and most innocent victims with the riches of technology, human engagement, and monetary wealth that define the greatness of America is to define one of the greatest sins of the twenty-first century.
This Christmas we will greet the annual celebration of Christ’s birth with uncertainty in a world that seems somehow to have gone mad. Yet, the great lessons learned from the children in Africa, from their parents and the clergy and people who care for them is that they do not see themselves as victims. Nor do they see themselves as living in a hopeless world. For to them, the Jesus whose birth we proclaim tonight is very real and is deeply centered in their hearts. As one African priest shared with me after touring a village of unemployed African farm workers whose poverty was the worst I have ever seen, “Do not feel sorry for us. Pray for us and know that God has been good to us. We have survived Apartheid and we will survive this, too. We now have a future, for with God all things are possible! We are the future of the global community! God is very much with us!”
That is the message of this Christmas. That with God all things are possible. If there is anything that can come to us tonight from our celebration of Christmas at this magnificent Cathedral, it is that the Spirit of God, that visited Mary and Joseph and that brought into the world Jesus as the very son of God, is alive, well, and engaged in this very troubled world of ours. If we do not believe this simple and yet profound theological truth, then the Christmas story shared tonight is meaningless other than for having the core content of touching, artful prose.
This is a holy night that will continue into holy days if only we will allow it to claim our very hearts, souls, and minds. This holy night is a night that must be re-dedicated to our passion for the possible and for our recommitment to take seriously the profound Christian theological principle that every child in this world is special, created in the image of God and that all children have the certain and inalienable right to become whatever God intended them to become at the moment of their creation. For how foolish and hardened we have become as a people if we do not think that every child born into the world is a child of God and is, therefore, of equal value and precious in God’s sight, as precious in fact as God’s own son, Jesus.
On this night more than two thousand years ago, God dramatically reconnected with a warring, violent, divided, and broken world and gave to it a divine gift, the gift of his only begotten Son. Of all the gifts you may receive on this Christmas, my prayer is that the greatest gift you will receive will be the gift of Christ in your life. For the gift of Jesus, when unwrapped, is the ultimate gift of healing, wholeness, and forgiveness. Jesus is the gift of a peace that passes all understanding. Jesus is the gift that defines the unconditional love of God for all the people of God. Jesus is the gift that brings hope to a too often conflicted, warring and broken world.
Hear the healing words of John, the author of the fourth Gospel, and take them to heart. We need very much to hear these words tonight for they are in fact the hope for the future of the world.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” —John 1:1–5.