Homily: The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Oh, Jesus, precious Jesus, you were born to set us free. In the name of God, Amen.
Well, here we are, three days from Christmas and on this night we join Mary and Joseph right on the outskirts of Bethlehem. We, too, have been on a journey—our Advent journey of hope and expectation and longing, deep longing, for the light to come into the world. And as we sit, preparing ourselves for this last leg of the journey, what’s left for us to do?
I invite you to consider Mary and Joseph and their steps. All they really had was one another and a belief in the God who’d come to Mary in the form of an angel and to Joseph in the form of a dream. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 100 miles and I invite you to just think about what that must’ve been like for them: Mary, pregnant—very pregnant, on foot, with a dangerous and difficult journey, where all they could do was trust in God, not really knowing what was ahead.
I think sometimes we try to make that Christmas message more grand and complicated than it really is. As you heard in Luke’s Gospel, the story is very sparingly told, simple, straightforward. Why is it, in our humanness, that we try and supersize it and add all these other things to it? I’m fairly confident that the Bible is silent about Christmas trees and Santa Claus. And how about those homes that have so many lights strung on them they look like the aurora borealis? You know who you are!
We’re here because God loved us enough to take on flesh and dwell among us so that our lives would never be the same. What is it that we need to do to receive God’s greatest gift? What do we need to leave at the city limits in order to open up the space to receive that extraordinary gift? You have to make room for Jesus. He’s coming.
Madeleine L’Engle said “that this is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. Had Mary been filled with reason there would have been no room for the child.” We’re right at the city limits. I invite you to reflect on what baggage you need to leave there in order to receive this great gift. Whether it’s fear or anger or unforgiveness or whatever it may be, let those things go so that on this last leg of the journey when we arrive at the manger, we, too, may receive that light and that love that changed the course of human history—not just then, not just today, but forever.
Marian Wright Edelman, a few years ago, shared one of her favorite Christmas stories that I want to share with you this evening. The place was the Riverside Church in New York; the preacher, William Sloane Coffin. It was Christmas Eve and the church pews were packed, maybe a little bit like this Cathedral tonight. And the plan was to have, yes, the Christmas pageant, where everyone wears their bathrobes and they reenact the greatest story ever told. And the plan was that William Sloane Coffin would get up to preach after the pageant. Well, everyone had practiced. The pageant director felt everyone was ready. And there was one youth that they were particularly pleased had a role in the pageant. His name was Tim; he had Downs Syndrome and he was going to be the innkeeper. He had one line: “There’s no room in the inn.” He had it down. He was ready.
So, Tim stood in front of the altar. Mary and Joseph came right up the center aisle. Mary and Joseph delivered their lines as had been rehearsed and everyone leaned forward waiting for Tim. Tim said his line, “There’s no room in the inn.” Mary and Joseph turned to go another way and all of a sudden Tim said, “Wait!” And they were so startled. That wasn’t in the script. And they turned around and they looked at Tim and Tim said, “You can stay at my house.” William Sloane Coffin, the great preacher, on Christmas Eve got up in the pulpit, said “Amen” and sat down. No more needed to be said. The Christmas message couldn’t have been more eloquently delivered than what Tim said and everything that it meant.
Merry Christmas. Amen.