Late last week a semi-frantic email went out from one of my clergy colleagues here asking if any of us priests on the staff had a copy of a certain book by some New Testament scholars doing an academic analysis of the Christmas stories. It seemed that this person wanted to do some deep theological reading before attempting to preach on those daunting infancy narratives. I didn’t respond to this email right away, because it turns out that at the very moment it was sent I was at home ransacking my wife Kathy’s children’s book collection in search of a Christmas Day sermon illustration for myself. Kathy is a former elementary school librarian, and one big part of our library is crammed with easy readers, picture books, and young adult fiction. It’s by far the coolest part of our house.
After a couple of hours of intense scrounging, I didn’t find a children’s book that would help, but I did come across one of our many copies of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I sat down and started, once again, to read this wonderful and quite profound Christmas story. And what struck me this time was not any of the more familiar moments in the book: “I wear the chains I forged in life!” “Are there no prisons?” “Mankind was my business!” “God bless us every one!” Instead, I was drawn into a little-known moment where the Ghost of Christmas Present comes to visit Scrooge. You may remember how the ghost shows Scrooge how the Cratchit family can joyfully celebrate Christmas even with their relative poverty and Tiny Tim’s illness. Right after that the ghost whisks Scrooge off to see how universal the celebration of Christmas is around the world, even under very harsh conditions: in a coal mine, on a lighthouse, aboard a ship. As the narrator explains when they get to the ship,
Every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him. (A Christmas Carol, “Stave Three”)
And as I reread Dickens’s book I couldn’t help thinking about my own childhood experiences of Christmas. Over the course of my working life in the church, I have come to love the anecdotes told by my clergy friends about the Christmases they enjoyed growing up. I’ve worked most of my career in multiple staff situations—large parishes, seminaries, and now a cathedral—and in those places we tend to pass the big holiday preaching duties around. So it’s safe to say that over the years I’ve heard my share of Christmas sermons with their attendant stories about big holiday dinners, tales of working on the yearly Christmas pageant, and even one or two yarns about dysfunctional family gatherings around the holidays. There’s even been a small miracle or two. I really have come to love these stories, and not only because they’re usually so well told.
I had a very different childhood experience than have most clergy. Not only did I not grow up in the church. Both my parents worked in show business, and so the early Christmases I remember took place in very different settings than did those of my colleagues. Instead of country church or blazing fireside, think nightclub or motel room. Instead of a big family turkey dinner, think Chinese restaurant. Mind you, I’m not complaining. All told, it was pretty interesting. But it certainly wasn’t Christmas at Duck Dynasty, either. A little bit of tinsel can do wonders, and as the only kid in the room I was always fussed over. But I enjoy hearing the anecdotes told by my colleagues because they give me a very different sense of what the holidays felt like in what we used to call “normal” families.
When I first came into the church, in college, I used to feel a bit sheepish about my lack of a more traditional background. Sure, it had its good side: because I first experienced Christianity as an adult, I never had to unlearn the stuff they teach you in Sunday school. But this lack of early nurture in the faith had its down side as well. For one thing, I was at a loss for sermon illustrations. Who wants to hear the preacher tell a heartwarming story about Christmas in Las Vegas?
You and I live in a culture that celebrates youth and worries about growing old. But aging has its blessings, too—at least for me. One of the effects of hearing the Gospels read aloud so often over so many years is that occasionally some of the deep truths of Christianity actually begin to sink in. When I was younger I was embarrassed about my upbringing and so tried to hide it. I wasn’t one of those clergy who had gone to prep school, had three last names, or had grown up singing in the church choir. I was a kid who’d grown up around comics, strippers, and jazz musicians. I’d stumbled out of one kind of life and into another. As a young man, I was embarrassed about my background. The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve come to see that it’s OK.
Here’s what John says at the beginning of his Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with 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)
That passage tells us the central proclamation of Christmas: God has taken on human flesh in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. This is perhaps Christianity’s most startling proposition. It has radical consequences. God became one of us in Jesus. This means at least two things. It means that God now knows what it is like to be us. And it means that who we are and how we live is raised to a new level of divine importance. We matter. God feels our joy and our pain. The One we pray to knows what our life feels like. And more than that: all human life, all human experience, is important and holy because all human beings are important and holy. By becoming one of us in Jesus, God blessed and transformed all human life.
And this blessing and transformation are at the heart of what Christmas means. Your life, your joys and sorrows, your work and relationships, your story—all of what makes you “you” matters because of what happened that morning in Palestine two thousand plus years ago. When we preachers complain about what Christmas has become in our culture, we do so not because it has become “commercialized” but because it has become “trivialized.” We have made of it too light a thing. Sure, the silly ties and the Santa hats are fine, but we also should be out on the street stopping traffic and giving people the good news that God has become one of us in Jesus, that their lives are now charged with divine significance, that it is OK for them to be who they are.
It has taken me 40 plus years of living with this story to understand not only its depth but also its implications for you and me. As John says at the close of today’s gospel, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”(John 1:14). That life is the light of all people, and it is available to us whoever we are and wherever we come from. God has taken you into the divine mystery. You are now part of it. Who you are, where you are from, your story, your past, your future: all of them are holy and blessed and good.
Christmas comes in cathedrals and coal mines, in country churches and aboard ships, in lighthouses and nightclubs. Whether you have three last names or four first names; whether you grew up in church or on the streets; whether you live in a happy or dysfunctional household; whether you’re at the top of your game or trying to keep it together: Christmas is for you. In saying yes to Jesus, God has said yes also to you. It is good and right to be who you are. Do not let somebody else’s vision of the perfect Christmas get in the way of your taking in the depth and passion of God’s love for you.
In John’s words: “The word has become flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.” In Charles Dickens’s words: let each of us have a “kinder word for [one] another on [this] day than on any day in the year.” In my own words: God knows, loves, and accepts you as you are. Really: as you are. Amen.