Please pray with me. Come now long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins, release us, let us find our hope in Thee. In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“And the word became flesh and lived among us . . . full of grace and truth.” That is the foundation of our faith. That is why we come together, not just as a yearly remembrance, but as a daily reality that God loved us enough to take on flesh and live among us so that we might know God in a tangible way and in that knowing be transformed. It’s a daily reality. It’s a daily gift for us to embrace. Ours is not some ethereal, esoteric faith. It’s an earthy one. God took on flesh and bones and matter and soul and spirit. Christ didn’t just come 2000 years ago. Christ continues to come. As you heard in John’s prologue, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” It’s present tense. The light shines.
If I leave you with nothing else this evening, I hope to leave you with this: that the light of Christ is among us and within us, ours to take into the darkness to make a difference. Emmanuel is God with us but is also God within us. The light shines through you and, on my best days, through me. That’s the miracle of Christmas. That it is a gift, not just for 2000 years ago, not just for today, but for all time, a daily reality.
One of the gifts of this Cathedral that I think helps us enter that story very personally, no matter where you’re from, is through our extraordinary international crèche manger collection. The Cathedral has over 700 manger scenes from all over the world and you can’t help but be embraced by the rich diversity of Jesus who lives. I was reminded of that just two weeks ago when I came to the Cathedral very early one morning to go through the exhibit that’s just one floor below us. I ran into my friend and Cathedral colleague Reina, who’s originally from El Salvador.
I said, “Reina, do you have a favorite on display this year?” And she said, “Yes, I do.” And I said, “Well, show it to me.” We walked over to this very simple manger scene from Honduras. The figures were made from corn husks and seeds from the earth. And as Reina explained, “That’s our daily bread. Give us this day our daily bread and from Honduras or El Salvador, that daily bread comes from corn.” The daily bread, yes, is tortillas and tamales. But as Reina so wonderfully reminded me, that daily bread feeds us physically, but the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven, that is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, feeds us forever. It is the food that will never perish.
Our faith is a daily reality if we can only embrace it and remember it and let God be among us and within us. I know that we all struggle with that from time to time, and particularly in the challenging times. As I was praying about this homily, I remembered one of those times in my own life and felt led to share it with you. Please know this story is not about me or about my family. It’s about God, Emmanuel, God with us, God within us and God’s faithfulness, even when we falter and we fail.
Five years ago, at this time, when I was supposed to be here with my clergy colleagues and all of you preparing to welcome the Christ child in our hearts once again, I needed to go to Texas because I’d received word from my brother that my 90-year-old father was hospitalized with pneumonia and they were fearful that he might have a pulmonary embolism. So, with the support of my husband John and my Cathedral colleagues—they said, “Go, you must go”— I was on the next plane to Texas. When I got to the hospital, my father was incredibly frail but always in good spirits and good humor and hopeful.
With further testing, the doctors discovered that he had COPD, which meant that he would be forever then tethered to an oxygen tank. Furthermore, they discovered that he had a condition of congestive heart failure, which meant that his generous and loving and gracious heart was starting to fail. It was a tough Christmas season and pretty tough news to receive. The hospital worked hard to get him released before Christmas. So, at midnight, it was the 23rd as a matter of fact—five years ago tonight—at midnight an ambulance took my father to what they described as the last bed in a nursing home rehab center. When we got there, I could understand why it was the last bed. It was the most depressing scene I’d ever seen. and I’ve been in a lot of rehab centers and nursing homes. But we got my father settled and then I went home and prayed, and I thought, well, tomorrow is Christmas Eve; at least we’ll be able to worship with the Cathedral online—one of the great blessings of this Cathedral.
My brother brought his laptop and we crouched in this little dreary room and we could log on, but the internet signal was so slow and so weak. This happened: spooling. For those of you who are worshiping with us online, I’m so sorry if that’s happened to you and I hope that our upgraded system has made it easier for you to worship with us live. It was singularly turning out to be the worst Christmas of my life. So, we went home, my brother, my brother-in-law Robert and me. I’m not proud of this, but as I was tossing and turning in the middle of the night, I let myself slip-slide into feeling sorry for myself.
My father had COPD and congestive heart failure. He was in a dreary room. We couldn’t even worship. I was away from my husband John, from all of my Cathedral colleagues and I was thinking, this is going to be the first Christmas in my life that I’m not able to worship. I was just in a really dark place. But at least I was praying in between tossing and turning and feeling sorry for myself. Then, in the wee hours of Christmas morning, my prayer was answered. It wasn’t an audible voice, but it was clearly a message from God. My messenger wasn’t Gabriel—I could tell by the packaging—It was actually my mother because the message went something like this. “For gosh sakes, Jan, pull up your socks, you’ve got everything you need to make a Christmas service happen. You’re a priest, remember?” Duh!
In that moment, in that reminder of Emmanuel, God with us, everything changed. My father’s condition hadn’t changed, but I had. I remembered that the light shines in the darkness, that God is with us, God is within us. Of course, I had everything that we needed to make a Christmas service happen. Once it became sort of a regular morning hour and not the middle of the night, I laid this out for my brother, and he thought it was a grand plan. He was particularly enthusiastic until I mentioned “and you can play the piano so we can have music.” He hesitated a bit. I reminded him this was not Carnegie Hall, that even if he hit a clunker it was going to be okay. So, we got dressed and we went to the nursing home.
My father signed off. He thought it was a grand plan. I talked to the head nurse who was trying hard in the Christmas season, she was wearing a Cat in a Hat hat. I asked the Cat in the Hat lady if we could host a Christmas service because one wasn’t planned at the nursing home. And she said, “Sure, go talk to the activities person.” We went to the activities person and she said, “That would be great.” She asked me, “What do you need? Do you need anything from us?” And I said, “Just a few slices of bread.” The bread that would become the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven, blessed and broken and shared for all who would come.
We went home. My brother got busy with the music. My brother-in-law got busy with finding what would be a makeshift altar, a beautiful cloth to put over it, candles and a candlestick. And Christmas happened because everyone pulled together. In that multipurpose room, which was packed, there were people who had been wheeled in in their wheelchairs, walked in on their walkers. Some of the hospital and nursing staff were there. Some of their families were there because otherwise they wouldn’t have shared Christmas as a family. It was one of the most beautiful Christmas services you could ever imagine. Simple, beautiful, because Christ lives—not just 2000 years ago. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. It can’t overcome it. It never will overcome it because God is with us and God is within us. If we can only remember that and embrace it and live it in our lives.
Very shortly, each one of us is going to light a candle. I invite you on this Holy night, don’t just hold the candle. Embody that light of Christ. Take it in to illumine all the dark places. Take it out into a world that so badly needs the great good news of our Lord and Savior who lives in you and in me. The light shines in the darkness. Let it shine through you and through me. God bless you, and Merry Christmas. Amen.