The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio
Gracious God, thank you for loving us enough to take on flesh and dwell among us. On this Christmas Day give us fresh eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to receive, and lips to proclaim you. Amen.
There is a magnet above my Cathedral office door and it reads: “Don’t make me come down there. God.” Now, while that may seemingly sound a little tongue-in-cheek, in truth, we’re all gathered today because God did exactly that. We gather today to remember and celebrate God’s greatest gift in loving us enough to become one of us, to show us the love that surpasses all our understanding and our place in that great story. And we know that we all come here having our own journey and road to Bethlehem and making our way to the manger. And we bring different things and different people with us every time we make that journey—our hopes, our fears, our deepest longings, our desires. And we hope and we pray that all of that will be met in the Christ child in the manger.
Over the course of the last few days, more than 11,000 worshipers have come to this Cathedral, just as you have this afternoon, all to remember and celebrate and to seek to make the connection between your story and the greatest story ever told. We know that some of you are here this afternoon because it’s your tradition. It’s Christmas Day and, of course, you’re going to be in church. Others of you, I suspect, are here because you love the person sitting next to you and you knew it would make them happy if you came to church on Christmas. Good for you; it was a small enough thing to do for someone you love. Some of you, I suspect, are here late on Christmas Day afternoon because there was a little restlessness going on in your house and this was the world’s best excuse to escape. How can you argue with going to church on Christmas Day? And some of you, if you’re really honest, are probably here—and got here early—because you really wanted to get a good seat for the concert that follows. And that’s okay; it’s going to be a great concert and you will love it. And some of you, I suspect, are here because it’s Christmas Day and you didn’t have anywhere else to go and you didn’t want to be alone. Whatever brought you here, we’re so grateful that you have chosen to spend part of this special, sacred and holy day with us in community as we all seek to connect our story with the story that we hear in song, in Scripture, in prayers on this day.
We all have different stories, but they are all a piece of the greater story. I read an interesting article in the Washington Post a few days ago: that one in five people in Washington are foreign-born. And the article went into the different ways in which people from around the world seek to celebrate Christmas in their tradition. It talked about someone from Nigeria trying to find antelope to make the traditional Nigerian stew; others seeking out purple rice and coconut to have the traditional Filipino Christmas cakes; others from Iceland looking for a very specific kind of game bird. For me, growing up in south Texas, it wasn’t Christmas in our house unless we had Mexican tamales. We all have our traditions; but they’re all a piece of our story within the story.
And one of the ways in which I think the Cathedral does a beautiful job of telling the rich diversity of our stories is through our crèche collection. You may not know that the Cathedral has more than 700 crèche sets—manger scenes—gathered and collected from across the United States and all over the world. In 1998 Beulah and John Sommer gave this Cathedral their extraordinary gift: their lifetime of collecting crèche sets from around the world, some 600 of them. And every year, loving curators, currently Lori and Chip Amos, carefully unpack the sets and give a rotational representative sample of the collection.
This year, if you go downstairs one floor to the crypt level, on the south side of Cathedral, you will encounter a wide variety of crèche sets: some very small, some very grand, some very elaborate, some very simple, some very fantastic with pink and blue sheep. The set from Nepal has three wise men and they are depicted as a Buddhist monk, a Tibetan priest, and a Sherpa holy man. In the scene from Thailand—you wouldn’t encounter the sort of typical cow and donkey—their animals around the manger include a kneeling elephant, water buffalo, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and a dog, for good measure. One of my favorites is very small. It’s a yellow public bus overflowing with people and sitting on the roof is the Holy Family. That comes from Peru. You see, we all carry different stories on our way, making our way to the manger in Bethlehem. But each one is unique and part of the greater and eternal story.
It wasn’t until a day ago that I learned an extraordinary story of just one crèche set. In the four Christmases that I have been at the Cathedral our office, we in the vicar’s office, gleefully go every year at the beginning of Advent to select one crèche set that would be depicted in our Christmas card. The 2010 crèche set was very simple: Mary, Joseph, Jesus in a very simple backdrop; it was breathtakingly beautiful in its simplicity. But I just learned the story behind it.
When Beulah and John Sommer were in Pakistan many years ago it was a time in which it was dangerous to identify yourself as a Christian. Christians were persecuted at that time. And when they were traveling in Pakistan the embassy had given them a car and a driver to take them around. And they learned that the driver was a Christian and they shared with him the story of how they were collecting these individual nation stories all as an effort to tell the story in the broadest possible way. But they were lamenting the fact that they weren’t going to be able to get one in Pakistan because it was too dangerous. They would put someone’s life at risk to try and obtain one. The last day that they were in Pakistan, the driver came to them with a carefully wrapped package. Contained within it was his own family’s nativity set, one that had been part of the family for years. You see, the driver didn’t want his country, his context, not to be a part of the larger story. It was the sacrificial gift. Frederick Buechner says, “To sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love.” That’s part of what this day is about: a sacrificial gift given to us for all time out of love.
And I think sometimes this story is best understood and inculcated in our hearts and in our souls when it is quite simply told. In 1943, German theologian and defender of the faith Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II. And on Christmas day that year, he joined with some of the other Christians who were imprisoned with him and they sang hymns—a hopeful thing in the midst of what many would consider great darkness. And on that day he wrote a letter to his fiancée said, [This Christmas] “will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents; but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious…the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.”
Our gift this day is the greatest gift we can imagine—a love that surpasses all understanding—the desire of God to be one of us and among us, full of grace and truth. On this day we pray that your hopes, your fears, your deepest desires and longings, will be met in the Christ child in the manger. And may you, this day, receive the eternal light that is the light and the love and the life of the world and that it will rekindle in your heart and your soul, love and light and grace and truth.
Merry Christmas. Amen.