What Do You Treasure and Ponder This Day: The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
In the name of God who loved us enough to take on flesh and dwell among us. Amen.
The gospel lesson you just heard has to be one of the best known and most beloved, and therein lives one of the challenges. We’ve heard it so many times that it can lose its majesty and the sheer miracle of it all. It’s important to remember that this was God’s greatest gift to all humanity, not just for one time, but for all time. Stepping back in the story just a little bit, we know from the cultural norms of that day that Mary would have been perhaps all of thirteen. So how many of you have had an angel of God land in your living room with a message just for you? I don’t need to ask for a show of hands on that one! I can assure you that I would have had more than a few questions. I would have done more than ponder all of that in my heart!
Yet Mary said yes and thanks to her answer, we are gathered today, not just to remember and celebrate a miracle of 2000 years ago, but to have reborn in us that light of Christ, the very spirit of God, that we have been given: Jesus, Emmanuel—God with us, God within us. The world that Jesus came into was not going swimmingly. God took on flesh to dwell among us in the midst of a very troubled world where violence and oppressors and the oppressed and the poor and the marginalized were a reality. Violence was a part of their world—unfortunately, much like it is for ours today. We need that light of Christ today more than ever—where Christ abides yesterday, today, and forever. Henri Nouwen put it this way: “The miracle of the Incarnation is not only that Christ came, lived, died and rose among us, but that Christ continues to come, to live, to die, and to rise in our midst.”
Scripture tells us that Mary treasured the words that she heard and pondered them in her heart. I ask you today, my friends, on this Christmas Day, what are you treasuring? What are you pondering in your hearts? I think that depends, as it always has, on where we find ourselves in this life and the reality of this world. Using some of my Cathedral colleagues as a microcosm of what comes together at this time of year:
- Three of my cathedral colleagues are about to give birth to their firstborn child. I can only imagine what they’re treasuring and pondering today.
- A few of my colleagues have just lost parents or a spouse. Theirs will be a very different Christmas experience this year.
- Others have had spouses in and out of the hospital or they’ve been sequestered with their family because they’ve gone through the whole gauntlet of RSV and Covid and everything else—but they are together.
You see, the light comes into the darkness in many different ways and contexts. One of the things I find myself treasuring today is the miracle that we’re all together! We haven’t been able to celebrate Christmas together—physically gathered—since 2019. I will tell you that on Thursday night at the Lessons and Carols service here, when this cathedral was filled to the brim—the transepts, the nave, the balconies—and we lowered the lights and lit our candles illuminating all of your beautiful faces and your lives and began to sing “Silent Night” I had a lump in my throat. The words wouldn’t come out, but the tears freely flowed, out of sheer gratitude and love and thankfulness that we were together.
What do you treasure and ponder this day? Reflecting on the sermons of the season that we have heard from my wonderful clergy colleagues, they have illuminated the theme of the light of Christ coming into the darkness, yet the darkness did not overcome it. I’m reminded of the brilliant poem that Amanda Gorman offered at the Inauguration of 2021. In “The Hill We Climb” she ended the poem, written in a very turbulent and uncertain time, if you’ll recall, with this: “… there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
As I turn to words offered by my fellow clergy, at our Blue Christmas service, my dear friend Patrick Keyser talked about a dark time, a dark moment in his life when he literally had sequestered himself in the darkness and friends came to be with him and just sit and be present. He observed, “We all need others to sit with us in the moments of darkness in our lives.” There’s always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Then two of my wonderful clergy friends, Dana Corsello and Kelly Brown Douglas, spoke about music and how much a part of our lived experience that is, and particularly at Christmas—how it can transport us and how it helps to undergird the message of the season of light coming into the darkness. Dana reminded us that “The music carries deep emotional weight for us; it evokes memory of what was and the eternal hope that with God nothing is impossible.” Kelly, during the Gospel Christmas service, gave us a wonderful tour de force on the history of gospel music and how it has given voice to people who felt they had no voice, and that it was more than about music—there’s meaning and a message in all of it. She reminded us that “… the music that we celebrate on this night is about more than entertainment, about more than performance. It is about a call and a response—a call to our hearts, a call to our souls, a call to our imagination, that requires a response of faith—to be that light of Christ in our world today.”
Our dean, Randy Hollerith, just last night, preached a beautiful sermon that reminded us once again, that God is not some ethereal, distant being. No. He reminded us that “Our God is not a God who is cold and indifferent, but a God who humbles himself to become one of us—flesh of our flesh—bone of our bone—to share our joys and our pains, to know our laughter and our struggles.”
Each one of my colleagues—speaking not just from seminary experience, but from their own lived experience, gave voice to that which abides deep within us—that light of Christ that we rekindle afresh and anew today. Because, you see, there’s always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.
There are so many things that I’m pondering this Christmas, but one that God has placed on my heart is the people of Ukraine. Yesterday was the 10-month anniversary of that brutal evil invasion, and the Ukrainian people were met on Christmas Eve with yet another barrage of missiles
designed to destruct and destroy. The Ukrainian people have shown us over and over and over again what bravery, resilience, and faith look like with the light shining in the darkness. I was reminded so powerfully of this by the extraordinary story of the Shchedryk Children’s Choir. Perhaps you saw it too. These children had been practicing to travel to Carnegie Hall on what would be the 100th anniversary of the American debut of their folk carol, “Carol of the Bells” which has become so popular across the world. When the war started, they were dispersed everywhere and held virtual practice sessions until they were able to come together, shortly before they would make the brave and unlikely journey to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall.
There were times during their practices when they heard the air raid sirens, warning them of what was to come, and they’d collect their sheet music and their backpacks and run to shelters where there was no electricity. They used their smartphones to give them light, to read the music, to be the light shining in the darkness. Then, against all odds, they made their way to New York and sang—in Carnegie Hall—their beloved folk carol, the “Carol of the Bells.” You may have seen the video: they’re wearing their native folk costumes with simple wooden crosses around their necks. One might cut off their electricity, one might cut off their heat, but they could not cut off their voices of hope and resilience and prayers for a better day.
Archbishop Justin Welby spoke to this bravery, resilience and faith following a journey he made to Ukraine at the beginning of this month. He said this: “So often in places of war and conflict, the church suffers alongside the communities it serves. During this visit, I met heroic priests and local Christians who—even amidst their own agonizing suffering through the brutal invasion—have loved, cared for and supported those around them. I feel that I have touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak and seen his face in the faces of the people of Irpin and Bucha.”
My friends, there’s always light if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it. On this Christmas Day, rekindle the light of Christ that abides in each one of us and carry it out into this broken world because the light came into the world and the darkness did not overcome. It didn’t then, it won’t now, it never will. That’s because Christ came, and Christ lives—in you and in me. Merry Christmas. Amen.