Merry Christmas?

Word of a birth at the end of a war... a sermon for Christmas Eve 2011

SJF • Christmas Eve • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

Merry Christmas! I say that especially this year because our readings this evening put me in mind of the soldiers returning from their service in Iraq, able to spend Christmas with their families at the end of this long war. Other members of the armed forces remain in danger, in Afghanistan and other troubled parts of the world, and they remain in our prayers as well. God give them a moment’s peace, even in the field, to pause and listen for the angels’ voices.

We tend to look back at the first Christmas through the lenses of sentiment and sentimentality — the memories of our own childhoods blending with the borrowed traditions of Victorian England and the New York Knickerbocker Dutch. Christian though we be, and as closely as we hold on to the mystery of the Incarnation, in our culture we cannot ignore the jolly old elf Saint Nicholas — even though, as history tells us, he was a Bishop and not an elf at all, jolly or otherwise!

The plumes of steam rising from pots of hot cider or from wassail bowls may fog our glasses’ lenses; the twinkling lights obscure or distract our vision, and the jingle bells impair our hearing — all the stuff of the secular Xmas may make it hard for us to see the somewhat stark realities of that first Christmas of long ago, and of the long stretch of years leading up to it.

During the Sundays of Advent we heard readings from the book of the prophet Isaiah, from those long years of preparation; and we pick up with him again tonight. He sets the theme of a new deliverance coming at the end of another war: a time when the people enslaved and oppressed are set free, the yoke from their shoulders and rod from their back is removed.

It is a vision like something out of the end of the siege of Stalingrad — the Nazis have retreated in defeat and the victors are sorting through the plunder: scavenging the abandoned tanks and weapons for ammunition; stripping the bodies of the dead soldiers of any valuables; the piles of discarded and abandoned boots and uniforms are used to light bonfires not just for celebration, but to keep warm in that hard Russian winter.

And into this scene out of a war movie there comes word of the birth of a child: an amazing child, a wonderful child; a child who is not only a child, but the son of God, the Prince of Peace.

When we turn to our Gospel reading the scene shifts, but not really all that much. Perhaps no longer quite the time of war or open warfare, as it is a time of peace. But it is a political peace in a very political world — a world of governors — even of places like Syria, much in the news even now — and emperors of Rome, and a worldwide census mandated and decreed by Imperial authority. If it is a world at peace during the time of Caesar Augustus it is only because Caesar has conquered that world and enslaved all of its peoples under the yoke of Roman rule, and the rod of his authority —it is peace at a price.

And again, into this less than perfect world, there comes the announcement of the birth of a child — not by a prophet speaking to the returned soldiers or the liberated captives, but by a host of angels speaking to shepherds out in the fields by night keeping their flocks.

Just as we can romanticize and sentimentalize Christmas, we can do the same to these shepherds. Lets first of all note that the gospel tells us that they were terrified. Wouldn’t you be? It’s the middle of a cold, dark night — dark as it could only be out in the country in the days before the lights of cities robbed us of the ability to see the stars. You and your fellow shepherds are out in the fields keeping watch over a bunch of sleeping sheep; it is quiet as only it can be out in the country where no traffic or elevated trains rattle down the street or planes fly overhead. You huddle down to keep warm with your blanket wrapped around you, probably half sleeping — for let’s be honest: I have no reason to believe that night-watchmen were any more likely to be able to keep awake all night back then than they are now — especially outside in the dark and the cold and the silence.

And into that cold and into that darkness and into that silence there suddenly breaks forth out of the heavens the glory of God and a company of angels. Who wouldn’t be terrified?

And so just as Isaiah’s announcement of the wonderful child comes into the midst of a war-torn scene, so this announcement by the angel of God comes in a time imperial power, mass migration of peoples to comply with the mandates of that power, and a terrifying message bursting upon an unsuspecting group of poor shepherds living out in the field, minding their own business, the sheep-minding business.

The message is that the child has been born, a Savior and Messiah, the child who is also the Lord. This is a message such as we long to hear at the end of another war, in another time when the powerful rule the world and most of us have to obey their demands and pay their taxes; when we must be registered and counted — even in a land as free as ours, where the political season and the campaigning, like the Xmas season itself, seems to start earlier and earlier each year, and where we cannot miss the fact that we appear to be appreciated more for our ability to vote than for any other exercise of our citizenship.

Yet this same message is the message we long to hear: of the end of war, of liberation of captives and an end to oppression.

And you know what? We have heard it. It is the Christmas message: not just a promise made to Isaiah or a revelation to some shepherds, but the same word brought to us through the proclamation of this gospel: Isaiah promised, the angels sang, Christ came, and Christ comes still — here, and now, with and among us as surely as he came to Bethlehem in Judea; with us in our hearts as surely as he was in the manger; with us in our hands as we hold the sacred bread that is his Body, just as surely as this newborn body was held in Mary’s arms.

“Christ is born today” — and every day — at the end of a war, in a time of peace; when shepherds watch and night-watchmen sleep; when emperors rule and candidates hustle for your votes; when the skies are silent and when they rumble with the flights of helicopters and jetliners; when the night is dark and when it glows with Christmas lights — or dazzles with the light of the heavenly host. This night, this very night, the wonderful child, the Lord Jesus, is born anew: O come, let us adore him!+