The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John 1:14)
Son of God, light that shines in the dark,
Child of joy and peace,
Help us to come to you
And be born anew this holy night. (NZ Christmas Eve Prayer)
About two months ago, Elliott Schwartz was the first-born child to my niece and her husband, Taryn and David, whom I married five years ago, a month before my wife Amy died. Elliott was born in an Atlanta hospital to the joy of his new parents. However, his arrival was a surprise, since he was almost four months early! Elliott weighed in at one and a half pounds. The first picture sent to our family showed this miniature smaller-than-life doll, cradled in his mother’s arms, practically obscured by taped tubes and life-sustaining medical equipment.
It was a reprise of the Perry’s grandson Henry’s premature birth some months earlier. The miracles of modern medical care give these fragile little miniature dolls the unequivocal life support they need to survive, grow, and thrive. Circumstances around their births will always elicit stories about the miraculous and fragile nature of precious life. We are gathered tonight to remember and celebrate another special birth, two thousand years ago in Bethlehem.
As far as we know, Jewish teenager Mary birthed Jesus full term and did not experience the trauma that premature delivery entails. However, riding all that distance to Bethlehem on a donkey may have caused Jesus to arrive a little earlier than planned. I guess Joseph served as the midwife – or mid-husband – and hadn’t used Trivago to secure a proper reservation in an Inn. (Obviously, this was not a case of Planned Parenthood.)
Great Master artists, later in history, all show lovely Holy Mary, quite a bit matured Mother of God, in flowing blue garments, posing with Jesus in her arms smiling at the camera. But this first birthing of a teenager after a long trip, in some stranger’s animal stable, had to have been in some way traumatic too.
How fragile all human life is – whatever the particular circumstance. I remember vividly the births of my two beautiful daughters. The heart of God must ache for the thousands of infants being traumatized, starved and killed in many war-torn areas of the world as we speak.
The historical birth of Jesus, more than a myth, challenges us to imagine that the divine and the human were miraculously joined together, and gives us a prime opportunity to imagine how God comes into human life. Re-telling the story every year raises questions about the sanctity of our own lives, and about incarnation.
Was Jesus birth any more unique than Elliott’s, or Henry’s, or your children’s, or your own? I am not suggesting that any of us is God. I am suggesting that each of us carries a divine gene from God. I like the way the Quakers describe it as containing a “divine spark.” If spiritual genealogical testing were possible, I believe the DNA of each of us and all human life everywhere would reveal our common ancestry.
Imagine the discovery that Moslems, and Jews, and Hindus, and Buddhists, Africans, and every religious sect on planet Earth, and even on every planet in the Universe, are all related and share the God DNA! Imagine that even Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet sisters and brothers share it. If you can really stretch the imagination, even members of St. John’s in Bangor, and the Methodist and Congregational Churches just down the street are all related!
The observance of Jesus coming as light into darkness, derived from the Solstice, and from our Jewish roots in Hannukah. Christianity’s unique contribution is in the claim that Jesus lived as God-in-person, in real life for thirty-three years here with our ancestors. And that in that thirty-three year window, that unique human-divine life demonstrated how Love could save the world. Love God exclusively, and love your neighbor as yourself.
That was the message young parish priest and later Bishop Nicholas of Myra, Turkey, was demonstrating in his CTS OF loving poor children, by giving them gifts of gold coins. Francis of Asissi followed suit in his example of loving and serving the poor, and began the first practice of street theater as he directed his brothers and sisters to construct the first crèches, as a way of visualizing and teaching that the birth of Jesus was about giving life and Love to the human race.
Just as faith development is a never ending journey, and our salvation is a continuous daily enterprise, so birthing is an experience that requires repeated visitations to deliver new life. We all need to be “born again,” in the best sense of the words. We need fresh new experiences of God’s presence in our lives. And most of us wouldn’t make it without plenty of life support systems in place. That is what a local faith community does. As God’s children, we are trying to understand how the old has passed away and the unsettling, mysterious dynamic of how all things are being made new.
Son of God, Child of Mary,
Born in the stable at Bethlehem,
Be born again in us this day
That through us the world may know
The wonder of your love. (NZ Christmas Day Prayer)
I believe the Episcopal Church (and most mainline Christian denominations) are suffering birth pangs to be reborn. Much of old institutionalized Christianity has outlived its usefulness and meaning in today’s world. At the foot of the manger tonight, we ask what form God’s new kingdom will be taking.
Each of us is invited to hold the fragile Christ Child in our arms close to our hearts and to ask what new life Love’s Spirit may surprise us with in our personal lives…perhaps even prematurely, before we are quite ready, or may even feel unprepared.
Father of love,
Through your most Holy Spirit,
Mary the Jewish girl conceived your Son;
May his beauty, his humanity,
His all-transforming grace be born in us,
And may we never despise the strange and stirring gentleness
Of your almighty power. (NZ Annunciation Prayer)
Christmas Eve Sermon 2017
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Rev. Rick Cross, Priest in Charge