“Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him. Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.” These “Comfortable Words” first appeared in the Anglican Prayer Book in 1549 and are present after the Confession in our Rite I service. In medieval masses, there was no General Confession since forgiveness was only possible at a private confession. Moreover, you could not receive eucharist unless you had been to confession. Prior to the Reformation, Eucharist was only offered on Easter, so people went to confession during Holy Week. Reformers desired weekly eucharists, so the general confession was introduced. The Comfortable Words underpinned the absolution that had just been announced.
~Dr. Gil Haas, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
"GOING PUBLIC" - GENESIS 1:1-5 AND MARK 1:4-11 - FR. JOSEPH ALSAY, ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
~Excerpts of a Sermon Delivered
The Reverend Joseph C. Alsay, Rector, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord
January 10, 2021
Genesis 1:1-5 and Mark 1:4-11
Well, the politics races of 2020-21 are finally done and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Right?
But, you have to admire those people who offer themselves for public service. Their private lives are scrutinized and analyzed. I’m thinking particularly of the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta the church of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, along with Jon Ossoff won the two Senate seats that were up for grabs in Georgia. His theological stances and prophetic role as pastor and preacher in the African-American Church was dissected and put under a microscope. Every word of his sermons where he dared to speak truth to power and to raise up the needs of those downtrodden were parsed and examined.
Perhaps we all have a private side and a public side. It raises the question, “Do you feel that your faith is too personal to discuss?” Are you unsure how others would react? Or is it something you have a hard time putting into words?
We normally think that of Jesus beginning his public ministry at about age thirty. Knowing that one’s life span was much shorter then, and that couples married very young, you wonder what Jesus was up to from his mid-teens to age thirty.
And then he goes public. He approaches John to be baptized, then there’s one of those defining, life-changing moments. The heavens are torn open. The Spirit of God descends like a dove. And God’s voice thunders forth: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It’s an awesome moment. Was it public?
Did everyone hear it?
Or was it only for Jesus?
Was it a personal spiritual experience or a public manifestation, an epiphany?
Baptism isn’t just a family affair and a rite of passage. It is being incorporated into a new family of faith, the body of Christ.
It is going public.
The Rev. Dr. James Wallis is a well-known, progressive evangelical. Some of you recognize his book: God’s Politics” Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” He talks about struggling as a teen-ager with his experience of Christianity as a very personal faith in Jesus and getting saved for heaven. He left the church for a while before he returned to a Christianity based in the Sermon on the Mount and a radical Jesus who inspired early Christians with a message of change that affected everything: personal, spiritual, political, economic.
Now the point Wallis makes is this: God is personal, but never private.
Baptism is only the beginning. It is for life. Its power shapes all our decisions and the way we look at the world. No wonder we return to our baptism throughout our lives.
That’s why during this Epiphanytide we will re-affirm our baptismal covenant. We commit ourselves to live among God’s faithful people.
We are meant to be together. To encourage and support one another in our life of faith. To challenge one another and to learn from one another.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? his last book before his assignation in 1968. He isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a house in Jamaica with no telephone, and labored over his final manuscript. In this prophetic work, he lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America's future.
MLK, lifted up, as he did so many times before the Beloved Community of God. A community that Jesus spoke of. The community Jesus taught us to pray, and to work, and to labor for; that Beloved Community, that reign of God's love in our time and in our world.
A community devoid of chaos?
Last Wednesday, we watched the insurrection in this nation. The chaos of people, enraged by a web of lies they live in as if it were reality, attacking the Capitol, trying to overturn an election. For some, it was hard to believe. These were the things, some smugly thought, that happen in other places. Not here.
Maybe you, like me, despair at the chaos and hatred and violence spreading across our nation, trampling the vulnerable, and wonder where God’s Spirit is now?
Then I recall the words that were read earlier from the Hebrew Scriptures. How in the beginning God breathed over chaos and darkness and brought light and order into being. God created “Community from Chaos.” Worlds, stars, beings of all kinds were breathed into life by God. And that creation, filled with the very Breath of the eternal God, embodied God’s being.
When the Holy Spirit, the breath of the Triune God, breathes into this world, beauty and justice and hope and love and life happen.
Just because you don’t see the Spirit all the time doesn’t mean God isn’t breathing into our world today. God breathes over chaos and a beautiful creation is born. God breathes into Jesus and a mission to heal and save the world is begun.
That is our task. That is why God saves us. So that we might praise God and tell others about what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ.
To put it simply to live in the very same love we have experienced in Christ.
To seek the lost, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those who are in prison, welcome the stranger and the outcast, heal the sick, and bear witness to the one who loves us.
It is to work for justice- God’s justice- in the world.
It is to look for every possible opportunity to act with compassion, kindness, mercy and forgiveness in the course of our lives.
If we, as the baptized, as the church, as the body of Christ, truly live up to this calling- we will not only change the world, but people will take note of what we are doing!
~ Fr. Joseph C. Alsay, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
And now in the name of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In another time of national crisis, another time of danger for our nation, in 1865 on March the fourth, Abraham Lincoln concluded his second inaugural address with these words:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Lincoln knew in that moment, in the moment of a national crisis, a moment of great danger, that such a moment was a moment of decision, when a nation, when a people must decide who shall we be? What kind of nation, what kind of people shall we be? A hundred years later, Martin Luther King faced the same reality. Who shall we be? The civil rights movement was waning. The great victories that had been won had been won. And yet now questions of poverty and economic despair and disparities raised an awesome specter on the nation. We were at war.
We were at war in another country, but there was war on our streets. The nation was deeply divided. Cities burned. There were riots. Riots at national conventions of political parties. The future of the nation was in question, and it was at that time that Dr. King realized that in moments of danger, a decision must be made. And he titled his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community. I believe as he believed, as Abraham Lincoln believed, as I believe you believe, that we must choose community. Chaos is not an option. Community is our only hope.
The truth is Dr. King spoke often of all that he did and labored for was for the purpose of realizing as much of the Beloved Community of God as it is possible on this earth. He spoke of Beloved Community, the Bible, the New Testament, Jesus spoke of the kingdom or the reign of God. Jesus taught us to pray, and to work, and to labor for that Beloved Community, that reign of God's love in our time and in our world, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth just as it is in heaven. Those are our marching orders from Jesus himself.
I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth because I believe that his way of love and his way of life is the way of life for us all. I believe that unselfish, sacrificial love, love that seeks the good and the welfare and the well-being of others, as well as the self, that this is the way that can lead us and guide us to do what is just, to do what is right, to do what is merciful. It is the way that can lead us beyond the chaos to community.
Now, I know full well that this may to some sound naive, to others, idealistic, and I understand that. And yet, I want to submit that the way of love that leads to beloved community is the only way of hope for humanity. Consider the alternative. The alternative is chaos, not community. The alternative is the abyss of anarchy, of chaos, of hatred, of bigotry, of violence, and that alternative is unthinkable. We have seen nightmarish visions of that alternative. We saw it in Charlottesville just a few years ago when neo-Nazis marched through the streets of an American city, chanting, "Jews will not replace us." That alternative is unthinkable. We saw it in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where a public safety officer knelt with his knee on the neck of another human being. A child of God, just like he was, and snuffed out the breath of life that God gave him. The alternative is unthinkable.
And we have seen it this past Wednesday, when a monument to democracy, the Capitol of the United States of America was desecrated and violated with violence by vandals. Lives were lost. A nation was wounded. Democracy itself was threatened. My brothers and sisters, this way of love that Jesus taught us when he said, "Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself." This way of love that Moses taught even before Jesus. This way of unselfish, sacrificial love, it is the way to redeem a nation, to save a world. It is the way of hope for us all. But do not make the mistake of thinking that I speak of a sentimental and emotional love.
Jesus spoke of love most consistently the closer he got to the cross. This way of love is the way of sacrifice, the way of unselfishness, the way of selflessness, that seeks the good of the other as well as the self. And that is the way of the cross, which is the way of life. And if you don't believe me, ask another apostle of love. Not Dr. King, not Abraham Lincoln, ask Archbishop Tutu. Ask one who has given his life for the cause of God's love in the way of Jesus. Ask him; ask Nelson Mandela in your mind. Ask them what love looks like. They knew that the way of love was the only way that could guide South Africa from what could have become a bloody nightmare and civil war to the way that could build a nation.
And it was not sentimental. Remember truth and reconciliation. They had to face painful truths. They had to do what was just and what was merciful. They had to do what the prophet Micah said, that the motivation and the guide was love. Archbishop Tutu said this:
Love, forgiving, and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones is not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back or turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness of the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse for a while. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring forth real healing. Superficial reconciliation only brings superficial healing.
This is the way of love that can heal our hurts, that can heal our land, that can help us to become one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. So, I would ask you to do two things. I'm asking you to make a commitment, a renewed commitment, to live the way of love as Jesus has taught us and to do it by making a commitment to go out and bless somebody. Bless somebody you disagree with. Bless somebody you agree with. But to go out and bless somebody by helping somebody along the way. Go out and bless somebody by listening to their story and their life. To go out and be an instrument of God's peace, an agent of God's love.
And then I would ask you to pray. Pray for this nation but pray with some specificity. Pray that we may have the wisdom and the courage to love.
God of grace and God of glory,
on thy people pour thy pow’r.
Crown thine ancient church’s story,
bring her bud to glorious flow’r.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of this hour
With malice toward none, with charity toward all. With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right. Let us strive to finish the work, the work that we are in. To bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan. To do all which may achieve and cherish, a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
God love you. God bless you. And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love.
The St. Augustine Menorah - From Advent 2020 - Fr. Joseph Alsay, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
From Fr. Joseph Alsay, Rector, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
The inception of St. Augustine’s menorah began years ago when I visited St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. At its high altar two massive 12 foot menorahs reside. I dreamed of a day when I could have something similar (albeit on a smaller scale) created for St. Augustine's. Last fall, the dream began to materialize. During a visit to Bill and Edith Kenney’s house, I was complimenting some iron work that her brother had done. Edith mentioned Michael was very skilled. I then shared my idea to, one day, have a large menorah commissioned for SAC. This led to a discussion about when and why it would be used.
During Advent/Christmas seasons, we look towards the One born to be the “light of the world.” This One was born of a Jewish mother and foretold by Hebrew prophets. It's a time when the use of light is so prevalent in religious celebrations: Hannukah, Diwali, Christmas and Kwanza. So, for me, the creation and use of a symbol showing our biblical ties to our Jewish forebearers and light would apropos during Advent as we await with expectation the One who would save us and all Israel.
Once the menorah was settled on, the conversation then shifted to whether it would be a nine or seven-branched menorah. If a nine-branched menorah (Jewish) was to be created it could only be used during Hannukah and that celebration varies year to year. The other issue, I wrestled with, was if the use of a Hanukkiah menorah would be seen as religious appropriation -- something Christians should avoid.
I felt the use of a seven-branched menorah would be best. First, such a menorah was commanded by God for Moses to use in the tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-40; 27:21). It also was used later in the Temple in Jerusalem by the people of Israel as a symbol of God’s presence and light long before the Star of David (I Samuel 3:3; Zechariah 4:2).
Secondly, it's important to note that a seven-branched candlestand or lamps are mentioned in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 1:13-20 and 4:5, Jesus is standing in the midst of the lampstands which represent the seven spirits or churches of Asia. Some theologians would assert the shape of a menorah is reminiscent of the “Tree of Life” from the Genesis creation story.
Finally, when you look at SAC’s menorah in relation to Advent paraments that I had created 10 years ago, you will notice the ambo antependium has the branch of Jesse’s tree, a Star of David, a rose and a Chi – Rho symbol (first two Greek letters for the word “Christ”) appliqued on it. Thus, the work of catechesis takes place, and the “picture” or “story” of Advent is completed.
So, after many hours of work and revamping of designs, on the Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent 2020, Michael Happ drove from Wichita, Kansas, and delivered the iron menorah to St. Augustine’s with much acclaim.
THE ORIGIN AND HISTORY OF PUPPETS AND MASKS USED AT ST. AUGUSTINE'S NATIVITY PLAY, DECEMBER 2020 - FR. JOSEPH ALSAY, ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Many have asked about the 2020 Nativity Pageant and new Mask Puppets here at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church -
Puppets and masks have been in existence all around the world for thousands of years. Every country or culture has its own unique artistry and traditions expressed by beautiful and creative masks and puppets. They are used for storytelling, entertainment and all kinds of religious and cultural celebrations. Some are used to depict characters in a story; some may be used to honor those who have died; some represent animals or spirits; and still others are simply a disguise. The face is often a prominent part of a puppet that emphasizes a unique feature or characteristic of the entity that it depicts.
Today’s Nativity story is told through the use of custom-made theatrical puppets, each operated by two puppeteers. The story is recounted by a humble shepherd who witnessed the unfolding of the night of Jesus’ birth (the Nativity) as an event of miraculous – larger-than-life – proportions. You will see that the faces are by far the most prominent part of our three oversized creations: Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. Each face is based on art representing a specific ethnic background. This is meant to celebrate not only the diversity but also the interconnectedness prevalent in the world, and which is also reflected in the people of St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church.
Mary – The face of this puppet was inspired by the icon of Our Lady of Ferguson (2016), created by Mark Doox and commissioned by the Rev. Mark Francisco Bozzuti-Jones. The icon depicts the Madonna as African American and was created in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri in 2016. Archeologists and anthropologists have long believed that all cultures in the world emanated from Africa. Thus, depicting Mary -- the mother of the church and all humanity -- as black, or African American, is poignant.
Joseph – This puppet was inspired by the love the Latina and Latina X communities hold for St. Joseph, guardian of our Lord. It is a well-known fact that within the first decade of the conquest of Mexico by Spain, St. Joseph was held in great devotion. In fact, Joseph was proclaimed patron of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (present-day Mexico, Central America and the Philippines). The [name of artwork] was used as the model for the face of this puppet.
Baby Jesus – This puppet was inspired by our desire to honor the native American people and the land that this great congregation was born and built upon. As many of us know, the name “Oklahoma” means, Red People and our state is known as being the place where the Trail of Tears found its end.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that now -- as we are wearing masks for protection during the coronavirus pandemic -- we are taking a new look in a new way at masks that were used long before they became a part of the 2020 daily wardrobe! Our beautiful puppet creations were made possible by the gracious contribution of Melissa and John Miller and created by Toni Mikulka, of “Giant Puppets Save the World” in Oakland California.
~ Fr. Joseph Alsay, Rector - St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
THE FEAST DAY AND HISTORY OF WILLIAM LAUD, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY - WRITTEN BY DR. GIL HAAS, ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
In 1633, William Laud was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by England’s king Charles I. Laud supported liturgical practices that today would be labeled “high church”. He defended the continuity of the English Church with the medieval Church (i.e. Catholic), and he supported the wearing of surplices, the placing of the communion table—railed off from the congregation—at the east end of the chancel, and bowing at the mention of the name of Jesus. All of these actions seemed to Puritans as popery and may have promulgated their exit to the New World. Laud visited every church in England to censure Protestant ministers. However, Laud did have some commonality with Puritans including the unrelenting quest for the godly life and the hatred of corruption and extravagance. During the Civil War, Laud was accused of treason in 1640, and he was imprisoned in 1641. In 1644 he was brought to trial, but it proved impossible to point to any specific action that was truly treasonable. Parliament eventually passed a bill under which Laud was beheaded at 71 years of age on January 10, 1645 Today (January 10) is the date of his feast day on the Episcopal calendar.
~Dr. Gil Haas, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
AND A LIGHT SHINES IN THE DARKNESS - REFLECTIONS ON LESSONS AND CAROLS - DEACON INTERN TODD OLBERDING, ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
9 Lessons and Carols has been and remains the story of Light.
And it is a story of our call to witness to the Light .
Once again, Father Joseph has reminded us of a hidden gem - Hymn 82.
Of the Father's love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!
“Of the Father's love begotten” is also known as DIVINUM MYSTERIUM. It is one of the oldest melodies in our tradition. First published in 1582, the melody dates from the 1200s. The text was written in the 300s after the Council of Nicea. The early Church wrestled, as we might, with their understanding of the Trinity. The belief in the trinity was established in the hymn's opening line when it affirms that Christ is both human and divine.
This song seems a perfect bookend to our last lesson. John tells us that God has always been and always will be. The Love that was shared with us in and through Christ cannot be destroyed.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
While this is one of my favorite readings, I did a double take when I read “the darkness did not comprehend it”. I was more familiar with language which reads “and the darkness did not overcome it.” Does darkness have mental capabilities?
Can darkness be seen as actively working against the power of light?
Against the light of Christ in the World?
At times, it is easy to be discouraged. The darkness appears to be everywhere.
Our first reading from Isaiah, from a period of about 700 years before Jesus’s birth, refers to the darkness. It speaks of “the people who walked in darkness … those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death.”
And in Matthew, we read about “Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
The first Lessons and Carols service came out of a response to darkness too. Given on Christmas Eve, 1880, Rev Benson created it to offer a “counterattraction to the public houses.” Some very dark places, I’m sure.
In 1918, the Rev. Milner-White of Kings College revised the service to what we often hear today. He too was aware of the presence and power of darkness. He had served as a military chaplain in WWI and had witnessed the horrors of trench warfare. He wrote:
“We feel powerless against the dream of the metal tearing its way into the bodies of poor men.”
Twenty-three percent of the members of his congregation died during the war.
As we look back on 2020, many of us may also have a sense of the darkness, living under the multiple shadows of COVID-19. The loss of so many, the isolation, the fear and anxiety.
Will darkness win?
These lessons shout – no.
NO – for they tell “of the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.”
Even in the darkness noted in Isaiah, we hear the promise of hope. The prophet foretells the coming of the Savior.
In Micah, we hear “Bethlehem, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth the One to be Ruler in Israel”. I read into that, that no matter how small we are, we can do great things too, though faith.
In our 1st reading from Luke, we participate in the love story as we hear the angel say “the LORD is with you.” You might see yourself, standing there hearing these words. In the pause that followed did the angel wonder what Mary might say? Did the angel doubt Mary’s willingness or her faith? How could she possibly be the bearer of all God’s promises? How could she ever carry the weight of the world’s deep longing in her womb. But then, as now, we might hear these words in response to our prayers, ‘the LORD is with us”.
So Mary in the stillness of her room received the promise of God. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord.”
In faith, she received and by faith she obeyed.
In our lesson from Luke, I see hope and some irony. As “the days were completed for Mary”, they were participating in a census. Even today, we still count people.
In the second chapter of Luke, verses 8-16, we again are reminded of the light. As the Shepherds are watching the flocks, the glory of the Lord shone around them.
When Milner provided the service in December of 1918, he wanted to grieve the loss of the young men. He also wanted the simple beauty of Christian worship to shine through. He said he wanted the service to focus on “color, warmth, and delight”.
And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
I think the placement of this service today provides a great lesson plan for 2021. Yes, the darkness has been and will be part of our earthly pilgrimage, BUT it will not absorb the Light. We have been called to witness to this light, to share this love which leads us from darkness into light.
As Bishop Curry reminds us, Love is not a noun, it’s a verb!
~ Deacon Intern Todd S. Olberding, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
THE FEAST OF THE HOLY NAME OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, JANUARY 1 - DR. GIL HAAS, ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Episcopalians celebrate The Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ on January 1st, the eighth day after Jesus’ birth. It was on this day that Mosaic law stipulated that male children were named and circumcised. This feast was retitled in our 1979 Book of Common Prayer as it was previously celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision. The change in the feast’s nomenclature paralleled Luke’s (Luke 2:21) stress on the naming of Jesus. Celebration of the feast dates from the Middle Ages, but it was not moved to January 1 by the Catholic Church until 2002. The Church of England celebrates the Name of Jesus on August 7th while retaining January 1st as the Feast of the Circumcision. Jesus is from the Hebrew “Joshua” meaning “Yahweh is salvation”. Devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus is derived from Philippians 2:9-11, which states that God “gave him (Jesus) the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This epistle lesson is always read on Palm Sunday, and some Anglo-Catholics acknowledge the word “bend” with a genuflection.
~ Dr. Gil Haas, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS - Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-14(15-20) - CANON ERIC COOTER AT ST. AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Christmas includes so many wonderful traditions : decorating the tree, drinking eggnog, hanging stockings, unwrapping gifts, children waiting for Santa Claus, and all those awesome Christmas stories on television and the movies. This year’s (2020) Christmas celebrations and festivities will not be traditional to say the least. A global pandemic plagues all of us, and in the midst of these days, we live in troubling and painful times. Life is different and we all long for something that looks normal. Many of us this week will try and get lost in a movie or television drama. Hopefully we will watch a story that will portray Christmas from prior years. Televised entertaining stories can, in the midst of all that has changed, allow us to experience those wonderful holidays of old.
Pre-pandemic fantasies of Christmas can be enjoyed watching stories such as: Home Alone I, II, and III, Elf, Christmas with the Cranks and Polar Express. We can be whisked away to a better time and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman and of course, the never-ending Hallmark Channel Christmas Romance Novels made for Television. These Christmas stories can help us forget just how different life is this year such as, Christmas shopping is mostly online, holiday celebrations are cancelled, and family gatherings are minimized or non-existent. Televised Christmas fantasy can give us a respite from social distancing and mask wearing, as we watch better times being played out on the screen.
Stories of Christmas
It is interesting to note that all of these Christmas stories I mentioned, follow a similar story line and all have similar beginnings, middles, and endings. Most begin with some controversy or challenge involving a close-knit family. Next, the tension of the story is somehow miraculously resolved, and finally everyone experiences unexpected joy, peace, and goodwill. Each story presents a different central character, who in the story eventually wins the day and a new era of life emerges after the Christmas Joy. One thing I find interesting about this stories is that they do not even mention the central character of the true Christmas story we Christians tell. Hallmark never mentions the real “reason for the season;” Jesus Christ. The Christmas story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, God in flesh seems to compete with, and is often the secondary narrative of the season we celebrate today. Now, when the story of the Nativity of Christ is depicted on the big screen, it is often presented to us as a picture-perfect Hallmark moment. Nonetheless, that night in Bethlehem was far from perfect. The real story of Christmas and the events of that fateful night, seem less like the perfect, fairy tale scene. That fateful night seems much more like the unimaginably difficult times in which, we find ourselves today.
There were no twinkling lights except the stars in the sky and of course, that special star that shown above the manger. There were no red paper wrapped toys, except the ones the Maggi brought from the Eastern parts of the empire. There were no elves, reindeer, or snowmen characters, but there were shepherds, sheep, donkeys, and other animals finding shelter where the Baby Jesus was laid. There were no Christmas Carols being sung in the background, save the angels who proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Jesus’ birth took place in a shabby, untidy barn with difficult circumstances for a poor family that night. This story gives us a peek into the difficulties of everyday normal life of the world’s people, in the midst of unexpected challenges and a global plague of poverty, oppression, and an oppressive empire. You see, we 21st century folks tidy Christmas up and make it almost seem surreal, as if it were a mere fairy tale or just another story on television.
The Christmas Story
Joseph, Mary, the Infant Jesus and the scene in that little town of Bethlehem is the ironic story of how God, the Creator of all we perceive, the Redeemer of our lives, and the Sustainer of all creation came among us as one of us. God came to us to close the chasm between, to bring us back to him. This act by God, humbled, and vulnerable is the good news of this story. God acted first in love, which is what God always does to reconcile and restore us.
God came to us not in power but in humility. Under the oppression of a governmentally mandated census, through which all the known world would be required to travel to their birthplace to be counted. The egotistical and narcissistic Roman Emperor Cesar, sought to place a numeric value on what and who he ruled, all as a symbol of his earthly imposing power. Now, part of the irony of the Christmas drama is that the real ruler of the world Jesus Christ, came to us as a poor little helpless baby and not a power-wielding Emperor that needed to feed his ego. The real Christmas story from its humble poverty-stricken beginnings, overturned the idea the earthly power leads to redemption. The real story of Christmas tells us that true power comes from humble, self-giving love, shared by a young family, and manifested in a baby, whose purpose and eventual mission would be to change the whole world through love.
The Humble God
There was no pomp and circumstance in this story, no social insiders, no big parties, and no consumer-influenced gifts. The first visitors to see this King of Kings were not celebrities, pop culture stars, or even political figures. There were no Kardashians, or Taylor Swift, Kanye West, or even political all-stars showing up to this event for an endorsement. At this critical world-changing event, only shepherds who herded unsavory sheep out in the fields came to sing praises to the God who came to us in the flesh. There were no bands or choirs, and definitely, no small-town Hallmark movie celebrations or parades.
The birth of Christ was like the real deal life we all live each day, and the God who brought it all into being, showed up as one of us in the middle of our muck and mire. God humbled Godself, to heal the chasm of the relationship, from which we often walk away. We often reject the pain, poverty, and difficulties of story of humble love in a manger, for the comfortable, satisfying, and safe stories for which we all long. The irony of God’s mission to bring us to love and joy is found in the path of trust and faith, even in the midst of pain and troubles.
You see, you cannot get to the joy of the Easter story without the unsavoriness of the Christmas story. You cannot get to resurrection and salvation, without the event of incarnation and the Babe in the Manger. You cannot really receive the Good News of God’s love, unless you listen to the angel, who proclaimed that night in the midst of fear, cold, and the plague of poverty and uncertainty, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” That same promise of God is being shared with all of us in the midst of the plague, in which we must make sacrifices, offer humble love, and face challenges like never before, so that we all can live and ” not be afraid.”
Reason for the Season
So, this story of humble love presented in the birth of a child is the reason we celebrate Christmas and it is the Good News that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The God who made all of us, loves us. God loves us so much that he transcended time and space and entered into the mire and muck of life as one of us, so he could show us what the love he has for us looks like, and it looks like Jesus. Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.” Jesus is the rabbi, teacher, healer, and lover of all with whom he came in contact. Jesus is God in flesh, who restored the broken, set prisoners free, and showed us the kind of self-giving love that we as his followers should strive for.
Now maybe you are thinking, “that all sounds so wonderful Canon Eric, but I am not sure I believe all of it.” “Ok,” that’s fair and thank you for being honest. So, may I suggest you take a little leap of faith in the coming year and make the story of Christ’s humble love your story. Try and live your life filled with love, forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. Live as if the story is true, because if it is true (which I believe it is), then everything in your life is going to change. However, even if it is not true (which I believe it is true), and if you live as if it is true, then everything in your life is still going to change. If each of us were to live the Christmas story in the coming year, then the world will change as well.
So, my hope for you this Christmas Eve is that you might hear this story with renewed hearing. When you leave this service for the safe distanced celebrations that you plan, I pray you go forward each day trusting your life to God. I pray you will live in humble love and listen to those holy messengers who promised so long ago, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Now that my sisters and brothers that is the real Christmas story that changed everything in history, it changes everything this day, and if you let it, it will change everything in your life, from this day forward! Merry Christmas.
Canon Eric Cooter, at St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, December 24th, 2020