Friday, December 22, 2006

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This year I have a question - what are we doing here so late at night anyway? Sometimes I have gone to church late on Christmas eve because my parents dragged me there. Sometimes I came dragging my children. I still remember the middle of a flute solo when Matthew, about 3 years old, fell asleep and rolled off the pew - that long moment of silence before the howls that still echo. Or that moment when John sang the solo for one of the Magi - he did it for years and even when he stopped, one time was called upon minutes before the Magi procession to fill in for a boy who panicked at the last moment. Or to see Kristin dressed in red cassock and white surplice carrying the cross or singing with the choir. Sometimes I did not go at all but sat home knowing something was missing but not able to get myself to church. Often I went for the music and the candles and the dark mystery of it all. As I became more active in church I went because I had a role to play - choir, eucharistic minister, priest.
Always it is about wonder - either wondering or experiencing wonder about our God who became one of us in the birth at Bethlehem. Strange name - Bethlehem - House of Bread - where God is so helpless as to depend on us for feeding and yet feeds us eternally. Wonder and Hope -- awaiting the birth and rebirth of hope in our time.
The time into which Jesus was born was a time of Empire and oppression. The Roman rule was meant to keep people in their place, the religious people both rebelled against that and cooperated with it. Some of the religious establishment feared that not cooperating would mean the end of their people, some read the scriptures as a book of rebellion against foreign rulers. There was hope that one would come to free them from Rome - a new David. Just as in our day we look for a leader to save us from ourselves. If only we have the right one - in church, in government, in communities - everything will be all perfect. How can a helpless infant show us the way? I wonder.
I wonder what the shepherds and magi were thinking when listening to angels and following stars? Who are angels we hear and what are the stars we follow to find ourselves kneeling once again in the dark this night. They lived in times of war and divisions and yet they heard and saw beyond all the chaos - heard the cry of an infant and his family gathered in a cave where the animals were kept - a place out of the way of the raucous travelers filling the inn. Heard and obeyed the angel who spoke of peace and good will. Wise ones from afar caught a glimpse of a star that proclaimed a new king - one that drew them onward across the desert and dangerous places. The shepherds and magi felt that surge of hope - is this the one - will we see a time of peace, a time when all are fed, when the hurting are healed, when we are freed from our prisons - constructed by us and by others - prisons that keep humankind from becoming all the God desires. They came to the place where Love was born into our midst, love that warms and melts our cold, hardened hearts. Love that opens us up to the love of God and love of neighbor - coming into us and going out from us. Love that clears the channels of debris of anger, self doubt, fear to allow the free flowing of that love.
This is true story from Larry Graham of a father who understood all this:
The classroom was quiet and cheerless on that dark December day, lit
only by cool fluorescent lights. Students were hunched over their final
exam papers. A secretary appeared at the door and said, "Professor
Graham, you have an urgent telephone call. I'll proctor for you while
you take it."

The call was not an unexpected one. Even so, my heart was filled with
dread as I sprinted up the stairs to the office. It was my mother
calling. My father had been hospitalized at the Kansas University
Medical Center for over a month while the doctors battled daily with
death. His youth, spent in the lead mines, the mustard gas during
World War One, and the shrapnel that still occasionally surfaced, had
all taken their toll. Now, in his late seventies, it was time.

"The doctors say come at once if you want to see him before he goes."

I graded my last papers as quickly as I could, turned in the grade
sheets, packed a bag and caught the shuttle that took me from Athens
to Atlanta, the airport and the plane to Joplin Missouri. Mother was
waiting at the tiny airport. I drove us the thirty-some miles across
the Kansas border in the darkness and bitter cold. By the time we got
to Columbus, it was almost eleven o'clock. We agreed to catch a few
hours' sleep before setting out on the long drive north to Kansas

The telephone rang at 2:30. It was the hospital. He had died
peacefully in his sleep. I replied mechanically to the questions that
began the process of "final arrangements." Mother had emerged from her
bedroom and stood there quietly. Her face was peaceful and serene.

"He's gone then?" she asked.


"God bless him on his way."

The casket was a simple one. The body, embalmed but otherwise
unprepared, showed the ravages of his final illness. It was dignified,
though, by the Army uniform and the many medals won during his
lifetime of service; and his progress through the ranks from private
to colonel.

This gentle man, my father, filled with love and acceptance for his
gay son, was gone and death was real. "Goodbye," I said. Mother kissed
him gently on the forehead and the undertaker closed the casket. The
military funeral was short and dignified.

When invited to return to our house, the military escort officer, the
sergeant and his men complied with only slight surprise. At the house,
the dining table was laden with food brought by friends and family. A
buffet luncheon ensued. There were stories, and laughter, and tears.
It ended with popping Champagne corks.

Mother gave the toast, "God bless Rusty," she said.

Cards were arriving in the mail. Some were Christmas cards, some were
condolence cards and some were 50th wedding anniversary cards. Dad had
died on the evening of that important event.

"What about a tree?" Mother wanted to know. I said I didn't feel like
putting one up, but I knew that dad would want us to soldier on. "He'd
have a fit if we didn't." was Mother's response to that. So we decided
on a small one.

I was just putting the last of the ornaments in place when the UPS
truck stopped in front of the house. A very large box, shipped from a
Kansas City department store, was delivered to the door. I signed for
it and brought it inside.

"What on earth?" Mom said.

"Dunno," I replied and began to open it. From his deathbed, dad had
contacted a personal shopper. Orders were given and complied with.
After church on Christmas eve we sat near the tree, opening gifts from
a dead man. The love that conquers death warmed my heart then.

It warms it still.

This is the hope we have - that the Love of God in Christ conquers death and frees us to become the people of God. That in this birth we are renewed in that love.

Children know it - they know that kisses make things well. Even at their worst they can suddenly turn to us and say "I love you." One little boy came to the altar one Christmas with his palms up to receive communion -- he had "I love" on one palm and "You" on the other - all neatly written upside down so it would be readable to the one giving him communion. He knew what it was all about. That's it - simple.

As Christina Rossetti says in the words to our hymn #84

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and neighbor,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Or as Fra Giovanni, wrote in 1513:
No heaven can come to us unless our hearts can find rest in today…
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant.
Take Peace!
The gloom of the world is but a shadow.
Behind it yet within our reach is Joy.
There is radiance and glory in the darkness,
could we but see and to see we have only to look.
Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering,
cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard.
Remove the covering and you will find it a living splendor,
woven in love, by wisdom, with power.
Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the Angel's hand that brings it to you.
Life is so full of Meaning and Purpose, so full of Beauty -
beneath its covering -
that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven.
Courage then to claim it: that is all!
And so, at this Christmastime, we greet you.
Not quite as the world sends greetings,
but with profound esteem
and with the prayer that for you now and forever,
the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.

So why do we come? We come, once again - to have our hope restored, to enter into another year, to know the One who enters our lives, walks the journey with us, and loves us beyond all knowing.