Christmas I Year C
27 December 2015 Colossians 3:12-17
Ashland UCC Luke 2:41-52
The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett
In the name of the Holy One who has come to us as one of us: Emmanuel!
I have to admit that I love the Sunday after Christmas Eve. It reminds me of the morning after a big party. All the guests have gone – some of whom, bless their hearts, we don’t see very often except on Christmas and Easter. Today we’re back to family. There’s plenty of room – we didn’t need to pull out all the extra chairs this morning. But the decorations are still up and looking so good – thanks to all of you who made that happen. And the great hoo-hah of Christmas Eve went off so beautifully – thanks to Paula and all the children who made the Christmas Story happen before our eyes once more, and thanks so much to Rob for all his hard work of preparation and rehearsal, and thanks to all who sang in the choir and thanks to the readers who all read so well, and thanks to the candle-lighters and the greeters and the ushers and all those who behind the scenes scrambled to solve last-minute problems (just where are the extra matches kept, anyway?! And has anyone found the handheld microphone yet?) – to say nothing of Tege – well, let’s definitely do say something about Tege, who managed to produce flawless bulletins to cover all the extra services and hold everything together with such smiling grace.
I had such a good time with you this year. And just think: In five more Sundays, Christina and her family will be here! Talk about a Christmas present! You have waited so patiently and faithfully done your work of preparation so well for this next chapter of the life of this remarkable congregation, and your wait is nearly over.
So in joyful anticipation of a gift you know you’ll very soon be receiving, and now that today the big Christmas Eve party is over and we’re back to family, let’s kick off our shoes and keep it simple today and gather around the fireplace and tell a favorite family story or two.
Do you know the one about the Sunday School class who were drawing their own pictures of the Nativity? The teachers thought it was a great way for the kiddos to learn the characters in the story. Little Jimmy proudly showed his drawing – there was Mary, in blue, and the baby Jesus in the food trough, and Joseph, dressed in brown – (have you ever wondered why Joseph always has to wear brown? It’s a mystery to me…) – and there was an angel up in the rafters, and a cow and a sheep and a shepherd and a wise guy or three. “Who is this?” the teacher asked, pointing to a little roly-poly figure at the edge of the paper. “Oh,” said Jimmy, “that’s Round John Virgin.”
Isn’t that great? Just include round John Virgin in the scene and so many difficult theological and gynecological problems go away.
Okay, here’s another Christmas story as told by a little girl named Emma, written down by author John O’Shea just as he heard it.
She was five, sure of the facts, and recited them in slow solemnity convinced every word was revelation. She said:
‘They were so poor they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat and they went a long way from home without getting lost. The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady.
They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an ass (hee-hee) but the Three Rich Men found them because a star lighted the roof. Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them.
Then the baby was borned. And do you know who he was?’
Her … eyes [grew as big] as silver dollars.
‘The baby was God!’
And she jumped in the air, whirled around, dove into the sofa and buried her head under the cushion, which is the only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation. (1)
So while the child in each of us should be jumping up and whirling around and diving under sofa cushions on this First Sunday of Christmastide in response to the Good News of the Incarnation, I suppose it’s too much to ask of us at the moment – though you might consider it when you go home.
Christmastime evokes within us memories of all the years, all the other Christmases of our lives. Some of those memories are bittersweet and some bring smiles and maybe tears and often laughter.
Do you remember the Christmas Santa brought your red bike? (My husband was 41 when he finally got his red bike for Christmas. His face shone like a ten-year-old boy’s.) Then there was the Christmas the whole family was sick with the flu. And the Christmas my brother got a hand-crocheted nose-warmer from an ancient great-great-aunt so distant even my mother couldn’t quite place her. Do you see where this holy season leads us? One moment I am six years old and sitting in my mother’s lap and the next, I am at the early Christmas Eve service serving at the altar while my two young boys, unsupervised in the pew take turns with their hand-held candles trying to singe each other’s hair.
And it’s the same for you, no matter how many Christmases you’ve lived. We all have memories of Christmas pas, some full of sweet joy, others taut with tension, one in which some adult drank way too much and things turned sour for everyone, the Christmas shadowed by grief, the ones which we treasure in our heats because somehow in the midst of it all, Love shone through and even our own faces glowed as if lit up from within. It’s all a hallowed human jumble this holy season.
A wise minister once asked his congregation on Christmas Eve, when the lights were turned down low and all the upturned faces were softened by candlelight. He leaned over the pulpit, light glittering on his glasses, and asked, “What do you want for Christmas? What do you really want?”
What do we really want for Christmas? A middle-aged man put his finger on it years ago when he wrote: “We want to be five years old again for an hour. We want to laugh a lot, and cry a lot. We want to be picked up and rocked to sleep in someone’s arms. And we want to be carried up the stairs to bed just one more time.” Which reminds me of something someone else once said: “Our longing is our holiness.” Our longing is our holiness.
Okay, another Christmas pageant story. My very favorite pageant story is too long to tell, but you can read it – or remember it — from John Irving’s masterpiece, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Tiny Owen Meany, so small in stature, was made to play baby Jesus in the Christmas pageant…and things went downhill from there. You’ll have to read it for yourself.
But the story I’m about to tell isn’t from John Irving but from a minister by the name of William Muehl, who may or may not still be alive, I don’t know. I heard this story a long time ago.
“There were days and weeks of preparation for the pageant,” writes the minister who was also the father of one of the children. Costumes were taken out of boxes and refurbished. New angel wings were cut out of cardboard and sprinkled with gold and silver spangles. Parts were assigned. An eleven-year-old Joseph and Mary were chosen. Shepherds brought their bathrobes. Crooks were found. At the dress rehearsal, there was the predictable chaos. It was especially hard to get everybody in their proper place up around the altar at the manager scene. Shepherds kept crowding out the angels, and wise men fell over the lambs. In desperation, the director got out a roll of masking tape and marked “X”s on the floor and labeled each X with each child’s name, so everyone would know exactly where to stand. That helped.
Christmas Eve arrived, the procession went beautifully, all the performers began to silently gather round the manager in front of the altar. All of a sudden was heard a loud, exasperated cry from one small bath-robed shepherd: “Some damned angel is standing on my cross!”
And of course the little exasperated shepherd was the minister’s son.
Can you take one more Christmas pageant story? I know I may be pressing the limit. This is the last one, promise. It is told by Fred Buechner about a friend of his, who became a beloved Episcopal bishop of mine back in Missouri years and years ago. Before Hays Rockwell became our bishop, he had been the rector of a large Episcopal Church in New York City. It was Christmas Eve.
The manger was down in front at the chancel steps where it always is. Mary was there in a blue mantle and Joseph in a cotton beard. The wise men were there with a handful of shepherds, and of course in the midst of them all the Christ child was there, lying in the straw. The nativity story was read aloud by my friend with carols sung at the appropriate places, and all went like clockwork until it came time for the arrival of the angels of the heavenly host as represented by the children of the congregation, who were robed in white and scattered throughoutthe pews with their parents.
At the right moment they were supposed to come forward and gather around the manger and say “Glory to God in the highest, good will among men,” and that is just what they did except there were so many of them that there was a fair amount of crowding and jockeying for position, with the result that one particular angel, a girl about nine years old who was smaller than most of them, ended up so far out on the fringes of things that not even by craning her neck and standing on tiptoe could she see what was going on. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men,” they all sang on cue, and then in the momentary pause that followed, the small girl electrified the entire church by crying out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Let Jesus show!”
There was a lot of the service still to go, but my friend the rector said that one of the best things he ever did in his life was to end everything precisely there. “Let Jesus show!” the child cried out, and while the congregation was still sitting in stunned silence, he pronounced the benediction, and everybody filed out of the church with those unforgettable words ringing in their ears.
To me, that sums it all up – our mission as a church, our ministry as disciples. “Let Jesus show!” And I also like to think that whenever we have trouble finding our way, it helps to look for the angel who is standing on the cross that has our name on it, waiting for us to claim it. And like little Emma, I pray not one of us will ever be too old to occasionally jump in the air, twirl around, and dive into the sofa cushions, overcome once more by the Mystery of the Incarnation.