Christmas

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December 24, 2016

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

This analogy works for everyone on earth with eyesight. We know what darkness is, and light.

Darkness is deep woods on a moonless night. Late one afternoon, my brother-in-law Jim Theus hiked up a familiar trail in the Carolina mountains. Enjoying the view, he forgot about the time. At dusk, he reached for his phone to use the flashlight. From the pocket where he’d thought he felt the phone, he pulled out his pocket calendar instead. No phone, no light, no jacket; in minutes he was enveloped by night. Cold and confused, he lost the trail and every step he took felt dangerous. Cliffs, drops, and diamondbacks were on his mind. Jim’s dog, Neighbor, stayed close for comfort and protection. Man and dog laid down and curled up for warmth, and waited for dawn.

What is darkness, metaphorically? If some of you are thinking “sin,” I couldn’t disagree. “This world, so full of sins—who can count them?” Marilynne Robinson wrote that. But for darkness tonight I think first of sorrow. The first I knew of it was by family hearsay. I grew up on the story of my father’s mother’s death in childbirth. Margaret Keller was her name. Dad was eight years old. His father, a parish priest, was left bereft to care for him and his tiny newborn brother. “Show me a rooftop and I’ll show you a heartbreak” an old woman told me as I was starting out in ministry. This world, so full of rooftops, who can count them?

Robinson’s novel Gilead is the story of a pastor who had lost his wife in childbirth. Their baby lived just long enough to be baptized, then she died too. For decades, he soldiered on alone into old age until one stormy Sunday morning Lila, a young woman he had never seen before, ducked into his church for shelter. Lila was accustomed to the woods at night both metaphorically and literally. The old pastor loved her instantly. One day she said to him: “You ought to marry me.” Describing that moment later to their son, he wrote: “It was the most thrilling thing that ever happened to me in my life. I could wish you such a moment as that one was, though when I think of everything that came before it, for me and for your dear mother, I’m not sure I should.”

Our faith has a complex, calibrated, symbiotic understanding of the interplay of light and darkness in creation. The latter deepens our appreciation for the former. (By contrast, Good Friday brightens Easter.) Light is God’s will. (It was God’s decision to make light and life from nothing. They carry divine imprimatur while darkness and death do not.) The things of this world in and of themselves are good. It is when they perish, or are hidden, or are hurt, that we speak of darkness. The light is such that darkness cannot overcome it. As Christians, we believe all that.

To one caught in the woods after dark in Carolina mountains, Christmas is cloudless sky, bright stars, full moon.

God from God and light from light, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary.

That is Christmas in the creed. Defending creeds and dogmas, Flannery O’Connor called them “the guardians of mystery.” To the meaning of Christmas, the creed is Joseph: spare, stark, protective. Scripture is its mother Mary: beautiful and tender.   

And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger. That’s our gospel.

Heavens rejoice and the earth is glad. Woods and fields are joyful. That’s our psalm.

Every good thing and thrill in life applauds for Christmas.

Is Jesus truly God incarnate—can we believe that? I wouldn’t if we couldn’t and I do. As one who has spent a lot of time in books, I will tell you that after history, philosophy and science have had their say and the books are closed, the question of truth is left open. Remarkably, the facts of life are such that when all the evidence is in we’re faced with the choice: to believe, or not. Therefore, faith lives in a blend of knowledge, desire, and courage. “If I only had a brain, a heart, the nerve . . .”

Karl Barth was a big-brained guardian of mystery: an expert in philosophy and well schooled in science and history. When a student asked him to summarize and justify his faith, he thought hard and answered: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

While some Christian thinkers emphasize the humanity of Jesus—like this window on my left, and the wooden carving above our altar; and others prioritize the divinity of Christ—like this window on my right, and the one above the wooden carving; Barth declared that Jesus Christ is altogether human; altogether God. In Christ we meet the “union of opposites.” He said the Bible told him that too. I love how this room brings the opposites together to communicate that mystery. 

Christ comes as lion and lamb to find us in the woods. It's as though we are deaf, blind and shivering on the ground, not knowing which way to walk. He opens our ears and eyes, helps us to our feet, and leads us home.

In the Bible, Jesus often wraps his gifts within their opposites. “Blessed are those who mourn,” he says. “Those who lose their lives will find them.” In that vein, Barth writes that in Christ we “hear in deafness” and “see in blindness.” Our imperfect spiritual sensing mechanisms need some help. From Christ, they get it.

In literal deafness, part of the truth and beauty that surrounds us is not sensible to our receptors. The deaf don’t lack for words. We get words through sight, or even touch, as well as by hearing. When my sister lost her hearing, with effort and retraining she still got words. What she had absolutely lost was music. By eyesight we cannot appreciate the difference between harmonica and pipe organ and Pavarotti sounds the same as Taylor Swift.

Sorrow is like deafness. Love cries out and hears no answer. It is as though our loved ones are no more. Holidays intensify the absence. Memories of Christmas past crowd in.

Julie and I were paid a visit this month by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—the spirit who led Scrooge to the churchyard and showed him his grave. For a long time, we had been on a waiting list at Mt. Holly Cemetery. There was no room at the inn. This did not concern us. Treadway Garden would also be just fine. Then Julie got a call from the Mt. Holly sexton. Two plots—just right for us—had been returned and were now available. Would we like to have a look? I was in meetings so Julie went without my knowing what she was up to. There was ample precedent for this. Julie has always headed up our real estate department. More than once, she’s bought us a house I haven’t seen. So Julie went to Mt. Holly and she took her purse.

This is what she found. These two plots had previously belonged to William Moore and Elizabeth Gardner Hall Clark—Billy Moore and Bicky. It was their son Bill who had decided to return them. Looking them over, Julie noticed Billy Moore and Bicky’s graves, side by side, just across some boxwoods.

Here’s what that means to me. My family moved to Little Rock in 1967 when my father was elected Bishop. He was elected mid-summer. My parents couldn’t move until October. That fall, I would be starting seventh grade at Pulaski Heights Junior High. It would be better for me, my parents knew, if, like Dorothy, I could begin the junior high brick road at the beginning. But where would I stay and who would keep me? The answer was Billy Moore and Bicky Clark—my parents’ longtime friends from Little Rock. I vividly remember that drive up Cantrell Hill to their house on Edgehill Road and how they welcomed me to Little Rock with open arms. That was Monday. Come Sunday morning, they brought me to church at Trinity Cathedral. It was on that Sunday, in September 1967, here on these Cathedral steps, that Billy Moore Clark introduced me to a pretty girl named Julie.

There is another part of what this connection means to me. Bicky Clark would die by her own hand. I was by then in high school, and I remember that just as vividly: a black day in Little Rock. My father the Bishop went to see Billy Moore his friend. For pain like his, no words are adequate and my father was a pastor of few words in any case. In grief, the words don’t work. Only music we cannot hear could truly comfort. But Dad did say one thing, and something in the way he said it must have hinted at that music, because Billy Moore clutched his words and held on to them for dear life. You can read them in Mt. Holly,  carved in marble now on both Bicky’s grave and Billy Moore’s.  “Love wins in the end,” my father said. The words were not original—others have said that; and they are profound only in the fact that they are true. Still, when Julie told me where our bodies would someday be put to rest, close by to whom, I remembered those words and even though I couldn’t hear the organ I could feel its rumble. “Hope,”  we call it. Hope opens our ears to mysterious communion with those we love but see no longer. Hope is God’s gift to us tonight for Christmas.

Hope is how we hear. Love is how we see. Jeremy Taylor, an old Anglican poet said that: “In heaven indeed we shall first see, and then love; but here on earth we must first love, and love will open our eyes as well as our hearts, and we shall then see and perceive and understand.”

Martin Luther King, also a poet, called love “the most durable power,” the highest good, and the principle that stands at the center of the cosmos. “He who hates does not know God,” said Dr. King (whatever their religion); but the one who loves participates in God’s own being. “God is love.” The Bible tells us so, and Christmas sets those words to music.  

 

What is love? When I put on my Scarecrow thinking cap and decide that what’s good for you matters just as much as what’s good for me; when my Tin Man heart desires your happiness; when I get my Lion’s tail in gear to give it to you—then I love you. Love is priceless but it isn’t rare. Back at home your Christmas trees are loaded with it, ready for unwrapping in the morning. Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow have been busy helping Santa Claus.

“Love wins in the end.”

The wood is dark but tonight our eyes are open, our hearts are full, and our nerve is strong. There is Christmas moonlight on our path: Along this path, as the old poet said, “the mysteries of godliness shall be opened unto us, clear as the windows of the morning.”

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