Christmas Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary 25 December 2009

Christmas Eve/Day Textweek

Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 96; Titus 3:4-8; Luke 2:1-20

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

What a delight it is, Christmas morning. And what a delight to cheat as well – instead of the Christmas sermon we’ve got ‘Reflection for Christmas’! That means it’s completely open-ended, we could be here all day.

‘You shall be called the Holy People’; ‘You shall be called sought out’. That’s you lot, us lot. You shall be called the holy people; you shall be called sought out. Over the season of Christmas - and it isn’t just one day - give some thought to yourself. I mean today, once you’ve got a few champagnes under your belt, give some thought to each other, but after that, push the rest to one side, take a day off, sit down and look only at yourself as ‘a Holy People’, as ‘Sought Out’.

Christmas is a mystery, which is quite helpful, because it means I don’t have to even pretend I know what it’s all about. When I first came here I delighted, as any priest would, in a community that celebrates as well as this community celebrates. Christmas is truly a delight, but I learnt something here from this community about Christmas that I doubt has been learnt in any other church, at any other Christmas – a truth was told that had amazing significance. One Christmas morning, coming through the door, someone said to me, ‘It’s Eddy’s birthday’, and something fell into place. If we could all get that we would change the shape of who we are. Today is Eddy’s birthday, 25th December. We’re not here to sing Happy Birthday to some babe in a manger. It’s not Jesus’ birthday that we celebrate today, it’s Eddy’s birthday; celebrate that. Remember that when you have a glass s of champagne, toast Eddy.

So why do people gather in churches around the world on Eddy’s birthday? Because it is a day of Divine birth - that’s what this story is about, and that’s the mystery that we still seek to understand. For many years we thought it was Jesus’ birthday, so we had little parties, and we actually couldn’t give him any gifts because according to the book he ascended, so we give them to each other instead. We’re missing the point; we’re missing the point if we see it as the birth-day of Jesus; we miss the point if we turn that child into an icon, an idol of worship. You are the ones that are ‘sought out’; you are the ones that are ‘holy’. The Divine calls you to birth this day and every day.

I’m not sure what all that means still. We really - in this place, we don’t know what we’re doing, and that’s delightful, because if we did……. We won’t go there. Let’s stay with the fact that we really don’t.

How do we decide how to celebrate? What signs will we show, what teaching will we draw together? What songs will we sing? We’re caught between two worlds – the world of the past that says ‘this is how it has always been done, do it this way’, and the world of the future that says, ‘change, be different; be birthed and be born’. It really is quite evident that we stumble towards Christmas in a wonderful way.

So who thought up this [decoration]; how did it come about? Careful planning by the liturgical committee, letters back and forward to the Archbishop to see what they’re doing in the Cathedral? In the church’s huge rush to differentiate itself from the commercialism of Christmas, we can all gather - in fact it’s nice to do it on a Sunday morning. After church, gather wherever – street corners will do, but go to cafes and ‘tut-tut’ all the people who haven’t been to church. It’s a very Anglican thing to do, it’s quite lovely. Momentarily you can feel really really really good.

We got this [the sanctuary decoration] from the commercialism of the world. Walking through Sydney and seeing a shop window - the shop was being renovated – one of those big department stores, so they decided that they would use the renovations, as well as interfering, you know when they’ve got scaffolding everywhere, they also gave something, so the whole shop window was white. Every possible thing the builders were using – the wheelbarrows, the cement mixers, everything, had been sprayed white and the window was just full of it. Beautiful scene. And walking past that window I could see the Nativity and Christmas at St Paul’s six months hence.

But it wasn’t so much strategic planning or forward thinking: something, another part had been in engaged. And as we walk around in the world that is always possible. What we see and how we see it, what is called forth from us, what is being sought out from us, what is holy in the everyday? So we shared a few ideas and started cobbling it together, and thought it’s very symbolic because we are building, we are making all things new. The Nativity scene of St Paul’s is in place: something is in process of being birthed behind this wall, beyond the church; this community is building beyond the church. We have building plans, we have schedules, time frames… the interesting thing is we’ve never sat down and said exactly what do we want it for? How will we use it? Who will use it? We are creating something that is at the same time creating us. We are moving forward with a feeling, with a knowing, rather than with a ten-point plan we can tick off as we go.

And so that was the thought – we will represent all that is building and being made new; that’s such a lovely Christmas message. And in the process we end up with icons of ourselves, of this community. And I thought, we’ve got a ladder going nowhere, we’ve got a ladder going nowhere. How many of us are on a ladder going nowhere? How many have lived their lives seeking to climb the corporate ladder, the social ladder, the real estate ladder and found themselves even getting fairly near the top where the white [fabric] suddenly takes a dive, and realised no this is not…. and yet also it could be symbolic of Jacob’s ladder.

Then we’ve got the oldies in the church – this is where I’ve got to avoid eye contact. If I say we’ve got the oldies in the church and my eyes rest on anyone I get told off afterwards. This is the oldies of the church – the wheelbarrow. They’ve finished, they’ve packed up; they’ve just leant themselves up against the ladder of prayer. Work is done; old, rusty, legs are a bit frail…. and yet turn that around and it’s still capable of holding everything it’s ever held. It is still an emptiness to be filled. It is still a thing of beauty, it still has a place, it still has a story to tell. Then look at the tools; I think there’s a stunning message in the tools that we had no idea was there. Can you imagine the week before Christmas, painting a hammer white or a shovel white? This is a really good one: have you ever done this, have you ever painted a garden rake white and silver? Has anyone done that before? No.

Well we should do things we haven’t done before; we should look at things anew, because they take on a different shape and form. The other thing is, once you change the shape and form of things, you look at them and think actually that looks nice as it is. It’s hard to imagine those tools now going back into use, back into circulation. And I wonder if that really does represent the Church. It certainly used to in the old days before they allowed thongs and singlets through the door. It just looked nice on Sunday and nothing else then happened. Because we’re traditionalists we hold onto that. We come, look nice, but the real value and worth, the Divine within that is being sought out needs to be put to work, needs to be put to use, needs to touched and handled by others.

So we put one thing together and end up with something else. We might seek to do that with Christmas. There is so much in it of such great worth and value. It is very difficult not to smile at Christmas; it is a delight to get up in the morning and forget about the stuff that makes you regular and keeps you trim, and just shove mince pies in; start the day with two mince pies, maybe three. Don’t wait for the sun to cool down before you pour yourself a drink. Eat, without looking for that heart foundation tick; just eat. Eat yourselves absolutely to the point where you cannot move. We do it and it’s a delight and there is nothing wrong with it, because what we do is we share in abundance; we actually get in touch with abundance. We had a meal last night and around the table there was a pushing away of these overloaded plates, when you know you can’t eat any more and someone is offering you the bowl of cherries, which is then followed by the chocolate, which is then followed by and followed by…. It isn’t wrong; that’s as much a sign of the world as being frugal and being careful.

Touch on the abundance, but reflect on everything. Take the opportunity to see what brings a smile to your face, what lifts up your countenance, what makes your heart sing. Enjoy the choir, but know that that voice is within you as well. Wonder at the beautiful story of birth, and know that that birth is within you. It’s a bit tricky at the moment - if you check out the news - to enjoy the nativity in its stated place of origin. If you try and get to the churches in Bethlehem at the moment, you’ll have armed guards and searches. It’s very difficult. It’s a wonderful sign – it’s not there, and it’s not in our little plastic stable. It is within: you are being sought out, for you are a holy people.

Let us rejoice in the abundance of this day; let us rejoice in the abundance of this season. Look then to the world with the story still in your mind and your heart. See how the world may be changed by what can be birthed in you.

Happy Christmas, Holy People. Happy Christmas.
Peter Humphris