Susan Russell on Christmas Eve, Saturday, December 24, 2016:
“Be what you see. Here. Now. And then remember what you’re called to be in the days, weeks and months ahead: Be the Hope that rebellions are built on.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among all people.”
And there you have it. The familiar words that conclude the Christmas Story in Luke’s gospel echo in our ears once again on this Christmas Eve as we gather surrounded by light and beauty and music and community to celebrate the mystery of Christmas. We welcome again the promise of new life in the birth of this Christmas baby. We wonder again at the power of a love great enough to triumph over death and we claim a Christmas Truth greater than any of the traditions it inspires: the mystical longing of the creature for the creator — the finite for the infinite — the human for the divine.
It is a longing that transcends culture, religion, language and custom — a longing that is represented tonight for us as Christians in the baby in the manger — the sudden, amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace: a God who loved us enough to become one of us. Yes, we manifest the wonder of Christmas in the gifts given, the meals shared, the gathering of family and loved ones. But the greater wonder is that the God who is love incarnate came down at Christmas to be among us as one of us. Came to show us how to share that love with a world in desperate need of it – to a world yearning for the “peace on earth, good will among all people” the angels proclaimed.
I’ve been preaching one version or the other of this Christmas sermon for twenty years now – and listening to other people preach versions of it for about sixty. And in all those years I truly don’t remember a year when the yearning was greater – when the longing was more collective – when the chasm between the hope of “peace on earth, good will to all” and the reality of the world around us seemed greater.
And so this year – for me – has been a year when the circle of candles on our Advent wreaths have pierced the darkness surrounding us not just metaphorically but literally with their witness to Hope; to Peace; to Joy; and to Love.
Tonight – Christmas Eve — we light a fifth candle: the Christ candle. Nestled in the center of the wreath it represents the longed for arrival of the One who is the Incarnation of all four of those icons of God’s dream for this world; Hope, Peace, Joy & Love all wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger … wrapped up in the person of this baby … this Jesus.
And as we reflect at last and again on the miracle of the Christ Child born of our sister Mary, this year I hear the words our rector Mike Kinman says after he breaks the bread at the Eucharist: “Be what you see. Receive who you are.”
They are ancient words that come to us through Mike from the 4th century Saint Augustine of Hippo – words intended to remind us that as we gather around this table we do not just receive the body of Christ – we ARE the Body of Christ. And as the body of Christ in the world we too have dwelling within us what we need to usher in God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven: God’s reign of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.
Be what you see. We gaze this Holy Night on the candles on the wreath and the baby in the manger to remind ourselves who we really are as God’s beloved — created in God’s image and called to live out God’s inclusive love in the world.
Be what you see. Here. Now. Not what you see on Twitter.
And then remember what you’re called to be in the days, weeks and months ahead. Remember not only tonight’s Gospel according to Luke but one of my other favorite Gospels – the one according to Margaret Mead:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
And changing the world is what all of this is all about: changing the world from what it has become to the world as God would have it be.
Be what you see. Be the Hope that rebellions are built on. Yes, it’s a quote from “Rogue One” — the latest Star Wars movie. But it could be a quote from Advent One — when we lit the first candle of Hope on the Advent Wreath: an icon of our ongoing rebellion against what the Prayer Book calls “the works of darkness.”
Whether it’s the story of the handful of plucky misfits leading the rebellion against Darth Vader and the Death Star in the latest episode of the Star Wars franchise or the story of the first century followers of Jesus who rebelled against the powers and principalities of their day hope is the cornerstone that built their rebellion. And it is what will build ours.
It is what we will use to fuel our sacred resistance to the systemic evils that oppress and marginalize any member of our human family – including but not limited to racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Grounded in our baptismal promises, our resistance to public policies that perpetuate those evils is how we put our faith into action in the world.
Be what you see – and then — Receive who you are. Because once we can see and honor the divine image in ourselves, then we can honor that image in everyone else, too – truly loving our neighbor as ourselves. And this year – of all years – we do not have to look far to see how far we have yet to go until that Gospel goal is a reality.
Be what you see. Receive who you are. And refuse to succumb to the temptation “put Christ into Christmas” only to leave him there: to receive with joy the gift of the Word made flesh on this Christmas Eve and fail to live as the Body of Christ the other 364 days of the year.
Instead, let us be the hope rebellions are built on.
Let us celebrate tonight the wonder of the amazing gift of our brother Jesus born of our sister Mary – and then pray without ceasing for the grace to carry the lights of our Advent candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love into the year ahead.
And let us pray as well for the strength and courage to embrace what poet Howard Thurman famously called “The Work of Christmas:”
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins –
To find the lost – To heal the broken
To feed the hungry – To release the prisoner
To teach the nations – To bring Christ to all
To make music in the heart.
O Come, O Come Emmanuel – make us agents of the power to be what we see and to receive who we are – and then give us grace to live your Hope, Peace, Joy and Love all the days of our lives.
And may the God of the hope that builds rebellions fill us — those we love, serve and challenge — with all joy and peace in believing, this Christmas Eve and always. Amen.