Sermon for Christmas Day, Sunday, December 25 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 9:2-7; Ps 96; Titus 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-20
We celebrate Christmas around the time of the winter solstice—a symbolically appropriate time, since we have no way of knowing the actual date on which Jesus was born. And many things we think of as Christmas rituals are really solstice rituals—the lights, the shiny decorations, the music, the communal meals, these are all part of how we respond to the longest and darkest and coldest nights, our way of asserting that light and spring will return. This is all entirely suitable; but sometimes, the shiny things and the rituals become so distracting that we forget what the gospel should remind us of—that this is a collective act of resistance, the assertion of life against the forces of death. For Luke’s story of the nativity is, I believe, a deeply comforting one, but not a comfortable one at all.
Last Sunday night, as you might remember, there was an extreme cold alert, and it was snowing. I was on my way home, around 9 at night, and I saw a man lying on the steps of a church near my house. He’d just gotten out of jail, apparently, and wasn’t allowed back into the room where he’d been living; so I walked him over to the emergency warming centre, and there was an ambulance there taking someone away in a stretcher, sirens and lights, and downstairs there was a room packed so full of people that there weren’t even enough chairs for everyone to sit down for the night, and an overwhelmed young man at the front desk trying to close admissions because they simply couldn’t fit in any more people. A little crowd surrounded the man I’d come with, saying, “It’s okay now, you’re inside, you’re warm, let’s get you some coffee,” he was welcomed in, but he was their last admission of the night, and it was still early. I have no idea where the next person in need of shelter might have been able to go.
So imagine them in a place like that, a teenage couple, the girl in labour, maybe thrown out by their families—and I am not just fictionalizing about this, we know that Mary and Joseph were poor people when Jesus was growing up, and that may be in part because Mary’s scandalous pregnancy had caused their relatives to cut them off. Anyway, there they are, alone and terrified, and there is no more room. It is noisy and dangerous in this city, and no one has any more space, and there isn’t even a chair to sit in, and they find their way to a garage which has been left unlocked maybe, or one of the shipping containers in the laneway, somewhere at least out of the wind, and the baby is born there, no doctor or nurse, not even an experienced older woman, just these two children and their child, in a city with no room. The girl, her clothes stained with the mess of childbirth, wraps the baby up in a soft old sweater she’s been carrying in her backpack, and finds a box he can lie in. They do what they can.
It was then as it is now—for the little ones, for the poor, for the marginal, there is never room. The great idols of power and money determine who gets in, and who is locked out, and someone must always be locked out. And because of that, there is never room for God. So God goes to the margins to be born, among the lost, among the poor, in the last little space left for human caring.
And in the same night of the city, there are people out working, not always in jobs considered respectable. Shepherds were not very respectable; they were hard men, not above a bit of housebreaking and robbery, at least in the popular mind. But this angel shows up to the night workers. To the taxi drivers and the night shift cleaners, and the people lining up in parking lots for temporary jobs, and the young women on the corner at Dundas and Sherbourne, and the old women picking bottles out of recycling bins to exchange for a bit of cash to buy food. And the angel says, “Do not be afraid.”
This is, on the face of it, ridiculous advice for everyone involved in this story. Mary and Joseph have all kinds of very good reasons to be afraid. And if you’re out there at night just trying to survive, in a country under military occupation, in the midst of grinding poverty, and all of a sudden the sky is lighting up with revelation, and you’re being told that your redemption lies in a newborn baby in a garage, fear is an entirely logical response. It seems like the logical response in our world now, as well—a world of economic inequality and violence and racism, a city with no room for the poor, a world of wars and rumours of wars, waves of refugees unable to find a safe place, potentially catastrophic climate change.
But the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” For it is fear, beyond anything else, which locks us in, which locks us down. Fear tells us that making room for the outcast, making room for compassion, will lose us what little we have. Fear tells us that we can do nothing to help, that love is a non-renewable resource, that power determines reality, that nothing else is possible.
Do not be afraid.
It is not a call to denial or foolish optimism. It does not say that the world is not hard. But it says that God has broken into this hard world, in its most abandoned place, and that we are not alone. Another world is possible. Another world is being born.
For this is the most astonishing good news of all; that God chose to come, not as a great power in the world of powers, but as weakness in the small world of love. It is in this place, and it could only be in this place, that the God who would be born and die for the love of us is made known. Transforming human flesh and human story, and making it, once and for all, a story in which the weakest, the poorest, the most rejected, are the very centre of all meaning. Every refugee, every poor traveller without a home, every outcast pregnant girl, every person for whom there is no room, no place, no time in this world. Our own loneliness, our own abandonment, our own fears in the dark, hallowed by the God who has gone there before us.
And all our broken, lonely, longing lives, all the joys and sorrows of this flesh, all human need and hunger and love, are taken up into the life of God and made holy things. It is always true, it has always been true, but we know it best, perhaps, when we are in that marginal place. God does not come to us because we are good or nice. God comes to the lost children in the night, to the homeless and the wandering, to the people working in the cold and in the dark, to those who cannot be clean or nice or good. To us, to all of us, our frail bodies and our yearning hearts. God comes as a needy child to all God’s needy children, to tell us that we are loved; and that we are invited into the very life of God, into the work of love and beauty, beyond fear and despair.
There is still room. At the edge of the crowded street, in the lonely places, in the heart of God, there is room, and we are summoned. Do not be afraid. Go forward to find the child, in your neighbour, in the stranger, in the person who needs a cup of coffee and the person who offers one, in your own grief and joy. Help to create the space, to be the space, for God to enter, and God in turn will make that space for you. There is still room, if we can only release our fear and turn towards justice and love.