Sermon for Christmas Day, Friday, December 25 2020, 10:00 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 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. And maybe, one of the strange gifts of this year is to take us back to that, to what is left when all the rest of the celebration is stripped away, to the story of threatened, stubborn, resistant life, and God’s choice to be with us in the lost and lonely places.
Imagine them, a teenage couple, the girl already in labour, alone and terrified, and there is no more room. It is noisy and dangerous in this city, and no one has any more space. They find their way to a garage which has been left unlocked maybe, or one of the shipping containers in the laneway, or a damp rickety tent in a park encampment, 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. God goes to the margins to be born, among the lost, among the poor, in a 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. And yet, they are also one of the images which the scripture uses to speak of care and nurture. There is kindness on those cold hills. And this angel shows up to the night workers. To the exhausted personal support workers, doing their best in underfunded care homes. To the hospital cleaners, risking their lives, unnoticed by almost everyone. To the retail clerks on the graveyard shift. All the people tending the frayed fabric of our common life, in this hard time as always.
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 pandemic, of course, of ever-rising rates of illness and death, and 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, of 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 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 struggling night-shift worker, everyone sitting lonely at home, 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 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. Learn to love at a distance, the separation which for this time is the shape of care, and yet love still, 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.