The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
December 24, 2022
There’s a popular way of characterizing the focus of the three historic Christian churches in the Catholic tradition. The Roman Catholic Church emphasizes Christ’s suffering and death on the cross on Good Friday, the Eastern Orthodox Church focuses on the glory of Christ’s resurrection at Easter, and Anglicanism, our own tradition, is captivated by Christmas when God took on human form and dwelt among us.
I think there is some truth to this stereotype. So great is this feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ that we pull out all the proverbial stops. From the joyful carols to the fresh flowers on the altar; [from the smell of incense to the heavenly music sung by the choir]; [from the red bows to the exquisite manger scene]; from the beautiful vestments to the poinsettias. This place exudes that formulaic “Hallmark Christmas movie” feel with its predictability and warmth and almost schmaltziness.
And yet, as we heard from St. Luke’s account, the birth of our Savior in a manager in Bethlehem was anything but a Hallmark moment.
Jesus was born during a time of intense political and societal unrest amidst the filthiness of cows and goats and sheep. The long-expected Messiah came into a world filled with fear and oppression and sin, much like our world today. God came into the world in the midst of human sin and suffering and met the Hebrew people where they were.
The angel appeared to bring the good news of great joy of the birth of the Messiah not to the important people of the day – not to the Emperor, not to the Governor, not to the Jewish religious leaders – but to the lowly shepherds. Shepherds at that time were at the bottom of the social ladder. They were seen as poor and dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other people’s lands. An example of this in our society might be a loan shark or a convicted felon. These shifty characters who probably didn’t smell so great from living out in the pastures believed the angel and immediately went to Bethlehem to see the child in the manger…the child who came to bring peace to all men and women, but especially to the poor and lowly.
The Christmas story we heard tonight was from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. The first chapter began with an announcement by an angel of the birth of John the Baptist in the place the Jews understood to house the presence of God…the Temple. The angelic announcement of the birth of Christ that immediately follows was not in “God’s house” but in the fields. The contrast between the two couldn’t be more striking. God came into the world as a human child not in the Jewish equivalent of a place like St. Mary’s Church, but in the grittiness of human existence, ox and ass and stable and all.
Friends, this is good news of great joy, not only to the shepherds watching in their fields by night, but to all of us gathered here. Note that almost all the Christmas hymns we sing speak of Jesus’s birth in the present tense, not the past tense. “Come and behold him, born the king of angels” not ages ago, but now. Like with the shepherds, the Creator of the universe stoops down and meets us where we are in the grittiness of our lives.
And yet, as we heard St. Paul say in the epistle reading, “we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The birth of the babe begins the process of the redemption of the world, and we rightly rejoice tonight. But we know all too well that this old world is still deeply wounded, and sin and suffering and abound. In this child born to poor parents in a remote and backward part the world, God begins that work of restoration and healing and wholeness that we have access to today. We don’t have to wait until we are in God’s presence face to face to experience it. We can receive the very same grace given to us in that manager in the waters of baptism and in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, giving us the strength we need to shine Christ’s light in our own day.
And so we pull out all of the stops for this great feast. As St. Leo the Great reminds us in his great Christmas sermon, the extraordinary birth of Christ in all of its grittiness gives us every reason, to “rejoice and be glad. There is no place for sadness among those who celebrate the birth of Life itself. For on this day, Life came to us dying creatures to take away the sting of death, and to bring the bright promise of eternal joy. No one is excluded from sharing in this great gladness. For all of us rejoice for the same reason: Jesus, the destroyer of sin and death, because he finds none of us free from condemnation, comes to set all of us free. Rejoice, O saint, for you draw nearer to your crown! Rejoice, O sinner, for your Savior offers you pardon!”
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!