+ A story I LOVE to tell on Christmas Eve is not the typical Christmas Eve story. My poor mother has had to hear this story so many times, she just rolls her eyes at it. I think I tell it every Christmas. But…this Christmas Eve story does not involve your usual cast of characters. It involves rather a very famous Anglo-Catholic parish in New York City and a very famous actress from a by-gone era.
The story involves Tallulah Bankhead. Now some of you are thinking: I haven’t heard that name in years. Others are maybe saying: I have never heard that name before in my life. But Tallulah Bankhead, star of stage and screen, including, most famously, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, was also an Episcopalian. And in fact quite the High Church Episcopalian.
When she was in New York, she attended the Church of St. Mary the Virgin just off Times Square. If you have never been there, it is truly the place to see—if in fact you can see it. This church is so High and is notorious for using so much incense it is affection ally called “Smoky Mary’s” (and it is one of my favorite places to visit in Manhattan).
In the 1950s, the priest at smoky Mary’s, Fr. Grieg Taber. Fr. Taber was one of the interesting and eccentric characters in the Episcopal church in the day. There have been many stories of Fr. Tabor. But this one is one of the best…
One Christmas Eve in the 1950s Fr. Taber—good and loyal priest that he was—was sequestered in his confessional. Back then, even some Episcopalians felt compelled to go to confession before receiving Holy Communion at the midnight Mass. Fr. Taber was there in his confessional, awaiting penitents, when he heard the oh-so-very-familiar, low, smoky voice of Miss Tallulah Bankhead. There was certainly no mistaking who it could be. As he peeked out through his curtain, there he saw her making her way through the church. She paused and looked up at the giant crucifix above the altar, with its almost life-sized figure of the crucified Jesus. Suddenly she exclaimed, in her wonderfully Tallulah Bankhead way,
It’s one of the great stories of High Church Episcopalians and one that, at first hearing, might sound irreverent or possibly even downright sacrilegious. Ah…but if you believe that, then you miss the whole point of that wonderful little anecdote.
Douglass Shand-Tucci, in his wonderful biography of the great Episcopal architect Ralph Adams Cram, writes of this incident at Smoky Mary’s:
“Greig Taber…found not irreverence but a useful truth in Bankhead’s salutation to Christ on his natal day. [He] knew it was one New Yorker’s way of joining in ‘Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning!’”
In other words, what some people might perceive as sacrilegious and disrespectful I see as wonderfully intimate. And intimacy is what Christmas is about. An intimacy from God to us. An intimacy very unlike any other kind of intimacy.
When we think long and hard about this night, when we ponder it and let it take hold in our lives, what we realized happened on that night when Jesus was born was not just some mythical story. It was not just the birth of a child under dire circumstances, in some distant, exotic land. What happened on that night was a joining together—a joining of us and God. God met us half-way. God came to us in our darkness, in our blindness, in our fear—and cast a light that destroyed that darkness, that blindness, that fear.
In this dark, cold night, we celebrate Light. We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our collective and personal darknesses. We celebrate the Light that has come to us in our despair and our fear, in our sadness and in our frustration. And as it does, we realize---there is an intimacy to that action on God’s part.
God didn’t have to do what God did. God didn’t have to descend among us and be one of us. But by doing so, God showed us a remarkable intimacy. Or, as the great Anglican poet Christina Rosetti put more eloquently:
Love came down at Christmas,
love was born at Christmas:
star and angels gave the sign.
We will never fully understand how or why Jesus—God made flesh—has come to us as this little child in a dark stable in the Middle East, but it has happened and, because it happened, we are a different people. We realize that we are a people loved by our God. And that love is all powerful. It is all encompassing. It is all accepting. No matter who we are, no matter we are, no matter what we do, we are loved and loved fully.
Our lives are different because of that love that descended into our lives. This baby—this love personified—has taken away, by the love he encompasses, everything we feared and dreaded. When we look at it from that perspective, suddenly we find our emotions heightened. We find ourselves expressing our intimacy back to God. Each of expresses our love differently. People like Tallulah Bankhead cry out happy birthdays to crucifixes on Christmas Eve. The rest of us probably aren’t quite that dramatic. Or maybe some of us actually are.
But the intimacy we feel between ourselves and God is a very real one tonight—in this very holy moment. We find that this love we feel—for God and for each other and for those we maybe don’t always love, or find difficult to love—that radical love is more tangible—more real—than anything we have ever thought possible. And that is what we are experiencing this evening.
Love came down. Love became flesh and blood. Love became human. And in the face of that realization, we are rejoicing tonight. We are rejoicing in that love personified. We are rejoicing in each other. We are rejoicing in the glorious beauty of this one holy moment in time. And we are rejoicing in that almighty and incredible God who would come to us, not on some celestial cloud with a sword in his hand and armies of angels flying about him. We are rejoicing in a God who comes to us in this innocent child, born to a humble teenager in a dusty third world land. We rejoice in a God who comes with a face like our face and flesh like our flesh—a God who is born, like we are born—of a human mother—and who dies like we all must die. We rejoice in a God who comes and accepts us and loves us for who we are and what we are—a God who understands what it means to live this sometimes frightening uncertain life we live.
But who, by that very birth, makes all births unique and holy and who, by that death, takes away the fear of death for all of us. If that isn’t intimacy, I don’t know what is. This beautiful night, let us each cling to this love that we are experiencing tonight and let us hope that it will not fade from us when this night is over.
Let us cling to this holy moment and make sure that it will continue to live on and be renewed again and again. Love is here. Love is in our very midst tonight. Love is so near, we can feel its presence in our very bodies and souls.
So, let us share this love in any way we can and let us especially welcome this love— love, all lovely, love divine—this love made human into the shelter of our hearts.