December 24, 2008
December 24, 2008
Most of us, throughout our lives, find ourselves clinging to life’s little pleasures. Occasionally, something fills us with such joy and happiness, that we find ourselves savoring that moment, clinging to it, hoping it will never end. They don’t happen often. We can’t make those moments happen by own concentrated will. Even more often, we don’t ask for them. They just happen when they’re meant to happen and sometimes they come upon us as a wonderful surprise.
Now, having said this, I’m going to admit something to you that will come as no surprise I’m sure. I really am a church geek. I love being in church. I always have. And the best times to be in church were always Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
One of life’s pleasures for me has always been Christmas Eve. And more specifically a Christmas Eve Mass. Some of my most pleasant memories are of this night and the liturgies I’ve attended on this night. Another of life’s small pleasures is Christmas morning. I especially enjoy going to church on Christmas morning. The world seems to pristine, so new. And one of my greatest pleasures as a priest, is to celebrate the Eucharist with you on this evening that is, in its purest sense, holy. And tomorrow morning I am looking forward to going to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and con-celebrating the Eucharist with Pastor Mark and the people of St. Mark’s.
I also understand the tendency we all have of getting caught up in society’s celebration of Christmas. It’s easy to find ourselves getting a bit hypnotized by the glitz and glamour we see about us. I admit I enjoy some of those sparkly Christmas displays. I occasionally enjoy a good Christmas commercial on TV. In fact, the other day, I was watching a show of classic commercials and one came on that instantly put me back into my childhood Christmases. I’m sure you’ll remember it too. It begins with the Ink Spots are singing “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire” Two very attractive people are in a very modern (by 1980s standards), sparsely decorated office overlooking the Transamerica Building in San Francisco. The man introduces himself as “Charles,” the woman as “Catherine.” Charles ask Catherine: “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” “No,” Catherine says. “What is it?” The shadow of a Leer jet flies across the Transamerica building. Then announcer then comes on and says: “Share the fantasy. Chanel no. 5”
For some reason, that commercial was synonymous with Christmas for me as a child. Yet it had nothing at all to do with Christmas. There wasn’t a Christmas tree in sight. Nothing about it spoke of Christmas. And yet, for me, it WAS Christmas. And I remember the joy I felt the first time I bought my mother a bottle of Chanel No. 5. So, yes, I understand how easy it is to fall to the temptations of what the world tells us is Christmas.
But what I think happens to most of us who enjoy those light and airy aspects of Christmas is that we often get so caught up in them, we start finding ourselves led astray into a kind of frivolousness about Christmas. We find ourselves led off into a place where Christmas becomes fluffy and saccharine and cartoonish. Christmas becomes a kind of billboard. The other day I was looking through a wonderful book called Atomic Kitchen. It was book of ads and billboards from the 1950s and early 1960s, advertising kitchen appliances. The ads from this time, as some of you might remember, portrayed a pristine world. It was a world in which the perfect family lived in the perfect home, with perfect meals being prepared in color-coordinated appliances. It was a world without troubles, without fear, without despair, or uncertainty. It was a world that, ultimately, did not reflect its time accurately. Rather, it reflected some impossible ideal that no one could attain.
That, I think, is what we experience in the secular understanding of Christmas time. The glitz and the glamour of the consumer-driven Christmas can be visually stunning. It can capture our imagination with its blinking lights and its bright wrapping, or, as in the case of the Chanel No. 5 commercial, it can do it without any bright lights and wrapping. But ultimately it promises something that it can’t deliver. It promises a joy and a happiness it really doesn’t have. It has gloss. It has glitter. It has a soft, fuzzy glow. But it doesn’t have real joy.
The Christmas we celebrate here tonight, in this church, is a Christmas of real joy. But it is a joy of great seriousness as well. It is a joy that humbles us and quiets us. It is a joy filled with a Light that makes all the glittery, splashy images around us pale in comparison. The Christmas we celebrate here is not a frivolous one. It is not a light, airy Christmas. Yes, it has a baby. Yes, it has angels and a bright shining star. But these are not bubblegum images. A birth of a baby in that time and in that place was a scary and uncertain event. Angels were not chubby little cherubs rolling about in mad abandon in some cloud-filled other-place. They were terrifying creatures—messengers of a God of Might and Wonder. And stars were often seen as omens—as something that could either bring great hope or great terror to the world.
The event we celebrate tonight is THE event in which God breaks through to us. And whenever God beaks through, it is not some gentle nudge. It is an event that jars us, provokes us and changes us. For people sitting in deep darkness, that glaring Light that breaks through into their lives is not the most pleasant thing in the world. It is blinding and painful. And what it exposes is sobering.
That is what Jesus does to us. That is what we are commemorating tonight. We are commemorating a “break through” from God—an experience with God that leaves us different people than we were before that encounter. What we experience is a Christmas that promises us something tangible. It promises us, and delivers, a real joy. The joy we feel tonight, the joy we feel at this Child’s birth, as the appearance of these angels, of that bright star, of that Light that breaks through into the darkness of our lives, is a joy that promises us something.
It is a teaser of what awaits us. It is a glimpse into the life we will have one day. It is a perfect joy that promises a perfect life. But just because it is a joyful event, does not mean that it isn’t a serious event. What we celebrate is serious. It is an event that causes us to rise up in a joyful happiness, while, at the same time, driving us to our knees in adoration. It is an event that should cause us not just to return home to our brightly wrapped presents, but it should also send us out into the world to make it, in some small way, a reflection of this life-changing joy that has come into our lives.
Throughout Advent I have been reading Advent of the Heart by Alfred Delp, a young German Jesuit priest who was killed by the Nazis on February 2, 1945. This is one of those books that has moved me to my very soul. All through Advent I found myself reading it again and again. My copy of the book is almost falling apart, I’ve read it that much. In the book, there is wonderful Advent play Delp wrote for children about ten years before his death. It ended with a monologue that captures perfectly a Christian understand of what Christmas truly is.
Delp wrote at the end of his play: “That is Christmas—that a hand from above reached into our lives and touches our hearts. That is Christmas, not the other things. My friends, believe it, we have to suffer a lot and hang on. Only then is it Christmas.
“Christmas is a not a sweet fairytale for little children—for happy nurseries…Christmas is serious—so serious—that [people] gladly—die for it. —Tell everyone—many things have to change—first—here—inside…
“Christmas means that God—touches us, —that [God]—grasps our hands—and lays them—on—[God’s]—heart. —That God comes—to us—and sets us free. —Tell everyone—the other isn’t Christmas, —only this—is—Christmas, —that—God—is—with—us.”
Tonight, is one of those moments in which true joy and gladness have come upon us. Cling to this moment. Savor it. Hold it close. Pray that it will not end. And let this joy you feel tonight be the strength that holds you up when you need to be held.
Tonight, God has touched us. God has grasped our hands. Our hands have been laid on God’s heart. This feeling we are feeling right now is the true joy that descends upon us when we realize God has come to us in our collective darkness as a Light that will never darken.