Friday, January 5, 2018

Christmas Eve Homily by Bishop Michael Smith

Gethsemane Episcopal Cathedral + Fargo, North Dakota
December 24, 2017

Isaiah proclaims: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. During this darkest, cold time of year, we are drawn to light, are we not? The beauty of Christmas lights, the soft glow of candles, the warmth of a fire in the fireplace, provide us with a sense of security, a perception of well-being. I imagine that our ancient ancestors knew the same experience huddled around a fire in some cave, telling stories during the long nights of winter. The prophet continues, on those who lived in a land of deep darkness light has shined (Isaiah 9:2).

The light, kindled in Bethlehem, is evident in the St. John’s Bible illumination of the familiar Nativity story. There, gold leaf, used throughout the bible as a sign of the divine, emanates from a crib-like image, a brilliant ray of light shooting from a particular point to places beyond itself. The light cannot be contained; it must shine beyond to enlighten the darkness around it. The illumination is a piece of art intended to bring us peace and comfort.

And on this radiant night, the scriptures also bring us comfort. In addition to the word light, we hear words such as: joy, peace, justice, righteousness, grace, salvation, hope, glory, good news, praise. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Truly this night celebrates the grace of God, the undeserved kindness of the Holy One, peace among those whom he favors (Luke 2:14). But is there more? Why would the Father give us such a gift as his only-begotten Son, Jesus the Christ?

I believe part of the answer is to be found in the reading from Paul’s letter to Titus we heard tonight: He it is who gave himself for us the he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14). A people zealous for good deeds, a forgiven community which is enthusiastic about being a force for God, a force for goodness in the world. We are called to be a people who take the light of Bethlehem from this place to the circumstances of darkness we encounter around us.

And, OMG, we don’t have to look far, do we? Wars and rumors of war; politicians who seem to have lost a sense of the common good; racial tensions; murder, violence, oppression; school shootings, bullying, sexual harassment and assault, and the list goes on…  OK, I know at this point, some of you are thinking, “lighten up, Bishop. After all, it is Christmas.” I get it, but I think it essential for us to understand that it was into such a world that God took on flesh and dwelt among us, and it is into such a world that Christ still comes through the likes of you and me.

There are some people in our culture today who mistakenly believe that God is first and foremost concerned about our happiness and sense of self-worth. No, that is not what Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation, the celebration of God becoming human in the person of Jesus, is about. There are others who erroneously think that God is like some “elf on the shelf” to be brought out when we get ourselves into trouble and need help. No, Christmas reminds us that God is particularly concerned about the well-being of the poor and down-trodden, and that the Holy One desires to be part of every aspect of our lives.

In the prologue to the Gospel of John are written these powerful words: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1). As Christians, we believe that Jesus is that Word. The gospel-writer goes on to say: And the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). God in Christ became flesh and lived among us. Biblical scholars tell us that in the Greek these words are more vivid and could literally be translated as “God pitched his tent among us.” An even more colorful interpretation is provided in the dynamic paraphrase of the scriptures known as “The Message,” where we read: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.

The God who moved into the neighborhood and pitched his tent among us has a gift for us this Christmas. It is the very gift of the Divine Self. It is to be accepted, received with gratitude, and opened. It is a very practical gift, one not to placed on a shelf to admire, but to be used every day. Again, from the Gospel of John: [Jesus] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:10-12).

To all who receive the gift of God in Jesus, who believe in the name of Jesus, he gives power to become children of God, to become adopted brothers and sisters of Christ. A great privilege and honor, yes, but as part of God’s family, there are chores to be done. Remember, the children of God are “redeemed from all iniquity and purified as a people who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14).

To what good deeds or works are you being called in 2018, a New Year of God’s favor? I challenge you to begin to listen this holy night and throughout the next twelve days of Christmas to the voice of the Holy Spirit calling you to particular works of goodness in the coming year. How are you being called to make the world a better place? How will you proclaim “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) to a people who are desperate to hear it? This is how we say “thank you” for the gift of God in Jesus Christ.