From the Bishop: Christmas 2017
I am bringing you good news of great joy… Luke 2:10
This past August 21st, I found myself in west-central Nebraska on the Martin Ranch. Four of us had driven from Omaha – departing at six in the morning in a torrential downpour – and aiming to get to McPherson County by noon. That would mean we arrived just as the moon’s shadow was beginning to cover the sun, and that we’d have almost an hour to settle in and watch, before totality.
If you were living in this part of the world in the summer of 2017, there is no way you could miss the build-up to the solar eclipse. There were newspaper articles, and experts on the radio and TV coverage, even special edition magazines at the grocery check-out counters. I’m sure that almost every one of you looked up at the sky at some point on the big day… and that many of you, like that Barker family, actually made the journey to reach the path of totality and see this thing yourselves.
I had read a bunch of those newspaper articles, and listened to a number of those experts, and so I actually expected quite a lot from this phenomena, but even still, the reality of the event moved me much more deeply than I had anticipated. I was touched by the subtle, gradual disappearance of light from the sky in the hour proceeding totality. I was awestruck by the sublime beauty of the 360 degree sunset and the strange behavior of the birds and bugs as the light disappeared. When I took off my glasses to look into the face of the constant, reliable and warming companion that is our sun – now suddenly and impossibly it would seem – all blacked out, I could not stop the tears from coming.
But what surprised and moved me most, was the amazing array of human beings who came to see this thing and be part of this story. We were young and old and apparently from every walk of life. Not from just Nebraska or the middle-west, but from virtually every state of the union, and scores of other countries from across the globe. There were license plates on the interstate and in motel parking lots from New York and New Mexico, from Texas and Tennessee, from British Columbia and even Honduras. Who knew you could drive a car from Tegucigalpa to Tryon? When we pulled off highway 97 to say “hi” to a group that had an especially fancy-looking set up pointed at the sky, we were surprised to hear New Zealand accents. They’d hauled those telescopes almost 8,000 miles!
To me – this was the really staggering part. To see such a broad and diverse slice of humanity, all brought together by the same marvel, all gathered into a community of wonder and delight. And to be part of that band – all of us gazing towards heaven, knit together by a shared experience of wonder and hope, each one of us an actor in a story that we are unlikely to ever forget.
And so too, we come, this holy night. For an hour or so we step out of the headlong rush of the holiday season and all the trimmings and trappings that together conspire to distract us from the simple and wondrous story that lies at the heart of Christmas. The story about a God who loved creation so deeply, that he surrendered all the power and might of divinity to become human like us. The story of how that same God – now made flesh – inspired a choir of angels to come down from heaven to sing the praises of that new born child. The story of how the poorest, loneliest and least hopeful among us all, were drawn as if to fire, to see this baby, and then go tell the whole world the news of what they’d seen.
I fear that far too often, the ways in which we spend the precious, fleeting days of our lives have little to do with this story. While the child born this night comes defenseless and vulnerable, depending entirely on our human capacity for love to survive we, by some sinister illogic, choose to respond to the dangers that beset us in life by building walls and arms and armies rather than following his path of love. While the child born this night comes with nothing, given to parents so poor that a barn becomes a nursery and a feeding trough a crib, we are driven to prove our worth by an insatiable appetite for wealth, even when we see the Creator of the universe bestow upon humble Mary and Joseph the greatest status ever gifted to humankind. While the child born this night unites the witnesses of his birth across boundaries of culture, class, race and ethnicity, we – blind to that image of one humanity set so clearly before us – let fear of those we deem unlike ourselves run our lives, and selfishly, care for tiny circles of kin, who ask nothing of us by way of change or growth.
I am afraid that far too often, the way we spend the hours – the way we spend the precious days of our lives – has little to do with this story.
And yet we come.
Drawn to this story as it is told in the Bible and in Church, in children’s books and in the movies, in television cartoons and in art that hangs on museum walls and in second-grade classrooms. Drawn to this story, as it told in carols sung by cathedral choirs and country & western crooners, as it is told in the imperfectly recalled account in the grace prayed by a tipsy uncle at Christmas dinner. Drawn to this story, as it is remembered and celebrated on this holy night, across every tribe and language and people and nation, the entire world around. We are compelled to come, compelled for reasons that are mixed, complex and just plain dubious, enticed by exactly this story, on this winter night.
And that is just as it should be. When God becomes human, this whole creation is hallowed, and every one of our individual lives is exalted and blessed, and there is set before us – if we would just embrace the opportunity – the chance to know once and for all and forever that we are beloved. It does not matter who you are. It does not matter where you come from. It does not matter what you have done. On this night, God comes to you and for you as a human child. I need you, God says. I need no one else in the world more than I need you. Will you love me?
That’s the invitation of this night. That is the invitation of this story that is so irresistible that we would stop unwrapping gifts, and put down our wine glasses, and venture out into the cold in the middle of the night, and come to this place and this company.
Both beautiful or terribly scarred we come. In our diapers and our dotage, we come. Gay and strait and black and white and rich and poor we come. No matter the continent from which our ancestors hailed, regardless of how we were raised, where we were educated or whether we’re properly documented. Whether we were our very best selves this week or whether we arrive this night burdened with the worst kind of guilt for the most appalling behavior, we come …
Like the shepherds, and the wise men, and the innkeeper and the angles, we come.
John Knox wrote:
In the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and in all that the life of Jesus was afterward to reveal, there is the message that not only is there a God, but that God comes very near.
To believe that God is above us is one thing. To believe that God is a strength sufficient for us is another and still more inspiring confidence …
But to believe that God is not only almighty, not only all-sufficient, but that he is God with us, God the near, the understanding and the intimate – that is best of all. The eternal God, coming down into human life.
My sisters and brothers all – when you step out of this place and back into your lives later on tonight, I pray you will carry the words and the message of this story in your hearts. God has come to us. And everything we need to know about our God and everything we need to be in relationship with our God is made true flesh, in an infant child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in bucket meant to feed farm animals. He needs you every bit as much as you need him.
Never forget the wonder we came to hear about this night. And never forget never forget the simple invitation that he offers: will you love me?
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
Christmas Eve, Trinity Cathedral, 2017