Maybe This Will Be The Christmas. . .

Sermon Preached Christmas Eve 2008
St. Mary's (Stone Harbor) and St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay (Villas)

The man I knew as Grandpa when I was a young girl was actually my mother’s step-father. Grandpa Stanley was a second-generation Polish-American. He had siblings – I don’t know how many and I never met any of them. He was a man of few words, a not-particularly successful small dairy farmer in Wisconsin; really there was nothing extraordinary about him – except his birthday – or, I should say, his lack of a known birthday. He thought he was born in January, but the only date he had was the date of his baptism which was late in February. So, just to be safe, we celebrated once on January 16th (a month before his baptism) and once on February 16th (in case he was born and baptized on the same day). It always puzzled me as a child. How can you not know when your birthday is? How bizarre is that? My mother tells me that a lot of people “back then” didn’t know their birthdays. But, that doesn’t seem right to me because, to be honest, he’s the only person I ever knew who didn’t know.

Oh, unless, of course, we consider Jesus of Nazareth. Because, we don’t really know when he was born either. Last Sunday’s reading tells us that the angel visited Mary in the sixth month. Is that the six month of the Jewish year – in Hebrew, the month of Ellul? If so, then this visit took place sometime in September and, approximately 9 months later, Mary gave birth to Jesus in June. Or, maybe the reference is to the six month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy. If that’s the case, Jesus could have been born at any time of the year.

The question of the year in which he was born is a little up in the air as well. On the one hand, our reading from Luke’s gospel tonight mentions a decree of Emperor Augustus. Historians know that Augustus reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD and that during his reign, he ordered three census – 28 BC, 8 BC and 14 AD.[1] But, here is where things get a little messy. Luke’s gospel also refers to Quirinius, the Governor of Syria. Quirinius was governor from 6 until 7 AD. To complicate matters further, Matthew’s gospel refers to King Herod who ruled Judea from 37 BC until 4 BC.[2] Then there is the matter of the star of Bethlehem – just what was this star and when did it appear? Astronomers have suggested that the “star” of Bethlehem was actually the very rare coming together of three planets - Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars which occurred in early 6 BC.[3] So, just when was Jesus born? In 8 BC when Augustus ordered his 2nd census? Or, was it during Quirinius’ reign – sometime between 6 and 7 AD? Or was it in the year that the planets aligned – 6 BC?

Some try to make all of these numbers work out so that we have a precise year for the birth of Christ. But, even if we do settle on a precise year, we still have to wonder about the month and day. June is the most compelling option and yet we celebrate Jesus birth on December 25th. Was this some terrible mistake in the early church? Not at all! In fact, there is nothing coincidental in our celebration of the birth of Jesus on a date that falls close to the winter solstice – the shortest and darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The prophet Isaiah writes,

The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.[4]

The winter solstice – Charles Price and Louis Weil, two past members of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Liturgical Commission, following in the prophet/poet’s footsteps, put a more poetic spin on the winter solstice suggesting “that the light has been born. . . . the principle of the return of life in the spring has been asserted, in spite of all appearances.”[5] That the celebration of Christmas occurs 4 days after the winter solstice has to do with an error in the Julian calendar which was corrected in the 18th c.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, fertility celebrations were common at the time of the winter solstice. The Christian celebration of the winter solstice is not an attempt to develop these fertility celebrations further but rather to provide a theological corrective – that we are called not to celebrate “the birth of light in the sky but rather the birth of the Son of God, the light of the world.”[6] A birth that occurred at just the right moment. A time when the people of Judea lived under the oppressive Roman Empire, a time where persecution could come at any time and in any place, a time when “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. . . [are] terrified” by the sudden appearance of a stranger – who, thanks be to God, turns out to be “an angel of the Lord” bringing at last a message of good news – “Do not be afraid.”

There is an old story about a rabbi who asks his students, “when does the night end and the day begin?” One student suggest, “is it when you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog?” “No,” says the rabbi, “that isn’t it.” Another student asks, “is it the moment when you can tell the difference between an olive tree and a fig tree?” Again the rabbi, says, “No, that isn’t it. The moment when the night ends and the day begins,” says the rabbi, “is the moment when you can look at a face never seen before and recognize the stranger as a brother or a sister. Until that moment,” the rabbi concludes, “no matter how bright the day, it is still the night.”[7]

Jesus was born into this world centuries ago, in a moment of time that desperately needed to experience the light of God, the very presence or God-with-us-ness of God in the flesh, the promised one – “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” - whose authority would grow as he grew until the people would know “endless peace.” Born into a world of darkness . . . this Jesus, this light.

The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.[8]

Nancy Hastings Sehested, co-founder of an ecumenical congregation in North Carolina, writes:

“Since the beginning, God has paced the corridors of heaven, burning with the hope that we would see the world as God sees it. God made gardens. We did not get it. God sent floods. We did not get it. God sent prophets. We did not get it. God sent laws. We did not get it. Finally, finally, God sent flesh, God’s own flesh, so maybe we would get it.”[9]

Elizabeth Alexander has been asked by President-elect Barack Obama to compose and read a poem for his inauguration on January 20th. When asked about this task by The New York Times, Alexander said, “Writing an occasional poem has to attend to the moment itself, but what you hope for, as an artist, is to create something that has integrity and life that goes beyond the moment.”[10] As Christians, we claim that the birth of Jesus continues to hold meaning today, that the birth of Jesus is not just a story or poem for one moment in time, but that it is instead, a story that “has integrity and life” even today.

And each Christmas we are invited to welcome this good news. Amidst the darkness of our own world – economic turmoil, wars, extreme poverty and hunger, and countless injustices – amidst this darkness, maybe we will get it. Maybe we will get that God’s own flesh came and dwelt among us so that we can let go of the hold the darkness has on us. A darkness that grips us whenever we see another human being, not as brother or sister, but as “white or black, male or female . . . friend or enemy, us or them.”[11] A darkness that grips us whenever we assume that “there will always be terror in the Near East . . . that there will always be a rapacious Pentagon and an underbelly of poverty.”[12]

Maybe, just maybe, this will be the Christmas when we will take into our hearts, the poetry of that first Christmas. Maybe this will be the Christmas, when we can open our minds to the possibility that Jesus continues to hold meaning today, that Jesus’ birth “has integrity and life” even today. Maybe this will be the Christmas when we recognize ourselves as “the people who have walked in darkness.”

The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.[13]

[1] Richard P. Bucher, “Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, and the Census,” Our Redeemer Lutheran Church (Lexington, KY) accessed online on December 24, 2008.
[2] “Herod the Great,” Wikipedia [o.k., I am embarrassed!] accessed online on December 24, 2008.
[3] Gary A. Becker, “StarWatch for the Greater Lehigh Valley,” (December 19, 1999), accessed online on December 24, 2008.
[4] Isaiah 9:2.
[5] Charles P. Price and Louis Weil, Liturgy for Living, rev. edition (Morehouse: Harrisburg, PA), 2000, p. 164.
[6] Price and Weil, p. 164-5.
[7] Story adapted from Jim Forest, “Be Not Afraid,” Preaching the Word accessed online on December 23, 2008.
[8] Isaiah 9:2.
[9] Nancy Hastings Sehested, “A Love We Can Touch,” Preaching the Word, accessed online on December 23, 2008.
[10] Elizabeth Alexander, “Quote of the Week,” Sojomail , December 24, 2008.
[11] Jim Forest.
[12] Walter Brueggemann, “A World Available for Peace,” Preaching the Word, accessed online on December 23, 2008.
[13] Isaiah 9:2.