The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people . . .’
In December, 1943, the German pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissent Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents from the prison cell where he had been detained since April of that year. The circumstances of his arrest were ambiguous at first, and he had held out hope that he would be released in time to celebrate Christmas with his family. But that was not to be, and so he wrote:
You must not think that I will let myself sink into depression during this lonely Christmas. It will take its own special place in a series of very different Christmases I have celebrated. I don’t need to tell you how great my longing for freedom and for all of you is. But you have for so many decades provided us with Christmases so incomparably beautiful, that the grateful memories of them are strong enough to outshine even a dark Christmas.
Hold that image for a moment: a man in prison, longing for freedom, wanting nothing more than to be with his family, nonetheless finding solace and grace in memories of past Christmases.
Bonhoeffer also wanted to assure his parents, sick with worry, that he was all right. He continued:
From a Christian point of view, a Christmas in a prison cell is no special problem. It will probably be celebrated here in this house more sincerely and with more meaning than outside where the holiday is observed in name only. That God turns directly toward the place where people are careful to turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because he found no room in the Inn—prisoners grasp that better than others. For them it is a joyous message. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (Westminster Knox Press, 2010), p. 15)
Bonhoeffer wasn’t suggesting that it was better to celebrate Christmas in prison; simply that the meaning of Jesus’ birth holds true there, perhaps especially there.
Intuitively we know this to be true, that the ache in our hearts, even in the happiest years, is holy. Ours may be a personal grief, or an existential one that we can’t help but feel whenever we stand in the gap between the ways things are and our God-given hope for a more loving world. As right as we are to celebrate Christmas with as much joy we can muster, it is in longing and grief that God is most pleased to dwell. In the poignancy of memory and the persistence of hope, Christ comes.
Few stories have captured the human imagination as powerfully as those of Jesus’ birth. With a cast of characters that resonate across time and culture, they speak of God choosing to come among us in great humility, on the margins of society. Jesus comes, not lording his divine nature over us, but instead emptying himself of all privilege, taking on our human likeness. This self-emptying is God’s way of reaching us; and likewise, it is our way of welcoming Christ.
Christmas is more than a remembrance of Jesus’ birth. In the words of Joan Chittister, “Christmas is an awareness that grows in us . . . a consciousness of eternal life alive among us. Christmas is about finding life where we do not expect life to be, and a call to begin once more the journey to human joy and holy meaning.” (Joan Chittister, Until Christmas Again, December 23, 2019.)
I invite you this night to tenderly hold the place where Christ is pleased to dwell within you, the close and holy darkness where the light of Christ shines.
Now widen the circle in your mind’s eye to consider those whose lives touch yours. Offer to God this night your love for them and, at times, your struggle to love. Our closest relationships are rarely perfect, but they are where things get real. May we resolve tonight to love as best we can, and when we fail–as we will–to ask forgiveness quickly and make amends. It’s Christmas.
There was considerable talk in recent weeks about how painful family holiday gatherings can be, for they compel us, God forbid, to spend time with relatives whose opinions and politics differ from ours. But, friends, that’s hardly news. Eighty years ago, the poet W. H. Auden described Christmas as the time “when we attempt–quite unsuccessfully–to love all our relatives and, in general, grossly overestimate our powers.” (“For the Time Being” in W. H. Auden Collected Poems, Edward Mendelson, ed. (Vintage International ,1991), p. 399.)
Being stretched in love is a good thing, humbling though it may be. It’s how we learn to love as God loves, to show up as God shows up, to accept the messy imperfection that goes along with all that is good. Even in the happiest families, there is an emptiness, a gap between what we wish were true and who we are. Jesus is pleased to dwell in joys and contradiction of our imperfect lives.
Similarly, regarding our neighbors and fellow citizens: daily we’re reminded how divided we are from one another, polarized even, and in many ways that’s true. But equally true is our fatigue with that narrative and our desire to bridge the divide. Two years ago the renowned sociologist Brené Brown spoke from this pulpit of the importance of our relationships with strangers. One of the gifts of attending a church, she said, was the opportunity to sing with strangers.
A native of Houston, Brown described what happened during the catastrophic flooding of Hurricane Harvey, when over 30,000 people were displaced and as many as 17,000 needed to be evacuated from their homes. Neighbors helped their neighbors all over Houston, strangers helped strangers, without ever asking who they voted for in the 2016 election.
Jesus is pleased to dwell in the crucible of human need. He aches for us to move beyond the borders we erect and be present to one another, as He is present to us all, to love one another as God unconditionally loves us.
Now, asking our guests’ indulgence, I would like to speak briefly to those here who are committed followers of Jesus.
You don’t need me to tell you how fraught it us for us to speak and act publicly in His name. When we do, our words and deeds are invariably interpreted through the prism of other agendas, which is so unsettling that we’re tempted to speak only to those who share our perspectives or, worse, to say nothing at all.
No matter how lovely and sincere our worship, it is in the public arena where the integrity of our gospel witness is at stake. Yes, the risks are high, but it has always been so. Bonhoeffer, remember, was imprisioned for his refusal to support the Nazi party and condone the German Church for choosing silence and aquienecnese. Bonhoeffer knew what we forget at our peril: the Church is not a club with membership privileges; it is a movement of sacrificial love for the sake of the world. “God so loved the world that he gave his son. The angels spoke to the shepherds of good news of great joy for all people.”
Jesus wasn’t born only to be adored; only to be received, though this is where we begin. Jesus came into the world so that we might follow him in the way of love, showing up, as he always does, where love is most needed; offering compassion, as he does, where compassion is lacking, standing for justice, as he does, where there is none.
This would be an impossible task if it were up to us alone, but it’s not. The same Christ that comes to us in our innermost souls, pleased to dwell in our imperfect relationships, is most at home in this world where love is most needed.
It’s not up to us to save the world, anymore than we can save ourselves–that’s why Jesus came. Our task is to stand in that place of longing, need, injustice, and hope, look for the signs of God at work and amplify them by our presence and willingness to be instruments of grace.
We needn’t run from the things that scare us–in ourselves, our relationships, our communities, or our world. Christ is already there, already here, assuring us of God’s love, meeting us where we are, and inviting us to take our part in the breaking of good news of great joy for all people.
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people…
My husband and I have a small collection of nativity scenes from around the world. What I love about them is how freely artisans depict the manger scene as if it took place in their country, with Mary and Joseph, the angels, shepherds and wise men looking just like them. Similarly, whenever we reenact the Christmas story in church–a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages–we place ourselves into the story. All the biblical characters look like us.
The spiritual message is clear even for the youngest child: we place ourselves in Jesus’ story because he first places himself in ours. In Jesus, God enters the story of humankind, bringing good news of great joy for all people. In Jesus, God enters your story and mine. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.
We all approach Christmas with different feelings. The world doesn’t stop for Christmas, as much as we wish it would. Yet we all make whatever room we can. “The world Christ comes to save,” preached Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred for his resistance to Nazism, “is our fallen and lost world. No other.”
Everywhere I go, I see people like you making an extra effort so that others might experience something of God’s love–through beautiful worship, festive celebrations, thoughtful gift-giving, and sacrificial generosity. I see you taking your place in Jesus’ story, showing up, as Jesus does, where love is needed. Thank you. You are my inspiration as I strive to do the same.
This Christmas may you experience the gift of God coming to you, in your story, wherever you need love most.
Do not be afraid: for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy . . .
Advent is a good time to ponder the distinction between happiness and joy. They share common ground, and much in life can bring us both happiness and joy, yet they are not the same. For while happiness eludes us in times of struggle and suffering, we can experience, even when our hearts are breaking, moments of joy.
Happiness, in the words of our nation’s founding fathers, can be pursued. The pursuit of happiness is the fulfillment of desire. Happiness is also deeply subjective, for each person has a different definition of happiness and therefore a unique path of pursuit. There is a limitation to happiness, dependent as it is upon external circumstances and subjective experience.
One of the most liberating insights of my life, that I must relearn over and over again, is that it is impossible to make other people happy. We can strive to bring happiness to others, based on what we know about them, but we can’t control their response. It’s also sobering to realize how our definitions of happiness are influenced–some would say controlled–by what we see around us. We can never be happy in a perpetual state of want.
Joy, on the other hand, goes deeper within us than happiness can reach, into the realm of meaning. Joy doesn’t depend on external circumstances or good fortune, nor is it something that we can pursue. Joy comes to us, often in unlikely times and places. “Happiness,” writes the spiritual author Frederick Buechner, “turns up more or less where you’d expect it to–a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it.” One would expect joy at a wedding; but it can be equally palpable at a funeral. One would hope for joy on the perfect Christmas morning. Yet it can also come to us in the loneliness of imperfection, when nothing turned out the way we hoped it would, after an argument, and in a hospital bed, even in a jail cell. Joy is a gift that God gives, and with it a deep sense of being at home in an all too imperfect world.
The Scriptures often speak of being filled with joy, or of joy breaking forth, descending upon those who live in darkness or fear. Not only does joy come to the unexpecting, but also to the undeserving. What’s striking about these passages is that they often speak of a joy that is beyond anyone’s capacity to pursue or accomplish. More often than not, they point to a promise of joy yet to be fulfilled. Somehow, the seeds of joy can take root in us long before there is anything to be happy about. The promise of joy is often joy enough.
I wish happiness for all of you and your loved ones. But this may or may not be a happy Christmas, depending on circumstances beyond our control. Whether it will be a joyful Christmas depends not on our pursuit, but rather upon our openness to receive. For what God gives can come in the loneliest hour and the darkest night. “Weeping may spend the night,” the psalmist wrote, “but joy comes in the morning.” Joy comes in happiness or sorrow, calm or chaos–it doesn’t matter. For it is God’s doing, God coming to us as we are, in the world as it is, with an assurance of deep meaning and the promise of joy.
Fall Grants Awarded
During the November meeting, Diocesan Council awarded seven congregational grants totaling $91,850 in six diocesan regions.
In Central DC, the Church of the Epiphany will continue to enhance their justice work through The Epiphany Power Hour, a free social justice conversation series taking place every Thursday. The Power Hour was born out of Epiphany’s long history of befriending the poor, coupled with the community organizing experience of our rector, the Reverend Glenna Huber.
In North DC, Trinity, DC will concentrate its efforts on revitalization through focused attention on a Family Ministry initiative. It is designed to expand and grow their commitment to the Jesus Movement through an intentional outreach effort into their surrounding neighborhood to attract families and head of households who are in the age range of 30-45 and their children.
In South DC, St. Augustine’s will be able to embark on the work of the Unstuck Group.
In Southern Maryland, two parishes received grants: Christ Church, La Plata and Christ Church, Wayside will expand on their HeartSongs open-mic program they implemented in the Spring and will offer a fresh expression Sunday evening worship service. St. Paul’s, Piney will partner with area elementary school through relationship-based outreach that will be rooted in one of the parish’s four core values of bringing God’s hope, healing, and fellowship to their community.
In Central Montgomery County, St. Mary Magdalene will expand and support their music program between both English and Spanish speaking congregations as music is a vital part of worship in a multicultural community.
In North Montgomery County, St. Anne’s will embark on creating a fresh expression of worship that uses the information gained using MissionInsite and Experian Mosaic lifestyle categories that were more likely to respond to a unique experience and message of God.
A survivor speaks eloquently about the effects of gun violence on her life.
Last night St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill hosted the 7th Annual National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence. Those gathered came to remember and lament the lives lost and affected by gun violence in the United States. Moderated by the Rev. Michele Morgan, rector of St. Mark’s, the event featured remarks from many elected officials, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Most compelling though, were the testimonies from survivors of gun violence. All present were invited to pray and to commit themselves to advocate for sensible gun protection laws and the end of gun violence.
The Rev. Michele H. Morgan, rector of St. Mark’s, stands beside Rep. Ted Deutch (FL-22)
The Right Reverend Mark M. Beckwith, retired bishop of Newark, advocates for an end to gun violence.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi addresses those gathered.