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.