The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . .
Hello and blessed Christmas to you this night.
I’m both sad and happy to celebrate with you this way–sad that we can’t be physically together, either here or in your own churches, and happy that while we’re all in our particular spaces, we are gathered in this common space. We are united in our humanity, our hope for a better day, our love for those who have a particular claim on our hearts, and our prayers, tonight, for peace and goodwill in all the earth.
Many of our loved ones aren’t with us, some we won’t see again on this side of heaven. Others are physically distant, which hurts all the more at Christmas. Still others may be physically close but emotionally distant, which is a sorrow all its own. Some of you, I know, are alone tonight, although we’re here to assure you that you’re not alone. Tonight is the celebration of Emmanuel–God-with-us. And we are with one another through a great mystery, and I’m not talking about technology, as wonderful as it is. We are bound together by the love of God revealed to us in Jesus’ birth.
I have a candle next to me to honor you and all those we hold in our hearts, and to remind us, as Scripture teaches, that the light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness did not and cannot overcome it.
The Country Music singer Alan Jackson wrote a Christmas song that tells the story of Jesus’ birth pretty much according to the biblical accounts. It begins with those who made their way to the Christ child following a star. Then it tells of the animals in the manger, imagining them being still, as animals often are when they sense that something important is happening.
The heart of the song, though, is its refrain, which hones in on the angels present that night. But there’s no mention of them telling the shepherds not to be afraid, or of the heavenly chorus praising God.
In this song, the angels cry. That’s the entire refrain: And the angels cried. As soon as I heard it, I knew that it was true.
We’ve cried so many tears this year. Tears of grief and rage. Tears of disappointment, frustration, and fear. Tears of loneliness and longing. Tears in awe of those who are sacrificing so much for our sake. Tears of gratitude for hope on the horizon. And as an elder friend used to say whenever we met and she would cry, “Tears of joy, Mariann. Tears of joy.” They weren’t really tears of joy, but I loved the fact that she remembered joy as she cried.
Of course the angels cried. And if you’ve ever held a newborn in your arms, you know why. They cried for love. They cried knowing that it was for love God had sent His Son. They cried because they knew the child’s destiny was to grow into a man who would love as God loves and suffer as only love can suffer. They cried knowing that they could do nothing to protect this beautiful child from the cost of a love that would lead from the manger to the cross. The angels cried.
There are particular moments when we’re given eyes to see as God sees and hearts to love as God loves. One such moment is at the birth of a child. We look into the eyes of a miracle. We hold the miracle in our arms, and in that moment, our love is pure and complete. And like the angels, we cry.
Another such moment is at the end of life. God bless the intensive care doctors, nurses and chaplains who are now sometimes the only ones present when a person dies of COVID-19. A chaplain in California describes how he holds a phone or an iPad up so that loved ones can say goodbye. “It’s so clear every time that the one dying is so loved.” “But the amount of crying I’ve done this year,” he said,“….”it’s hard.”1 In death we’re given eyes to see as God sees and hearts to love as God loves. And like the angels, we cry.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once said that if you want to know what God is really like, in other words, how the creative power at the heart of our universe really works, look no further than the manger and the cross. “God acts by giving away all strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the manger and the cross.”2
There is something worrying about this, Williams concedes. We’d like our God to be more powerful than a baby or a man sentenced to die. We Christians are forever trying, with the best of intentions, to make God bigger, espousing certainties easily disputed in face of the facts. The truth is we don’t know what to do with a God who gives all power away; with healing that comes through suffering; with love that meets us in our vulnerabilities and stays there with us, rather than providing the escape from it that we so desperately want.
But that’s how it is with God.
If you want to find God in your life, look no further than the manger and the cross, which is to say, where life is beginning and ending in you. Look in the places where you know the least and fear the most. Look in the eyes of those you love more than love itself, and in the eyes of those whom you struggle to love. Look in the mirror; listen to the sound of your own voice; consider the beating of your own heart. Then cast your gaze across the globe and ponder the same love manifest in places we hear of marked by great sorrow and suffering. And like the angels, don’t be afraid to let your heart break. Let your tears flow at the sorrow and the joy of it all, the wonder of life and the mystery of love. For Christ comes to your place of tears.
There’s another song in my head tonight. It’s not a Christmas song, but it is about tears. The acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock sings about a black woman who washes floors to send her kids to college, who always makes sure that there’s food on the table, and who stays up late listening to her children’s hurt and rage. Everyone turns to her.
The father, the children, the brothers turn to her. And everybody White turns to her.
But where does she turn? Sweet Honey sings:
There oughta be a woman can break down, sit down, break down, sit down.3
Hold that image of a strong black woman breaking down, crying her eyes out, alone. Then when the tears are done, watch her as she takes a breath, get up and carries on.
I am in no way comparing myself to that amazing woman; nor am I ashamed to say that I have cried like that this year–tears like a river, alone. But here’s the thing: when there were no more tears to cry and I got up, I was okay. I knew that I wasn’t alone. Emmanuel, God-with-us, was with me, in the tears and the rising.
What I’m saying to you is that if you feel a good cry coming on, tonight or any night, it’s more than okay. It makes all the sense in the world. If not, that’s okay, too. Perhaps you’re the one to witness another person’s tears tonight, or to hold a space for joy. Maybe your Christmas task this year is to shield joy.
But if or when the tears come, let them come. When they subside, and you wonder what to do next, just for a moment, take a breath, and allow yourself to feel God with you and for you. You’ll know what to do next. You’ll rise.
Remember this: the world isn’t saved by any of us trying harder, but neither are we bystanders in this world. You and I are invited into an amazing mystery, first, to experience something of God’s love in a way that actually matters, and then to embody–to incarnate–that love for someone else. “The goodness of a Christian,” writes Rowan Williams, “is never a matter of achieving some standard. It is letting the wonder of God’s love knock sideways your ordinary habits, so that God comes through.” Jesus comes to us when we make a home for him, and through us, his light and love shines on.
Will you pray with me?
O God, we are your manger tonight, every single one of us. Help us to grow large enough inside to hold you, to hold everything: the mystery of love, the sorrow of a broken heart, the miracle of our beating hearts. We are still here. We welcome your love knocking sideways all that holds us back, so that your light shines through us, your love flows through us, with tears of sadness, tears of joy, and tears of love. Amen.
1 Jack Jenkins, For Chaplains, Being Vaccinated First Brings a Mix of Emotions, Region News Service, December 23, 2020.
2 Rowan Williams, Christmas Sermon, 2004.
3 There Oughta be a Woman by Bernice Sanders.