Christmas Eve - December 24, 2023
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Isaiah 9:2-7 + Psalm 96 + Titus 2:11-14 + Luke 2:1-20
Behold! I bring you tidings of great joy: for unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord! My sisters and brothers, I speak to you today + in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
[ad lib opening…]
Undoubtedly, most of us, at some time or another, have experienced the church as an unwelcoming place: An unkind word from a priest or minister, a pervasive sense of judgmentalism, scrupulous small-mindedness, to say nothing of good old-fashioned hypocrisy. Like our friend visiting St. Peter’s square, that sense of rejection can be rather pointed and indeed, long-lasting. All the more reason that I wish to extend the warmest of welcomes to each of you here today, with a grateful heart and open arms – most especially those of you who are visiting with friends and family for the Christmas holiday.
But it is telling – as I have come to learn –that there is a flip side to the story of people feeling rejected by the church. I have heard repeatedly over the past seven years from members of my congregation there is equally a sense of judgment and skepticism they experience from friends and family when they learn they have joined a Christian congregation – often after having spent many a decade or even a lifetime apart from one. This experience of rejection, is more common than many people realize: a pervasive sense of incredulity by friends and loved ones at the thought that anyone would choose to become a Christian. A Buddhist? Sure! Vedanta? Sounds esoteric! Mindfulness practice? Sign me up! But Christian?
How many of you have ever felt a sense of reticence or even trepidation about admitting to friends or colleagues you are “Christian” for fear of being associated with the likes of homophobes, misogynists, money-hungry-charlatans of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel;’ or now, perhaps more than ever, with a kind of right-wing “nationalism” that has so twisted the preaching of their pseudo-gospel into political fanaticism as to eclipse any sense of the authentic Gospel as the most radical embodiment of love the world has ever known.
As I have written emphatically in my book, Contemplating Christ, “The rise of modern atheism in the West along with the precipitous decline in church attendance must be understood, at least in part, as a purifying corrective to the spiritual, moral, and imaginative failures of our religious institutions which have failed to convey the most radical truth of the Incarnation we celebrate tonight: not only that we are lovable (for that has become far too cliché) but rather that we are indeed incarnations of love itself.”
This radical claim of Christian faith – that we are incarnations of God’s love – is perhaps no more tenderly expressed than in the celebration of Christ’s birth: in the helplessness of an infant, in the love of a mother for her child, in the song of ancient Shepherds, in the silence of a bright star that hovers over the place where he lay as if the universe itself bent low to gaze upon the birth of Eternity in our midst; and no less in the solemn visitation of Magi, mysterious and elusive, traveling from foreign lands and bearing gifts in fulfillment of an ancient prophecy: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa 60:3).
This Solemnity of Christmas – literally “Christ Mass” – celebrates the coming of this light into the world…the brightness of this dawn in human history. A remembrance that summons us to become ourselves bearers of this light in the very flesh of our flesh, in the very marrow of our bones. This is what it means to be Christians: to preach this light always and everywhere, and (as St. Francis would say): if we are forced, use words.
What the church too often misses is that we do not celebrate on this Holy Night a past light once born into the outskirts of an ancient empire, a light that has now come and gone in the vastitudes of history. No, we gather here to celebrate a divine light that has been given us and which remains with us even unto today: a light we hold in our hearts, a light we carry in our bodies, a light we reflect in our words and actions – all for a world desperately in need of the hope and the promise it holds out. And if we are to be mocked for the audacity of that claim, if our friends and colleagues should find it shocking, or even naïve that we should speak of such light in the midst of the world’s darkness, so be it. We stand in the company of two millennia of saints and martyrs who have confronted the same.
But there is an unlikely short story – not of the past but of the future -- that came to mind as I was reflecting on what it means for us to be harbingers of this light. The story, published by Ray Bradbury in 1954 is entitled, All Summer in a Day. In his sci-fi tale, Bradbury writes of a futuristic time when humans have colonized the planet Venus; a planet where it rains perpetually day in and day out, one season after the next, one year after another. Only about every seven years or so do the clouds draw back allowing the sun to shine with all its brilliance but for the course of a mere hour before another seven-year cycle of rain begins again.
As the story opens, a class of school children in the second-grade are doubtful about the weather report promising that today is the day the sun will finally shine. Enter Margot: one of the school children who was originally born on Earth, and thus remembers the sun from the days of her early childhood. She tries to offer her classmates encouragement and hope: “The sun really can be seen,” she says, and it is more beautiful than they could ever imagine: the brilliance of its light, the warmth of its rays. “It’s all real!” she insists. But in their skepticism, they refuse to believe her and begin to tease her for her tenacious beliefs about the sun. One classmate in particular, named William, becomes so enraged at Margot’s insistence, he locks her in a closet in an attempt to silence her.
Shortly thereafter the teacher rushes into the classroom to usher the children outside just as the sun begins to peak through the clouds. All the children become so excited, they run outside, forgetting about Margot as they relish in the sun for the first time in living memory. Tragically, it is only after they return to the classroom that they realize they had forgotten to release Margot. Her day in the sun will have to wait another seven years.
I believe there is a metaphor here for a different kind of light we celebrate this evening. The Light of a different Son, The light of the very Son of God, who, like Margot, we have experienced and indeed we do remember, even if at times only vaguely in a world so often shrouded in thick clouds and darkness. But if you have started to forget, or if you remember only dimly, only vaguely: let these candles we hold, the stories we hear, the songs we sing, the bread we share, be our reminder: We have been made bearers of the Light.
I don’t need to enumerate the growing reasons for the world’s skepticism, I don’t need to tell you how easily despair can take up residence in us when confronted with the crises we face. They are plain to see for anyone who has not been locked away in a closet: Savage acts of terrorism, brutal wars raging across the continents; the growing shadow of fascism stretching across the globe; the onset of climate catastrophe.
It is no wonder the world has grown skeptical and unbelieving – no longer able to see anything in the forecast but thick clouds and darkness. But for those of us who give our fealty to this new-born King, we know that above the clouds of war and violence and darkness, “there is light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” (JRR Tolkien, LOTR: ROTK, 922) Indeed, if this night is to mean anything, it is to remind us how very much we are like Margot, ready to proclaim a Light we have already seen, indeed to bring the very light of the Son – God’s Son – to a world desperately in need of it. Perhaps today, as ever, Christians are indeed a lot like Margot – trying to convince the world of the beauty of a Divine Light that many have yet to see for themselves. And perhaps much like Margot we too should not be surprised to be met with cynicism and mockery.
But I can tell you this. On that fateful day in Bradbury’s tale, Margot did not need to see the light of the sun to know what the rest of her classmates came to discover for themselves. Like her, it is for us to carry its light in our hearts – to know it is there, even when we, ourselves, cannot see it. And to become the very light itself, when the storm clouds of history would otherwise obfuscate it. That is why we are here tonight. To remember as did St. Simeon upon first seeing the Christ-child in the Temple, who took the child in his arms and raising him up to God proclaimed at last:
Now Master, you can let your servant go in peace. My eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” (Lk. 1:30-32)
No matter how dark the clouds of history, let the festivities of this night remind you of the days of old when the very light of God “lay sleeping under the rafters of a barn.” But above all, let our glad song and good cheer awaken you to the deep down knowing that even now you hold that same divine light in the manger of your heart – and may you never stop giving birth to that Light in your life.
May Almighty God bless us with his grace, Christ give us the joys of everlasting life: + and unto the fellowship of the citizens above may the King of Angels bring us all. Amen.