Sermon for Christmas Eve 2014, by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector.
Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
We are here on this holy night. It’s Christmas Eve. A night of beauty. A night of mystery. Even though I’ve experienced over 50 Christmas Eves by now, I always find it hard to believe it’s actually the night. My expectations are high. I want everything to be perfect. Music, food, weather, all scripted in my imagination of the perfect Christmas. I want my relationships to be free — just for a few hours — from worry, sadness, tension, misunderstanding or any other nagging emotion that invariably creeps in.
Even in the bombardment of commercialized nostalgia, that would lead us to think that our primary responsibility as citizens is to shore up the economy by buying things, even in the midst of busy-ness, and some pain and sadness of loved ones no longer here, even with all of this, Christmas taps into something deep. For many years Christmas was what held my spiritual self together, carrying it from one year to the next. I would have moments that would break in, moments of awe and wonder. My heart would break open and I would know at that moment that I was part of a great and holy mystery, and I would know it for true.
Often though, the spirit would seem to evaporate as quickly as it came. My adult brain kicks in, reminding me that I have a lot to do, bills to pay, miles to go before I sleep, and I’d better get on with it. I’d try to hold onto that sense of something deep that seemed so wispy, so fleeting. When I think about it, what I really want is not satisfied by the carols, or giving the perfect gift, or finding the perfect dress to wear to the perfect party. What I want is the uninhibited glee of the child suspended in the magic of Christmas, but I want this with an adult heart, and even harder, with an adult mind. I am looking for what might be called the Christmas Spirit, and know it to be true. Intimately and deeply. Jesus. Me. And the proclamation of God’s love for the world. And then I listen to the nightly news. And my heart sinks.
We tell this wondrous story, in words and in the frozen-in-action creche scene. it’s so beautiful — what can it have to do with this messy, gritty, violent and painful world we live in?
Let’s look at it again. Because it is told this way, as an icon, as an invitation for each one us to journey spiritually to our own Bethlehem to find Christ there. It’s a participatory story. It is supposed to be ours too.
Look at how it begins. The manger scene is beautiful. Its surroundings are not. The human circumstances are very much the stuff of earthly life. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.”
God breaks into the ordinary
This is how our story begins. No “once upon a time.” No stepping through the Narnia closet. Joseph and Mary weren’t on some adventure or spiritual pilgrimage. We begin with the absurd, the political, the bureaucratic. A despotic ruler wants to tax the people, and in order to do that he has to count them. So he orders a mass migration of all the people, orders them to travel potentially hundreds of miles, on foot, so that they could pay him money. Money that would probably go to pay for his armies, to keep these same people under control. This is how our story begins. God breaks into the ordinary, hardscrabble human life, where the mighty wield their power against the powerless, a world of political corruption and violence. But we know this story is actually not about Caesar Augustus, or Quirinius, Governor of Syria. It’s about two no-bodies, one of them a pregnant teenager and the other her not-yet husband who knows the child she is carrying is not his, from a back-water town. The vulnerable and the powerless. They are poor, and in this bustling, busy place no one takes much notice of them. Perhaps there is no nefarious reason for there being no room at the inn, but simply that others got there first. How casually do we ourselves exclude Jesus, having filled up the space in our hearts with other guests — other thoughts, feelings, ideas, desires — that crowd him out. So when it comes time for her to give birth, they seek shelter in a cow shed. This is where, and how, God’s great love is born into the world. In the midst of it all.
And then there are those shepherds, the common laborers of their day, that God speaks to in the middle of the night. Perhaps they are the only sorts of people who would have felt comfortable at Jesus’ manger. The rest might have said “a king, born there?” The people God chooses to be the first to hear the good news are the opposite of whom we might expect. The economically poor, yes, and the poor in spirit. The lost, the broken, the ones with shipwrecked souls. The shepherds stand in for all of us, when we strip away the layers. It is in our poverty of spirit that we are most open to receive God. In that place, we find companions of the spirit, the ones we might not have chosen for ourselves were we concerned with affinity, or social situation, or similarities of background. Our companions of the spirit are the ones who understand our longings, who see what we see, support us along the way, and hold our hands in the dark night.
The very ordinariness of it all. This is the paradox, this story of heavenly contrasts. We hear it in three sentences. “Fear not! I am bringing you good news of a great joy for all the people: to you is born this day a Savior who is the Messiah, The Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
This is a God who is very near. That is the wonder and mystery of the incarnation. Jesus comes to us in an ordinary way, totally on the human side of things. This is a God that chose to be among us by being vulnerable to us, “heaven and earth in little space.” In the words of Rowan Williams, “God’s way with us is not to overwhelm us with majesty but to live his life “in little space,” and to speak there the quiet words that summon us to faith.”
The mystery of the incarnation
Those luminous moments when we sense something deep are our summons, our openings to the holy. God speaking to us through our hearts, when we hear that still, small voice that whispers to us of a holy presence within us, calling us home, reminding us of the deep truth. What we sense is both infinite – all and everything – and as intimate as it gets. And when our hearts are open, God reaches in to our deepest selves and, and touches that seed that God planted there. The Christmas spirit is the mystery of the incarnation, the holy mystery of the incarnate God right here in the midst of the reality of our very human lives.
Into this holy night, Jesus wants to be born into our hearts. Maybe you’re healthy, this Christmas. And maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re surrounded by loving family, or maybe you’re alone. Maybe there’s a painfully empty seat at the table. Maybe you’re at peace, and maybe your raging at life and at the world. We are who we are and where we are. God isn’t waiting for us to clean up our acts. We are all luminous, precious, messy, incomplete, unfinished, overanxious, occasionally grumpy, and blessed. God is ready to be born in you to tonight.
So the whole thing is, in this story that invites our participation, that calls us to make the journey of the heart, what is our response? What is our response to this unfathomable, mysterious outpouring of love? I’m not asking about what belief system you hold, or what you think, or what church you may or may not attend. It is always about opening the heart. That is everything.
The salvation of the world begins in the human heart. It is from there, that place deep inside each of us, where God dwells. God is born in our hearts and we see that our job, our one job in this earthly life is to be a spirit bearer to a broken world. To be a bearer of God’s love. Not our thoughts about God, or our theology about God, or our particular ways of worshiping God, but to be a bearer of the great, mysterious, unfathomable love of God.
This was, is, and will be the saving of the world: God’s love, and our response of love. This is why this celebration of the birth of Christ into human life is central to Christian faith: to remind us of God’s great love for each of us, and to open our hearts. And thus we sing: let every heart prepare him room.