“Who is the Christ Child to you in 2020?”

Homily preached by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in-charge

Church of the Intercession, NYC

Christmas Eve, 2020

Text:  Luke 2:1-20


O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

In the name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Merry Christmas! – although I’d rather wish you, “Joyful Christmas”; I’ll tell you why. We’ve all come this far in the very tumultuous year of 2020, and we’ve all been subject to trauma. What we need is joy – not merriment, because merriment is ephemeral – it comes and goes very quickly, sometimes in a matter of moments. And, like a sugar high, merriment is almost always followed by a crash.

Now we could wish each other “Happy Christmas” this year, in the old English style, but I’ve had too many conversations with folks about how it doesn’t feel like a happy Christmas for that to work, either.  It’s all too common to feel that we can’t really celebrate happily this year because we can’t gather with family and friends as we normally do, because we are missing things that signify Christmas to us like parties or going to Radio City to see the Rockettes in the Christmas Spectacular.  But far, far worse than any of that is that because we are still in the midst of the pandemic, many of us are bereaved or sick ourselves or coping with loved ones who are struggling with the disease or its many side effects, physical, emotional, mental, economic.  And if you are or have a family member who is a frontline caregiver or an essential worker who is forced to work whether sick, scared or exhausted, the temptation can be to believe that this is a lost Christmas, that the holiday has no meaning this year.  Happiness is dependent on circumstances, therefore what we need is something positive that stays with us no matter what is happening around us.  That something is joy, and I believe we can find joy even in 2020.

In fact, it’s possible that Christmas can mean more to us this year than it ever has in our lifetimes. But we have to look elsewhere other than to our traditional expectations of Christmas to find its power this year. Furthermore – and this may disappoint, confuse or even anger you – we should not this year, or any year, expect Christmas to make us “merry” or “happy,” in the Hallmark Card sense of the word – that has never been what Christmas is truly about.  Christmas is about faith, hope, and fulfillment – and those three together confer upon us Christmas joy, which can remain in us always, even after the wrapping paper has been tossed in the trash.

In fact, expecting to be happy this time of year can be a dangerous for some.  It’s well known that depression always increases during the holidays, whether we are in a pandemic or not, because some of us feel “left out” of the holidays for a myriad of reasons.  The result of measuring ourselves against holiday norms manufactured primarily by folks who want to sell us something can be devastating.  Is this what Luke and Matthew intended when they gave us the Christmas stories in their gospels?  Of course not.  These stories are in the gospels not to make us want stuff we can’t have;  they are there to make us desire what we can have.

I’ve preached before on a marvelous book called The Revelation of the Magi that was recently rediscovered in the Vatican Library after having been lost for hundreds of years.  The book purports to have been written by the Magi themselves, telling their own story in the first person of how they were led to the baby Jesus through a miraculous journey following the Christmas star that was Christ himself.

There is one aspect of that book that is crucial to understanding the core meaning of Christmas.  When the star that is to lead them first appears to the Magi in their sacred cave, its blindingly bright light resolves and concentrates into the Christ Child himself.  What follows is fascinating: every Magus (that’s the singular of “Magi”) – every Magus sees a very different Child in his own vivid individual vision.  One Magus says, (and I’m quoting now), “I saw a human being who was humble, unsightly in appearance and poor,” another says, “I saw a light in whom there were many images that were amazing,” yet another says, “I saw a cross and a person of light who hung upon it, taking away the sins of the entire world,” yet another says, “I saw him ascending to the heavenly heights, and angels opening the gates before him.”  There are more visions – in this book there are twelve Magi, not three, and no two of them saw or experienced the same thing although they were together when the star appeared.

The same is as true for us today as it was for the Magi back then.  There is no single experience of Christ, so we shouldn’t expect that we all will have a common one.  The point is that the baby Jesus can be everything or anything depending on what we need.  The adult Jesus was a prophet, a healer of both physical and mental ills, a teacher, a miracle worker, and more, so when we worship the infant Jesus, we know his birth can minister to us wherever we need it most.  Jesus’ birthday celebration comes once a year to comfort us in our grief and be with us in our struggles, to heal our souls that have been riven with despair, with anger and fear, to share our burdens with us as we go through whatever it is that is coming against us right now, this year.

The birth of Jesus is the hope of the world, the hope that has been given to us by God the Father in the form of the Christmas gift of Jesus his Son, Emmanuel, God with us.  Hope is the most important gift we can ever receive:  without hope we die, but with hope we can find the faith to go on, fighting if need be, knowing that Jesus is with us every step of the way, strengthening us with the power of God.

This means we must adjust our expectations of Christmas, starting this year.  I’m not saying that we don’t or shouldn’t miss our families or our traditions or mourn our loved ones who have passed on or even mourn the parts of our lives that we have lost to the pandemic – that is all necessary psychic work for us to do in order to go forward.  But we do need to drop the ideas of unachievable, superficial “holiday happiness” that we have grown so attached to over the years.

After all, even Jesus’ actual birth over 2000 years ago was accompanied by an unimaginable tragedy – the death of the Holy Innocents, killed by King Herod’s terrible edict to kill all newborn boys age two or under in an effort to destroy Jesus before he could become a danger to Herod or to Rome.  Can you imagine what it was like to be one of those parents whose sons were martyred because Jesus was born?   What were the following celebrations of Christmas like to them?  Certainly not happy, certainly not merry.

But, believe it or not, those parents could have found joy in both the fact and anniversary of Jesus’ birth.  We said at the beginning of our time together this evening that while happiness is dependent on circumstances and merriment is a quickly passing pleasure, joy is a state of being, possible under any conditions, no matter how sorrowful.  Imagine this – perhaps the parents of the Holy Innocents were given a special Christmas gift of sanctity by God, a special taste of God’s love, mercy and compassion, a special vision of heaven because of the horrible loss they suffered for the sake of God’s own Son.

Now let’s take special care here – I am not saying that the children were brought back to life or that these parents did not mourn for their lost sons every day for the rest of their lives.  But it is conceivable that the sure knowledge that their boys were safe in heaven in the arms of God where they would certainly be reunited with them one day possibly, just possibly gave them not happiness but joy, deep joy that comes from knowing how much Christ loves them no matter what they had endured.  Our gracious Lord must have given those parents what they needed in order to go on with life here on earth.

And he can do the same for us.  What do you need in order to go on?  Who does Jesus need to be to you this Christmas?  A healer? A comforter? A mother, father, or child, especially if you’ve lost your own? A companion in loneliness?  Whatever you need, that’s the child that can be born in your life, tonight.  This Christmas Eve, please don’t be afraid to pray for what you need – and then open your heart to receive the answer to your prayer.

That answer may come in an unexpected, surprising form.  No one looking at a newborn baby wrapped in rags in a dirty stable would consider him the hope of the world, the answer to the desperate needs of all of humankind.  Often, we judge what we see to be worthless or at best very little, instead of the answer to our most fervent prayers.  God has a way of wrapping our Christmas gifts in what Saint Theresa of Calcutta called “distressing disguises.”  We can have trouble recognizing the gift, clinging instead to a wish list of what we think we most need.

That is why we so often feel abandoned, our prayers unheard, our deepest selves unloved, our conflicts unresolved.  We are all prey to these feelings, myself included, especially during holiday season, especially this year.  But the same God who sent stunningly different visions to each of the Magi is also sending stunningly individual answers to each of our prayers.

The shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night were treated to something they had never prayed for:  a gorgeous vision of the glory of the Lord with angels, music, and light.  We don’t know what they were praying for, but God’s response was a vision.  Now, that vision may not have seemed like a direct answer to their prayers, yet it was, because it gave the shepherds hope, that greatest of gifts.

My prayer for all of us tonight is that we might receive Jesus’ birth as a powerful sign of hope, for ourselves and for our world.  Hope dispels despair, anger, and fear.  If tonight on Christmas Eve we all received the gift of hope, we will experience the joy of the nativity and be able to go boldly into 2021, trusting in Immanuel, God With Us. So Joyful Christmas everyone – and don’t be afraid to be a little merry, too.