“An Ordinary Christmas Miracle”
Homily delivered by the Reverend Rhonda J. Rubinson
Christmas Eve, 2018
at the Church of the Intercession, NYC
Text: Luke 2:1-24
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have a question for you: How are you feeling tonight? Are you merry? Happy? Joyful? Okay I’ll ask you again – this time be honest; don’t just tell me what you think I want to hear. How are you feeling tonight? There doesn’t have to be only one answer; your feelings may be more complex. Maybe you are very happy but also tired, or perhaps excited and very stressed. Or maybe you came to church tonight hoping that this celebration would help you feel better about Christmas; maybe, like Charlie Brown and many others in this season, you are disturbed by the fact that you feel down at this time of year even while the glittery world around you is insists on your acting merry. Maybe you had a tough year, or have serious challenges that make it feel dishonest for you to even pretend to be merry. Our country and our world have certainly had a disturbing, in some ways terrifying year – and it feels not only hard but insincere to pretend to drop all of our concerns simply because the calendar makes that demand.
Of course Christmas can be a beautiful holiday, filled with wonder and love and meaning. It also is, inevitably and by far, the most loaded holiday of the year, the one most freighted with personal, theological, and political questions that clamor to be dealt with.
For some, our personal Christmas histories are the most difficult to contend with – perhaps you did not grow up in a healthy family environment, so the holiday held disappointment or possibly even worse for you. Others don’t have any family Christmas history at all. That’s me, I barely have a Christmas history – as you all probably know I grew up Jewish. The only Christmas tradition our family had was for my (late) parents, my brother and I to climb into the car each year to drive around Bergen County and look at the often beautiful but sometimes frighteningly exorbitant Christmas decorations on some houses. This was at my mother’s insistence – she loved the color, music and fun of the season; my father on the other hand could not stop crabbing about having to drive us around to do this every year.
For others, theological issues rise up every year at this time. For some, entering into Christmas is an admission that something seemingly impossible actually happened: the birth of the baby Jesus, which to some is a childish myth, unworthy of a modern, “enlightened” person’s attention or belief. For others, traditions like the virgin birth are too much to countenance. So there are many, including our founding fathers two-hundred some odd years ago and Jehovah’s witnesses today, who do not celebrate Christmas at all.
Then, there’s the politics of Christmas. Unfortunately, Christmas was one of the earliest battlefields in our current culture wars. What used to seem like petty silliness – aggrieved people who call themselves Christians claiming persecution when somebody wishes them “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” – has now exploded into a dangerous campaign to marginalize those who do not celebrate Christmas. This is part of the larger fight over whether we are a theocracy or a democracy, and it can result in violence, particularly against Muslims and Jews. Unfortunately, for this purpose, Christmas has been weaponized by some branches of Christianity.
All of this can lead us to throw up their hands and give up any effort to truly celebrate Christmas in any way beyond the superficial. So we grit out teeth and perform our cultural and familial duty for the season, and exhale with relief when it’s finally over. It doesn’t need to be that way – we can not only face Christmas in all of its complexity, but also enter into the wonder, the mystery, the joy of Jesus’ birth. Truly celebrating the nativity of Jesus does take effort – but it’s a different kind of effort than the sort we are accustomed to exerting this season.
We start by consciously realizing that entering into Christmas is NOT entering into a fantasyland where you have to suspend your powers of thought or deny reality. To the contrary, Christmas is the core of reality, it is the very evidence that you will find in your own spirit that God is real, and loves us with a love that we can barely comprehend.
So, let’s gin up some courage and face the challenges of Christmas. We start with the truth of Christmas. Was Jesus born on December 25? Was he born of a virgin? Was he born in Bethlehem? Don’t report me to the bishop, but we haven’t the slightest proof of any of that, and in my humble opinion, none of it truly matters. What matters is that of Jesus absolutely was born into our world. That is what is true; the rest is details. How do we know that it is true? Not from the facts, which we don’t know – but from a different way to understand truth – the way we understand truth from art, from literature, from music, from parables in the Bible, all of which do not contain sheer data but which are true none the less.
Let me give you an example from my own life of what I mean by this kind of truth. This story may sound like it has nothing to do with Christmas, but I hope it illustrates the point. Years ago I took a ferry across the English Channel from Dover, England to Calais, France. It was misty, gray and raw when we pushed off from the white cliffs of Dover (typical British weather), so we all huddled inside for most of the ride until we arrived in France, when the sun came out so I went out on deck.
When I reached the rail and looked up at the cliffs of the port of Calais, I nearly fell off of the ferry. Instantly, I felt like I had stepped into a Manet painting – the blocks of color – amber, burnt orange and red of the cliffs, the deep juicy green of the trees, the blue-purple of the sky, even the shimmering almost violet color of the air – exactly what Manet captured in oil and canvas. Now from the point of view of factual accuracy, there are probably thousands of ordinary tourist selfies of the cliffs of Calais that are far more accurate than any painting. But while those photos may be accurate, Manet’s paintings are true – expressing what it is like to experience in your very being what it is like to be there, to know on a different level beyond fact what to be present in that environment is truly like.
This is why a great work of art affects us so deeply, because it touches us deep inside where facts cannot reach. Here’s the key: this is also the place where we meet God –in the part of the soul that we call our spirit; and here is also where we enter into the truth of Christmas. To enter into this space, we must leave the political, cultural, and sensory clamor outside, and enter into that sacred space, where we know that certain things are true.
The first of these truths about Christmas is that Jesus was born into this world, meaning that he was the same kind of tiny, vulnerable infant that we all were as we came into this world. Do not make the mistake that you can make if you look at some art, where Jesus looks like a little man sitting on his mother’s lap – no, Jesus was a baby who needed to be nursed, changed, and protected – remember that his parents had to flee to Egypt get him safely away from Herod’s edict that every baby boy his age be killed. All of us, and every one of our own children, had to be similarly cared for, as was the baby whose birth we celebrate tonight. Jesus was both ordinary and miraculous at the same time. Imagine for a moment holding the baby Jesus as though he is yours – because he is. Feel the love that you have for this child, and then feel the love that this child radiates back to you.
When we were in the Holy Land this past January, we visited a site called “the shepherds’ grotto” on the outskirts of Bethlehem. The site is a collection of shallow caves where shepherds and their families would huddle to get out of the cold at night or the weather during the day. These small caves overlook expanses of rocky soil punctuated with occasional of tufts of grass and the odd tree. The scene is absolutely ordinary – except for what happened here, the announcement of the miracle of Christ’s birth, complete with torrents of light and choirs of angels. Again, the scene was ordinary and miraculous at the same time. (By the way, we didn’t see angels when we were there but we were treated to a rainbow since it had been raining, which was a different kind of blessing).
Now hold on to your Christmas hats for a moment, because I want to fast forward from the first of Jesus’ appearance on this earth, his birth, to his last appearances, after his resurrection. These resurrection appearances were – can you guess? – miraculous even though they looked ordinary. Remember when Jesus rose, he appeared as a gardener, a guy walking on the road to Emmaus, a stranger cooking breakfast on the beach. The evidence of the greatest miracle in all of human history – Christ’s resurrection – came to us cloaked as utterly ordinary people.
Are you getting the message? The ordinary is where we still find Christ alive today, and it is where Christ is born this night. So this Christmas Eve, don’t look to the sky searching for fireworks and angels. Instead look at what and who you see every day: gaze deeply into the eyes of your loved ones and your friends and your neighbors, hold and protect the children in your life and exchange love with them, experience the wonder and truth of Jesus’ nativity deep in your spirit, where God lives and where Jesus is born anew tonight and every dawn of every day. Enter into the miracle of Christmas, and rejoice: rejoice in our God who loves us so much that he gave to us ordinary folks what was most precious to him and miraculous to us, his son Jesus Christ our Lord. And then have a very Merry Christmas, tonight and every day.