Christmas Eve 2017
The Rev. Canon Donna G. Joy
Silent night, Holy night,
All is calm, All is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
News over the past year offers a strong reminder – increasingly – that all does not feel calm; all does not seem bright. And to sleep in heavenly peace, quite frankly, is not always possible. People every day are fleeing from their homes in places that are destroyed by war; many die before they are able to leave; many sacrifice their safety and their lives in order to support these places when conflict war occurs.
We have witnessed this year the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the second world war with more than 20 million people in just a handful of countries facing starvation and famine; and, of course, we know that the realities of hunger and homelessness continue to increase among our neighbours much closer to home, right here in Winnipeg. Political and economic injustices as well as ecological abuse of the environment continue to contradict the purposes of God; continue to threaten our future. I heard on CBC radio this past week that Manitoba has 11,000 children in the CFS system, and this is the largest, per capita, in the country. Many First Nations communities continue to live with inadequate infrastructure
My friend who lives on the west coast was diagnosed this past year with a degenerative lung condition, with a prognosis of 3-5 years to live. He is currently being assessed to determine if he might qualify for a lung transplant, and was told that if he does qualify he’s very likely to get one because so many otherwise healthy young people are dying of fentanyl overdose that increasingly there is an over-abundance of lungs available for transplant. Indeed, addictions to opioids has reached epidemic proportions. I have another friend whose marriage just ended.
So, with all this in mind, all does not feel calm; all does not feel bright. With a deepened sense of despair, countless people the world over do not sleep in heavenly peace.
As we attempt to unpack what appears to be such a contradiction, but of course – at a deeper level - is not, I think a good place to start is with the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah stands firm in the prophetic tradition, as one who carries the divine response into life and death realities: offering the people a new perception of reality. A recent article I was reading in Sojourners magazine talks about the importance of discovering, “…relentless hope through prophetic imagination in times of despair.”
I think that is what tonight is all about: discovering relentless hope through prophetic imagination in times of despair.
In this evening’s reading, Isaiah is addressing the Israelite people after they’ve returned from the exile. In a few chapters prior to this reading we have been told that the people themselves are living in darkness and governed by all kinds of injustices, motivated by the need for power and greed. Quite frankly, they’re not behaving very well! At the same time, the rebuilding of their homeland after the exile is filled with disappointment and struggles way beyond what the people had expected. It is to this reality that Isaiah speaks, and he offers them a new perception of reality; he offers a message that echoes through the despair – penetrating hope. He tells the people that God will not abandon them, that God will provide for a better, stronger, transformed future. Even though the signs at the time were not visible or even promising - as this past year it has often been difficult to recognize the signs that God is present - the prophet was able to offer this message of hope.
And this, of course, brings us to the birth that we celebrate tonight, because Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise. Jesus is that moment in history when God became linked to humanity in a new and everlasting way. All is calm. All is bright. And we can sleep in heavenly peace, because God’s own son has come – has entered into the very messiness of life – shining a light in the midst of the darkness.
The problem with this birth story is the way in which we tend to interpret it. It seems that our interpretation is more influenced by Hallmark than the work of good, solid biblical scholars. We focus on the cozy manger; adoring parents gazing down at the child; beautiful star lit night… and we are filled with warm and fuzzies at the sight of it all. The problem here is that we stop at the manger; but, in fact, the manger is pointing to something that revolutionizes salvation history. In Luke’s telling of this story the manger is really important; he mentions it no less than three times: (1) Mary and Joseph laid Jesus in a manger. (2) The angel informs the shepherds of the good news of this birth and that they will find the child lying in a manger. (3) They quickly go to find Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
The manger is important to Luke because it is a sign that helps the shepherds find the Messiah. In a world filled with political unrest, injustices, perhaps beyond our understanding, the Messiah is born, and a lowly manger – a feeding trough for animals - is where those who are searching will find him. A reminder that we can/will find this light in the most unlikely of places. In a world where the emperor Augustus viewed himself, and was viewed by others, as a living God, a Saviour, who is the true Messiah, is born. In a world that functions through the dictatorship of a powerful emperor, this Messiah comes into the world a fragile, vulnerable child, and within a generation he was to be hailed as ‘son of God’.
In Luke’s Gospel, the news of this birth is first shared with shepherds who are considered dirty and despised; shepherds, who live very much on the margins of society. The point that Luke is making is clear: The birth of this little boy is the beginning of a confrontation between the kingdom of God – in all its apparent weakness, insignificance, and vulnerability – and the kingdoms of the world. So, whenever you see a manger, I encourage you to view it as a signpost – pointing you toward the explosive truth that the baby lying there is already being spoken of as a whole different kind of a king: one whose resting place is a manger rather than a throne. All is calm. All is bright: Because on this night we look beyond the manger and see a Messiah who sheds a whole new light into those dark places we see in the world and within ourselves.
Some of you may remember Simon and Garfunkel’s recording of Silent Night which was recorded simultaneously with a simulated 7:00 news bulletin of the actual events of August 3, 1966. Those of you who remember this recording might recall that as the harmonious voices were filling the air waves with utter beauty, the tragedies of the day were being reported. This simulated news bulletin reported news involving disputes over the Civil Rights Bill, Lenny Bruce’s narcotics overdose, Martin Luther King, Jr. initiatives being sabotaged, the violent murder of a number of student nurses, anti-Vietnam protests, and former Vice-President Richard Nixon urging an increase in the Vietnam war effort.
It has been said that this recording creates an ironic commentary on various social ills by juxtaposing them with, “tenderly expressed Christmas sentiments.” This commentary suggests that the Christmas hymn ‘Silent Night’ is nothing more than a “tenderly expressed Christmas sentiment,” but to say this is to completely miss the point of what this hymn is about. To say that all is calm, all is bright is to say that now – finally – a light shines in the darkness. To say that we may now – finally – sleep in heavenly peace is to say, in the words of Julian of Norwich, that with this birth, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” When I hear that recording, I am reminded that even when the signs are not clear, the peace and presence of this Messiah is always with us, particularly in the midst of the darkest of times.
I don’t for one minute understand why there is so much pain and suffering in our homes, our communities, and the world in which we live, but I believe that the God we worship is reborn in our hearts this night, and when we discover him in the messiness of life we also discover hope. I believe that even when the signs are not clear, God’s plan continues to unfold and that with God, nothing is impossible; and I believe that as we leave this worship tonight we carry this light with us, becoming that light – offering hope to others. As we leave here tonight we do so reminded that despite the ills of our time, all in the fullness of time, all will be well.
This Simon and Garfunkel recording – I think – offers a profound reminder of three important things:
- in the midst of the painful realities of life Jesus has come, is coming, and because he is fully divine and fully human, through him we are fully and eternally linked to God;
- before the birth of Jesus the world only had part of the picture of who God is and how God relates to people, but with this birth God has now been fully revealed; and this gift is available to everyone, unconditionally (even those dirty, despised shepherds). (Our response to this gift is to carry on Jesus’ ministry and mission, responding to and becoming that light in the painful places – but that is a whole other sermon – or, perhaps, a series of sermons… so stay tuned…).
- because of all this, through Jesus, we have been given the opportunity to enter into a relationship with God that wasn’t possible before.
The shepherds would have returned to their field, to continue to do what shepherds do, but they do not return the same people who had left that short while before. They returned to a world that continued to function the same as it had before this extraordinary birth. But the point is that they had changed; they had been touched by God through the glory of this birth and they were changed because of it. Through this experience they are now intimately linked to God in a new way, a gift given to them unconditionally, and they are now equipped to live in relationship with God through Jesus.
The shepherds now know that the messy, dirty, unjust world they live in has been invaded by the glory of God, by the peace and light that God wills among humankind – and that the sign of this is not Caesar in his palace. The sign of this is now a manger; the sign of this will become a cross; the sign of this will become his followers - each of us – pointing others toward the gift of this birth. May the light and peace of this birth allow your hearts to be stirred and your hope renewed…
Silent night, Holy night.
Jesus has come, Jesus is born this night, and Jesus will come again.
All is calm, All is bright.
May you sleep in heavenly peace; sleep in heavenly peace.