Homily by The Rev. Marcia McRae
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bainbridge, GA, 24 Dec. 2014, Christmas Eve/Christmas 1
RCL: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
It is delightful to say “Merry Christmas” after all the weeks of our waiting, anticipating & preparing through Advent & before that! When we say “Merry Christmas” we often have a mental picture of Mary with Baby Jesus; it's as if we say “Mary/M-A-R-Y” Christmas”, overlooking Joseph or seeing him away in the back of the stable.
I wonder how Mary AND Joseph felt on that night of nights. We know a bit about how each received & reacted to the unexpected news that Mary would have a child. The angel Gabriel gives Mary the news. In a dream, Joseph learns this is God's plan. Mary goes to visit her old cousin Elizabeth for 3 months & then comes home to finish gestating. When it's almost time for Mary to deliver the baby, the emperor demands a census, requiring the people to travel to their family's hometown – what a pain in the neck at Christmas! Think how you would feel if the government demanded each of us go to Atlanta Dec. 24th so the government could get a headcount.
I wonder about the stress Mary feels walking or riding a donkey on that 5-day/90-mile1 forced-march with none of our amenities, no car or public transportation, no welcome center, no restrooms. I wonder how Joseph feels having to go on that long trek. It would be tough enough if he could go alone, leaving his young, pregnant fiance at home to be tended by family or friends. But NO: the emperor insists, “Everybody, report to your family's hometown.” So Joseph has to take his beloved Mary, who is about ready to deliver this Baby!
We know that Joseph is a carpenter whose work demands planning. This trip demands planning. Joseph prepares carefully in case Mary goes into labor en route. He studies the route, packs plenty of supplies, does all he can to prepare.2 How does he expect to find a place to stay in Bethlehem?
Obviously he didn't call ahead to book a room. Joseph & Mary finally arrive & the inn keeper says: “No room. We're full.” Joseph has no Hilton Honors card to flash his diamond status to demand that 1 room that's always available for the elite. What does Joseph feel with no place to stay? He's planned so much. They've come so far. They're finally here.
Think of a time you traveled when you would have preferred to stay home, when the journey was hard or inconvenient. “There are times in our journey when we think the end is in sight. The hard part is over...we're about to (finish &) something happens...(It seems so hard, so unfair)...(Why can't this be easy?)”3
Our journey with God has times “of excitement, joy, & even rest, but it's unlikely that the journey will ever be easy.”4 The several times he preached here some years ago, the Rev. Charles Hoskins of Savannah regularly reminded us of this. He would say & repeat these 3 sentences: “God is good all the time. All the time God is good. But God is never easy.”
My Brothers & Sisters, Jesus comes to show us how to live especially when life isn't easy & we encounter roadblocks on our journey. Jesus comes as a human boy to show us how to look differently at our un-easy times.
Despite how difficult the emperor's demand is that makes Joseph go to Bethlehem, it is God's plan for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. For Jesus to be born in a stable assures us that God has down-to-earth, first-hand experience with the hard times of human life.
Joseph, the planner & doer, this man of action who earns his living by the work of his hands has done all he can to provide for Mary. As she gives birth to Jesus, so much of is out of his hands5. The labor is Mary's work6: Joseph can wipe sweat from her brow, help her breath, give her some water.
Suddenly Mary's labor is completed. A new life is swaddled & cuddled in Joseph's arms. Imagine how Mary looks at Baby Jesus when Joseph hands this precious infant to her.
Imagine Joseph's surprise as this unexpected bunch of shepherds appear suddenly, crowding at the stable entrance. As if Joseph needs one more surprise, these outdoors men tell him:
“So we're in the fields like always watching our sheep when – Schzaam!7 – an angel stands in front of us. God's glory shines all around us & we are terrified – scared stiff – until the angel says: 'Don't be afraid. I've got good news: a brand new baby is born, & this is great joy for everybody! He's the Savior – God's Anointed One8. You'll find him in a manger – no kidding in a manger – yep, you'll see him in an animal's feed box.'
“So there we are trying to take all this in & Schzaam! a whole bunch of angels joins in praising God. We just stand there open-mouthed & then try to sing along: 'Glory to God in the hrighest heaven, & on earth peace...'
“Then we say to ourselves: we gotta go to Bethlehem & see this Baby! So we drop everything & here we are. We found you! And we're still amazed. We're as amazed as you are & everybody who hears this Good News!
“We'll tell you how good this news is: We left our sheep & we're at peace about their safety on this night of nights “
“What a night! “What a beautiful Baby.”
“Did you see that? He smiled! He opened his eyes & looked right at me & smiled. Don't tell me newborns don't open their eyes. I saw him.”
“Wow! What a night!”
What a night indeed!
This night is special & different. This amazing news calls the shepherds to be adventuresome. This amazing news calls us again & again to come & see Jesus, then to go & tell others about Jesus.
This night – tonight – is special & different. God has called you. me – us – here this night to come & grow in grace, to be nourished with the gift Jesus gives us in Holy Commmunion – this gift of life & love, this gift of Jesus himself.
Know this: ...”It's not how you (plan for the journey) that's important, it's being willing to take the journey & go wherever God leads you.”9
As you journey with God, remember Joseph with his rough, practical carpenter's hands, holding the Baby Jesus. Think of the awe that must fill him as he holds Jesus, breathing his first breaths of earth's air. We know that God is awesome & far other than we are. Joseph knows this, too. Yet here he holds Baby Jesus, God's Son, God Incarnate – God In Human Flesh. Awesome. Holding new life IS awesome.
“Awesome and above being possessed by mere mortals, this mighty God calls us friend and beloved child. God's fearsome love for us (leads Jesus) to the cross where Jesus dies for us.”10
“Once we have truly known God, that same fearsome love compels us to lay our life on the line, pick up our cross, and follow.”11
As we follow Jesus, we have abundant opportunities to share the Good News to people who are in darkness. Shine the light on them. How you shine the light depends on your personality & your unique gifts. The “how” may be different. The work is the same: share the Good News. As St. Francis tells us: Always preach the Good News & use words when you must.
Holy Bible with the Apocrypha. New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.
Kautz, Richard. A Labyrinth Year: Walking the Seasons of the Church. Harrisburg: Morehouse. 2005.
Lectionary Page. http://www.lectionarypage.net/. Accessed: 8 Dec. 2014.
The New American Bible for Catholics. South Bend: Greenlawn Press. 1986.
Robinson, Barbara. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. New York: Avon Books. 1972.
Tenney, Merrill C. Handy Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1965.
1 Kautz, Richard. A Labyrinth Year: Walking the Seasons of the Church. Pp. 6,5.
2 Ibid. P. 6.
3 Ibid. P. 9.
5 Note: Thought from Ibid. Kautz. P. 13.
6 Note: Ibid. Kautz. P. 13.
7 Note: From Robinson, Barbara. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. New York: Avon Books. 1972.
8 Note: Messiah means Anointed One. Tenney, Merrill C. Handy Dictionary of the Bible. P. 101.
9 Ibid. Kautz. P. 6.
10 Ibid. P. 15.