Grace and peace on this first Sunday of the New Year, 12th Day of Christmas, 12 Drummers Drumming--and the whole parade before us, with pipers, lords and ladies, milkmaids, swans, geese, golden rings, calling birds, French hens, right down for the last time to that Partridge in a Pear Tree. Merry Christmas! At some point in the early morning hours tomorrow the Magi will find their way to Bethlehem, and the long winter season of reflection on the Incarnation will move ahead to the wider frame of Epiphany, the revelation of Emmanuel, God with us, not simply in the quiet of the Holy Night but expanding in wider and wider circles, Jews and Gentiles, all nations, all peoples.
Last Sunday Phil Wainwright turned our attention again to the First Chapter of St. John, the Gospel of Christmas, the affirmation that the Baby in the Manger and the Holy Family and the Shepherds and the Angels cannot be reduced to the status of characters in a sentimental children’s story. The resounding power and reality of the Eternal Word, God himself, shaking the foundations, filling the darkness with the brightness of new light. Changing things. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Indeed a warm and gracious assurance in the Bethlehem Stable. Tidings of comfort and joy, even in the heart of the bleak midwinter. All good and all true.
And yet before the Nativity Scene is packed away for another year, we have this morning one more word of Christmas. A tug on the sleeve and a tap on the shoulder. And this a word that the world most definitely doesn't want to hang around for. A part of the Christmas story that we don’t dwell on at the Children’s Pageant or with a Hallmark card . . ..
Second Chapter of Matthew. The Wise Men slip away. And the next character to stride out onto the stage, raging King Herod. Raging. And Matthew doesn't mince any words: “He sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Wise Men.” And the echoing songs of the Angels over the hillsides are drowned out by what comes next: “wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children.”
Leave this out and we’re not getting the whole story of Christmas. The light shines in the darkness. And all of a sudden there it is, out of the shadows. The reality of what was going on under the cover of darkness. The hidden squalor. Violence. Jealousy. Greed. Appetite. Secretly feeding the old furnace. Whatever dark matter we would sweep under the carpet. What we might allow ourselves not to notice in the shadows, now fully exposed. No way to hide from it.
If we think sin is an antiquated concept,then we haven't been reading the newspaper. We haven't been looking into the mirror.
The hard reality and the first reality of Christmas, the most important reality in so many ways, again from St. John, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”
Turning away, and in some way even fighting back. We love the eager shepherds, but in the end we human beings all of us most often most resemble that horrible king. If we’re honest. In his raging.
There is an old joke about the problem with kittens. “They grow up to be cats.” And the problem with the Baby in the Manger, the problem with Christmas. He grows up. He grows up to be Jesus. And we would need to say, each and every one of us, along with our brother King Herod, that this child grows up in a dangerous way to be a problem for the world, and for us.
We sing the song: No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground . . . . This is about putting a stop to things in our own lives. Not just about other people. A long time ago and far away. Or even about the bad people we see on the 11 o’clock news. Ancient villains, modern terrorists.
Christ came down from heaven with you and me specifically in mind, which is the scary part of the Christmas message. And for us that Bethlehem night if it is going to mean anything at all that is more than a fairy tale for children is going to need to be about personal accountability. There’s a long literary tradition about how kings handle the bearers of bad news. And not just kings. The light shines in the darkness, and it’s all there. For God to see, for us to see. Every dark thought and every deed, lie, betrayal, every self-centered act of greed and force, the altar of every false god. It all comes out.
The Baby in the Manger grows up. The lights come on. After his gentle cooing in the manger he learns to speak. And in the fourth chapter of St. Matthew at the 17th verse we are told what are the first and central words to the world, the world he made, the world for which he would give his life, the key message of his ministry, what he was born to tell us: “From that time,” Matthew says, “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To know with clarity that from his point of view this is a matter of life and death. The Greek, metanoite, more or less literally, “think again.” “Put on a new mind.” “Get your head on straight.” Before it’s too late.
The traditional Prayer Book absolution after the Confession at Morning and Evening Prayer was replaced with a shorter form for those services in our 1979 Book of Common Prayer—but the classic text (which we at St. Andrew’s will still hear a couple of times a month at Choral Evensong) does continue to be found in contemporary language in the order for Ash Wednesday. “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live, has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.” --This is what that Nativity Scene and the Manger and the Shepherds and the Angels have got to be about, if they are about anything real. A prayer from the heart. “Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Back in the 16th century it was Archbishop Cranmer’s thought that we would each and every one of us do well to hear those serious, serious words about repentance twice a day. Until they would become embedded in our deep consciousness.
It’s what Herod doesn't want to hear about--the enraging message of Christmas is that Christmas is about change. Not first of all about the things “out there” that need to be changed. But about what change needs to happen to us, in us, in the new light of the Christ child. To let Christmas happen, to get our acts together, to get our heads on straight.
The First Chapter of John, again: He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God . . . .
We welcome him at Christmas, but on that morning and in that season we would sing as our Christmas hymn a hymn about change, new direction, new heart, new life. A Prayer for the Last Day of Christmas. That the hymn Herod couldn't bring himself to sing when the Wise Men told him Christmas had happened might be our hymn:
“Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee. Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise; take my will and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine. Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee.”