Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
We stand with eyes toward the east,
Awaiting the rising of the star,
And pray that love shall become flesh
and dwell among us;
And that compassion shall be born in human hearts.
We celebrate the discovery of fact
in the garment of legend.
Let every cradle be visited by the three
good monarchs of Faith, Hope, and Love.
Then Christmas is with us always,
and every birth is the birth of God among us,
And every child is the Christ Child,
And every song is the song of angels.
To celebrate Christmas is to attest
the power of love to remake humankind.
May we be renewed in the love which can save the world.
- Edward Ericson
“Love which can save the world” – is there such a love as powerful as that? Well, perhaps there was, once, in Jesus, though as W.H. Auden reminded us in his Christmas Oratorio, “as in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility”, hardly a compelling commitment. I spent some time the other day, looking for the origin of the phrase “light of heart”, remembering I had seen it in a poem or book I thought would be helpful for this Epiphany meditation. I found a wonderful quote from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, describing the visit of the Spirit of Christmas Present. “Scrooge had imperceptibly become so gay and light of heart, that he would have pledged the unconscious company in return, and thanked them in an inaudible speech, if the Ghost had given him time. But the whole scene passed off in the breath of the last word spoken by his nephew; and he and the Spirit were again upon their travels. Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery’s every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door, and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts.” In that same search, I also found an interesting website where I could buy notecards called the “Light of Heart Assortment”, uplifting designs with scripture for all occasions”. And, for my shopping convenience, at that same site I could also buy games, puzzles, toys, coffee mugs, knives and bayonets, firearms, and ammunition! Something in me is plucked by such a juxtaposition – scripture notecards and weapons. Isn’t that akin to Scrooge’s witness to joy at sickbeds and hovels of the poor? It puts me in mind of the very heart of Christian irony – the Messiah born in a stable, the Word of God became flesh, shepherds and angels, kings bedecked in the robes of wealth and power visiting a baby wrapped in bands of cloth. Such contrasts exist still.
Here we are, standing with eyes toward the east. It may feel as if Christmas is over, the boxes of ornaments going back to the attic, the tree off to be recycled, preparation for the work day tomorrow. We’ve had a happy, busy time of it, haven’t we? Gifts and travel and big meals for big groups, pretty lights in the darkness, good smells, a quiet blanket of snow. But now the snow has turned gray and slushy, and it’s back to school and life’s constant little irritations while the big worries have only temporarily been deferred.
Here’s where we are in the story - the shepherds are back in the hills with their sheep. The angels have withdrawn. The kings haven’t yet arrived at the stable – they’ll get there Thursday. Jesus is eight days old today, and, according to Jewish tradition, this should be the day of his bris, when he is presented at the temple to be blessed, circumcised, and named. Soon, according to Matthew, actually, this Friday, if we are to follow the days, Joseph will take his family into Egypt to hide from Herod. But then they leave Egypt and settle in Galilee and the story of our Christian discipleship begins.
Once, some years ago, I overheard one minister say to another “how is it you wear your authority so lightly?” I didn’t hear the answer – maybe there wasn’t one. But the question has come to my mind fairly often – only with a slightly different twist. Instead of authority, I wonder how some people wear their faith so lightly. I only know a few people about whom it can be accurately said they wear their Christian faith lightly. Thinking of them, I wonder if a more accurate observation would be that they wear life lightly. These are not people who are shallow. They were and are well acquainted with sorrow and failure. They know betrayal. They have even been betrayers, some of them. But they are also people who have found in the Christian story, their own story. They are unafraid to look critically at themselves, acknowledge their shortcomings, and accept the grace that God is prepared to give. They face the world with complete realism. They are neither cynical, nor optimistic. Rather, they are infused with a pragmatic hope, so that every encounter has possibilities, every step could be the first step toward peace, every note the beginning of a symphony, every star points to the stable. They are the very embodiment of Edward Ericson’s poem - every birth is the birth of God among us, and every child is the Christ Child, and every song is the song of angels.
You know those Christians I have described. But let me tell you something, and with this I’ll end my random thoughts. If you emulate those people, you may be doing more than if you simply try to be a good person, all on your own. That’s ok, as far as it goes, and it is more than most will do to be better Christians. But it is still a replication of something real. It is a recording of a Mozart concerto. It is a movie, instead of the book. It is a print of Picasso and not the painting itself. It is reflected light from the star.
To be light itself would be a better goal. To be kind, all on your own, courageous in the face of genuine threat, joyful in the midst of opposition, quiet when others need to speak, steadfast when others waver. Would it not be better to be the light guiding travelers to the stable? Illuminating the path in the dark to that most miraculous place where God and flesh met and meet again. “Then, Christmas is with us always.” Amen