From the Epistle Lesson: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…”
Ordinarily, the Sunday between Christmas Day and January 1st is fairly low key. The gifts have all been opened. Plenty of carbs have been consumed. Some folks are still away visiting family and friends or perhaps vacationing in warmer climes to catch some sun. Others of us are clinging to the last few hours of “the holidays” — trying to squeeze in a bit more family time or rest time before everything ramps up again on January 2nd and we’re off to the races with over-stuffed calendars and endless to-do lists.
But this hasn’t been an ordinary Christmas week here in Wauwatosa. In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve Day, not even two blocks from our doors, a tragic act of violence, in the parking lot of the Village Fire Station, ended the life of Officer Jennifer Sebena. For the bulk of that day, both ends of this block were cordoned off by law enforcement officials. Our parish grounds became part of an active crime scene investigation. We cancelled the early Christmas Eve service because street access to this building was blocked until about 5:30 p.m.
Later on Christmas Eve, thanks to the efforts of several parishioners, we hastily organized, and then conducted, a brief prayer vigil in the Welcome Garden. Fifteen to twenty of our parishioners were joined by an equal number of folks from the community, and together we prayed prayers of grief and hopefulness. We stood in silence in the cold darkness. We sang “Silent Night” as the candles we held in our hands flickered against the wind. Somehow, the image of Mary and the Baby Jesus afforded those of us gathered a moment of comfort in an otherwise comfortless day.
By this past Thursday, the authorities had a suspect in custody. Yesterday, Officer Sebena was buried in the hope of resurrection to new and unending life. As I read about her and the short life she lived, I was moved by her commitment to service. While she had no chance to defend herself on Christmas Eve morning, I have little doubt she would have done anything possible to defend any one of us, the citizens she had sworn to protect and serve. Jennifer’s death pointedly reminds us of the sacrifices made on our behalf by police officers, firefighters, military personnel and others in public service who routinely put their communities ahead of themselves — no matter the cost.
Only two weeks ago our country reeled in shock as the images streamed in from an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. On Christmas Eve, even as we were anxiously waiting for news about Officer Sebena’s murder, we watched reports from Webster, New York and heard about firefighters who, while rushing to do their job, were ambushed by the person who had set the fire.
So today we gather with a host of questions — questions about guns and the pervasiveness of gun violence in our country; questions about domestic violence; questions about mental health care and post traumatic stress disorder; questions about war and the after effects of war on the psyches of the young men and women who fight in them; questions about our responsibility as a society to provide care and support for those struggling to find their way. Lots of questions. Not many answers.
Sometimes, in our telling of the Christmas story, we Christians get caught up in the sentimental sweetness of it all. Mother and child. Angels and shepherds. Cows and sheep.
Our mental images are mostly an imagination-inspired collage of nativity scenes and Christmas pageants. We sanitize it all. We omit the pain of labor. We ignore the danger of childbirth. We expunge from our churchy Christmas narratives the sights and sounds and smells of what it takes to get a new life into this world. There is no moaning, groaning or screaming. No anxiety. No sweat. No blood. The Baby Jesus arrives. Perfectly. Quietly. Without any fuss or muss. Little wonder Christians are rarely scandalized by the absurdity of what our religion claims.
The Christian claim, at least since Paul wrote the churches in Asia Minor a scant few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, is that God entered the human condition — completely and fully.
And the manner in which God chose to make the entrance?
Not with flaming chariots or sky-ripping fireworks or a booming voice from on high. The God of all creation is squeezed into this world through the birth canal, clothed only in the fragile flesh of an infant gasping for a first breath — just like humans have entered the world since the beginning of time.
Mary carried this scandalous miracle in her body. She held that miracle in her arms. She pondered all that had happened to her in her heart. She looked out of that makeshift nursery in a stable cave and stared into an uncertain future. Lots of questions. Not many answers.
The birth of Jesus, the coming of “God-With-Us”, did not end violence or death. The coming of “God-With-Us” did not set aright all of the injustices humans foist upon each other. The coming of “God-With-Us” did not obliterate tyrants and dictators; did not fill every hungry belly, heal every deadly disease or end our human lust for vengeance.
The coming of “God-With-Us”, did show us, though, in no uncertain terms, that God IS WITH US. With us in our moments of grief. With us in our times of suffering. With us in our most searing pain. With us when we feel abandoned. With us when we feel unsafe. With us when we can’t make sense of ourselves, our world, or even God.
The message of Christmas is that God did not shun the frailties and imperfections of humanity. Instead God INHABITED humanity — in a moment in time and for all time. This is the message of Christmas — not simply a Baby in a Manger, but God in the Flesh. As the writer of the Fourth Gospel puts it, “…the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
On Christmas morning, I told the congregation who gathered here for worship that our job as followers of Jesus is to allow Christ to be born in us — to carry the Light of Christ beyond these doors and into a world darkened by fear and anger, violence and death.
We carry the Light of Christ into our homes, our neighborhoods, our schools and our communities. We carry the Light of Christ into voting booths and city halls; homeless shelters and hospitals. We carry the Light of Christ into every conversation we have — whether we name the name of Jesus or not. We carry the Light of Christ into a future where our questions will always outnumber our answers. We carry this Light of Christ in the assurance that this Light shines in darkness and the darkness has not, cannot and WILL not overcome it.
Sometimes our message may seem too fragile — as fragile as an infant shivering against the cold, or a candle flickering in the wind. Sometimes our Good News seems inadequate in the face of all the bad news. Sometimes our words of grace may seem meaningless in a world of gore. Sometimes our hope can be mistaken for denial. Sometimes we are left grasping for faith in the face of accumulating doubts.
But if Christmas teaches us anything, it teaches us that, in the most improbable of ways, with the most improbable of characters and into the most improbable of circumstances, God’s Word comes to God’s world. God’s Word comes, bringing the healing balm of God’s mercy and grace. The Word of God comes, not inscribed on tablets of stone or printed with ink on paper, but wrapped in flesh and blood.
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
(First Coming by Madeline L’Engle)