The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Then [Herod] sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage. Matthew 2:8

Have you seen a child the color of wheat…
the color of dawn?
His eyes are mild; his hands are those of a king
– as king he was born.
Incense, myrrh, and gold we bring to his side;
and the eastern star is our guide.

One of my favorite family Christmas traditions growing up was Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, a tiny jewel of an opera for children that was first televised in 1951. Amahl is the story of a poor shepherd boy’s encounter with the Magi on their way to see the Christ Child. It is a classic Christmas tale, rich with melody, dance, humor, sweetness, poignancy, and a heartwarming Kleenex-worthy ending. And like any opera worth its salt it has its moments of tension and drama. Amahl’s mother, a widow who has been steadily crushed by poverty and worry about her beloved disabled son, hears the kings’ description of the child to whom they are bearing such precious gifts. As everyone sleeps she is tormented by the sight of the chest of riches within reach of her outstretched arm:

All that gold! All that gold!
I wonder if rich people know
what to do with their gold?
Do they know how a child could be fed?
Do rich people know?

Oh what I could do
for my child with that gold!
Why should it all go to a child they don’t even know?…

Even the youngest listeners can hear the shift to minor key as we feel the Mother’s yearning and simmering resentment; as we are confronted with the contrast between her abject poverty and the wealth of kings, and the blindness of even the best-intentioned Wise Ones to economic injustice.

“Do they know?” 

*I*t seems that, no matter who tells the story, whether it’s Menotti or Matthew the Evangelist, the Three Kings carry more than the customary gifts. These pagan astrologers from beyond Judea’s borders are not just picturesque characters in a Christmas pageant—they carry questioning and tension along with their gifts, and they unknowingly leave violence in their wake.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. We hear this story every year as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany; the first manifestation of Jesus the Christ to all people, even the Gentile world of the East. Matthew’s tale of the Wise Ones epitomizes the tension of a world where all is neither calm nor bright. It is a world that has lost its way—a world of poverty, injustice and violence. It is a world in need of being set aright, and it is this catalyzing journey of the Magi that provides the contrasts between light and dark, powerful and powerless, love and fear.

“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” 

The Magi go to Jerusalem to ask directions to the Christ Child and as they do they set off alarms in the halls of power and beyond. Biblical storyteller Richard Swanson tells us that a more nuanced translation of the Greek is not “frightened”, but “shaken.” He suggests that the effect of the Wise Ones’ inquiry is seismic in nature. It can be interpreted different ways depending on whose eyes we are viewing through. Herod is shaken; the man who calls himself King of the Jews feels a Messianic earthquake threatening the very foundations of his power. Jerusalem is shaken for other reasons; one being that any temblor that shakes Herod doesn’t bode well for anyone around him; bad things will happen to people who come between him and his hold on the throne, even if they are all of the innocent two-year-old boys in Judea massacred in a chaotic effort to eliminate the threat posed by the Christ Child. Alternatively Jerusalem may feel the earth shaking in a more creative and hopeful way—a new world is being born with the coming of the Messiah; a shifting of the ground that is cause for joy and anticipation.

King Herod was shaken, and all of Jerusalem with him.

It always strikes me that these three Magi–these pagan outsiders on their journey to Jesus– arrive at our doorstep every year at the right time; they bring their gifts of questions, tensions and disturbances—what Fr. Mark has called “fruitful uncertainty”– just as we are taking stock of the previous year and looking ahead to the year to come. And this year the Wise Ones find us shaken. Shaken as we remember the dumpster fire that was 2020 and look ahead to 2021 with a dubious mixture of hope and trepidation. Is the trembling that we feel beneath our feet going to swallow us or transform us?

How we engage with this question depends on how we choose to welcome the Magi and the unsettling gifts they carry. Will we greet them as a threat or an invitation?

*T*oward the end of the opera Amahl and his mother come to understand that the child sought by the Wise Men is no ordinary king, and that he was born into a broken world to set it aright. Melchior sings:

The child we seek
doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter.
His haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning,

he will soon walk among us.
He will bring us new life,
and receive our death,
and the keys to his city belong to the poor.

And in response Amahl offers to send his crutch as a gift for the child. He adds, “Who knows, he may need one.”

Sentimental? Yeah, maybe. It’s opera—that’s a risk. But Menotti, like the Evangelist Matthew, shows us that the Star of Bethlehem guides us to the child Jesus, illuminating an Incarnation that encompasses love and loss, strength and vulnerability, brokenness and healing. God with us, and walking among us. And he will know, more than, any of us, what it is to be shaken at the hands of Empire.

This year the Wise Ones are beckoning—inviting us to join them on their journey to the Christ Child, and to lay our crutches of fear, ego, defensiveness, control and mistrust at his feet. And then, perhaps, we may continue our journey home by another, and transformed, way.

Christmas Eve Sermon from Mark+

The Christmas Story

The human mind is a story telling machine – constructing stories to explain our experience of the world. Religious faith is not – as so many believe – shaped by assertions of propositional truth -true/false, good /bad, light/dark – but by the power of story to communicate more imaginative and skillful ways of living. The Bible is full of such stories with the potential to be life enhancing or life constricting – depending on the way we receive and retell them in each new moment.

Larger stories reframe our own self-limiting stories. Faith-based stories challenge our awareness of pernicious cultural stories that lay claim on us, competing for our primary allegiance. Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from or no other ways to reframe the stories we have.

To the ordinary demands of 21st-century American life 2020 has added the unprecedented stresses of a full-blown global pandemic visited upon us in full medieval horror. On the cusp of 2020 turning into 2021, pandemic losses are urgently reshaping the stories we tell. Threats to the very environment that sustains us now means that there can be no justice that is not environmental justice.

Tonight, we hear the Christmas Story retold afresh in the context of 2020 – as a story of renewal that demands that our long-held certainties begin to give way to the fruitfulness of uncertainty – so that a new world can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

It’s Luke who tells the best story of the birth of Jesus. It’s Francis of Assisi who populates Luke’s story of the birth of the savior with the visual props of the traditional nativity play. We now can’t think of Christmas Eve without the mental images of a ruined stable lean-to, bestrewed with straw, with grazing sheep, lowing cattle, incredulous shepherd yokels, and an angel or two singing glory to God in the highest and peace among all people on earth.

Viewing the old master depictions of Luke’s nativity, haven’t you noticed that the idyllic foreground scene is set against a background of collapsing civilization and darkened sky. Glory to God in heaven is all well and good but the reign of peace on earth is not yet arrived. With the birth of Jesus, the story has begun but it’s ending is not yet in sight or as Sonny Kapoor, proprietor of the Most Exotic and Best Marigold Hotel proclaims it will be OK in the end and if things are not OK it’s because it’s not yet the end.

As 2020 draws towards its painful and still frightening end, it’s not the quaint details of the manger scene that communicate the meaning we yearn for.  Old stories with each retelling have the potential to become new stories. If the particular chemistry of the present moment is the key to the past remembered becoming the future reshaped – our question tonight is not so much what did Luke intend to convey – but what, do we hear in his story?

In 2020 we have all come to experience the frightening novelty of no longer knowing with any assurance where safety lies. Anxiety about who’s safe and who’s not – has forced us to view one another with increased suspicion as we retreat into social isolation. In 2020, so many more of us are experiencing a frightening sense of social and economic marginalization as our previously held certainties no longer feel so certain.

Yet with every action there is a reaction. Social isolation is countered by new virtual ways of bringing us together –ways that will leave a lasting legacy for facilitating social relationships into the future. Hated mutual suspicion of one another spurred by the age-old fear of contamination refocuses our attention on the interpersonal qualities of mercy, forgiveness, humility and compassion. Absence only makes the heart grow fonder. The threat of social collapse demands we relinquish old ways of working that will no longer serve us going forward – requiring that our long-held certainties give way to fruitful uncertainty – so that a new world can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

The enchanted magical realism of Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ birth among angels and shepherds may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, in 2020 we cannot miss the themes beneath the surface; themes of safety versus risk, between invulnerability and vulnerability, belonging and rejection, hope and fear.

So, on Christmas Eve in 2020 I believe in the power of Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus to change our lives. I believe in this story, not because I mistake it for a literal description of true events, but because to not believe in it impoverishes and limits me. My life is all the richer, my ability to weather the vicissitudes of fate strengthened, because I believe that the Creator has entered into the very structures of the creation to experience it as we do.

The universe has purpose and this story reveals how God is actively engaged in bringing that purpose to its fulfillment. Luke’s nativity story is a story we’ve heard before – but in the present context of 2020 it becomes a new story – speaking to us no longer of the past remembered but of future possibility emerging from the tensions of the present time. Tonight we hear the story as the jumping off point to reshaping a future in which grow into our responsibilities as God’s agents – actively engaged in the continual in-breaking of an environmental justice embracing all forms of injustice – as a sign of the divine repair of a broken world.

The birth of Jesus is a story about the creator’s self-emptying into the creation – witnessing the endless power of God’s love to provide the creation with the energy for continual renewal. Hearing the Christmas Story retold afresh in the context of 2020 –requires that our long-held certainties begin to give way to discovering the fruitfulness of uncertainty – so that new worlds can begin to grow through the cracks in the old.

Our Christian story is a drama in two acts. In the birth of Jesus God has inaugurated messianic age in which we live. Keeping act two – the final fulfillment of a new heaven and a new earth in mind – reorients us back to the work of the messianic age, i.e. the remaking of a broken world despite the frustrating fact that the in breaking of justice and peace is still in the process of moving towards its final completion.

What better than to end with a contemporary voice – the voice of the Irish mystic poet, the late John O’Donohue inviting us into a future reshaped:

May the stories we choose to live by – enlivening us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, to break the dead shell of yesterdays, to risk being disturbed and changed, so to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here for and waste our hearts on fear no more.