For Love's Sake
December 24, 2018
Will you pray with me?
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, all for your love’s sake.
Our spiritual ancestors who lived, as we do, in the Northern Hemisphere determined that we would celebrate Jesus’ birth in December. Surely among their reasons was the symbolic power of light shining in the darkest season. “For the light shines in darkness,” as it is written, “and darkness has not overcome it.” Our ancestors told stories about his birth, and eventually wrote them down, in order to help all who would come after them better understand who Jesus was and why he came: He was, and is still, God-with-us. He came, and comes to us still, for love’s sake. “Love came down at Christmas,” as the carol goes. “Love incarnate. Love divine. For love’s sake.”
Christmas, to quote my colleague Bishop Rob Wright, is “the celebration of God’s genius, love wrapped in flesh to accomplish a dream.” In Him, Scripture teaches, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He came, full of grace and truth. In Him, we have received grace upon grace, not for any merit of our own, only for love’s sake.
And while the Word made flesh is God’s genius, Christmas itself--all this, and all we wrap around it according to family and cultural traditions--is an entirely human creation. Surely you’ve wondered, as I have, why we do what we do at Christmas?
On this holy night, I’d like to offer the most hopeful, inspired answers I have found, out of the conviction that our lives find their meaning in the biggest stories we can imagine. “If the biggest story we can imagine,” writes Rachel Held Evans, “is about God’s loving and redemptive work in the world, then our lives will be shaped by that epic. If the biggest story is something else, like nationalism, or ‘follow your bliss’ or ‘he who dies with most toys wins,’ then our lives will be shaped by those narratives instead.” (Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition), p.218)
But it’s Christmas Eve, friends, and we’re here in this beautiful Cathedral--why not strive to place ourselves in the most wondrous story of all?
So here we go:
“Celebrating Christmas”--now I am quoting the great African American theologian and mystic Howard Thurman--“affirms our solidarity with the whole human race in its long struggle to become more humane and to reveal the divinity in which all humanity shares.”
He goes on: “When we build our creche, decorate the evergreen, hold our romantic tryst under the mistletoe, prepare the festive meal, share our gifts as a celebration of the primacy and the universality of love, take time to remember in many ways those who have touched us in the midst of the traffic of the commonplace, and sing the ancient carols to honor the birth of Jesus--when we do these things we become witnesses and instruments of God’s love and care.
You and I are witnesses and instruments of God’s love and care. When we do what we can; when we, like Jesus, show love for love’s sake, in some small way we are putting human flesh on God’s love--sometimes in full awareness of what we’re doing; more often with no awareness at all. “To the strong and the weak,” Thurman says, “to the happy and the sorrowful . . . to the believer and unbeliever, to the Christian and non-Christian there is the ever present hope that tidings of great joy will find their way into the heart.” (Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations (Harper and Row, 2011 edition) xii.)
)Before you leave tonight, name for yourself some way in which you are or have been an instrument’s of hope’s fulfillment for someone else. Allow yourself to feel God’s gratitude, that you show up, for love’s sake.
I also believe that when we celebrate Christmas, we open ourselves to the possibility that God has something to say to us here and now, that God has a gift to offer us, in the specificity of our existence. As I prepared for this moment, I wondered what that gift might be for each one of you gathered here and listening via technology. I have no idea what that gift might be, to be honest, but I believe that it’s here for you, and all you need do is receive it, whatever it is.
In my experience, the gift of God’s love at Christmas comes in and through ordinary things, as small as a gesture, a word, a grace given, a quiet miracle we could easily miss if we aren’t paying attention. That’s the other message our ancestors wanted us to take from the stories of Jesus’ birth: our God works quietly, in and through human beings, in those amazing moments when an ordinary life shines with extraordinary brightness, when our hearts are warmed by gentle gifts of forgiveness and peace.
This gift from God, by design, is a fleeting experience. It gives us a moment, not a lifetime, of clarity; a moment, not a lifetime, of joy or the capacity to bring joy to another. And as with any other post-Christmas let down, we can be disappointed by the fact that whatever God offers this Christmas doesn’t last long enough to really change things. Surely we all wonder why the light doesn’t stick around and overcome darkness once and for all.
Yet the purpose of God’s gift at Christmas seems not to change the world from the outside, as much as we long for that. Christ comes to change us, slowly, over time, so that we might live according to the glimpses of love we have known.The gift is no less real for its fleeting beauty, although we do have the perfect of alibi of deniability if we don’t want to acknowledge the gift for what it is.
Years ago at Christmastime, I visited a beloved mentor who was slowly losing her cognitive abilities to Alzheimer’s disease. In the twenty minutes or so that we spoke, I understood almost nothing of what she said. I wasn’t even sure if she knew who I was. Then, as I began to take my leave, her eyes, for a moment, regained their familiar sparkle. She looked deeply into mine and told me that she loved me. She then charged me to live my life in a very specific way that, in light of past conversations, only she and I would understand. Then, just as quickly, her confusion and senseless ramblings returned. I left wondering what on earth had just happened. Did she actually say what I heard? It was amazing—a moment of true light and authentic love. Then it was gone, and I had a choice: would I live as if that Christ moment between us had happened or not?
Which brings me to my final word to you this night, friends, and you already know what it is: should we place our lives in this wondrous story there are social implications. How could there not be? The story begins with an emperor who could move people around at will. A young couple forced to obey the emperor’s edict, set out on a long journey in the last month of the woman’s pregnancy. She was denied a place in human community n her hour of greatest need and needed to lay her child in an animal trough. Shortly after the child’s birth, the holy family would be forced to flee again, seeking refuge from violence in another country.
Those who passed on to us their wonder at Christ’s birth wanted us to know that Jesus is no stranger to struggle and sorrow. They wanted us to know, as they did, both the gift and responsibility of tending to light shining in darkness. For we are the ones now--and I’m speaking in particular to those of us who are Christ followers--we are the ones to keep the light of faith shining, the gift of hope alive, the message of love credible, and that is no small task.
Some years are easier than others. In the hardest years, the task becomes all the more important. Let me leave you with the words of Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest who gave his life in the German resistance of World War II, “Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are.” That we do matters more than we will ever know.
God’s loving and redemptive work in the world rests with us, as we take our place in the most wonderful, mysterious, important story we can imagine. I invite you to welcome Christ tonight, God-with-you. Then join me tonight in promising for the first or thousandth time to live as if this story, this amazing story, is our story; so that together we might leave this place as witnesses and instruments of God’s love, for love’s sake.