Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.
Recently I have been captivated by what Evelyn Underhill has to say about the Nativity. In The School for Charity, she writes about “the extremes of mystery and homeliness.” In these words, she articulates what is, I think, the “big deal” about Christmas.
Divine mystery enters the world in the way of Jesus: visible and invisible, knowable and unknowable, earthly and heavenly. In the words of St. Irenaeus, “God becomes human, that we might become divine.”
Nowhere is this co-existence of human and divine, mystery and homeliness, more evident than in the shepherds’ experience of the Nativity. And nowhere are the implications of this more needed than in our lives today.
In ancient Palestine, shepherds were about as homely as you get. Utterly mundane in the literal sense—of the world—because they lived close to the earth. They lived outside most of the time, among dirty, smelly animals. They had few loyalties other than to their animals and their own most basic needs. With the exception of a few notable, storybook shepherds like the young David, most people in polite society did not trust them. And yet, it is into this earthy, sketchy world of sheep and shepherds that the heavenly host appears, announcing the birth of the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. The mysterious enters the mundane.
It is as if you were at Costco or the dentist’s office and a fantastical being appeared, walking through walls and glowing, maybe waving a light saber, and saying: “The Messiah has been born! Go see him!” Better yet, it is as if this divine appearance happened not to you but to someone on the periphery of your everyday life. The dry cleaner. Your dental hygienist. The Christmas story is as much about the very human nature of those who heard the first Christmas message as it is about the message itself. The shepherds heard and saw something out in those dark fields that made them go to Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus. And finding him in an equally mundane, earthy, homely place made them go forth from there to proclaim everything that had been made known to them: Good News of great joy.
This action of going out from the place where they found the Baby Jesus is their response to the miracle of the Messiah come among us.
God’s coming among us as a baby in such an earthy mundane way is an act of love. In response, we get to celebrate our humanity and we get to love as God loves. “Only thus,” Evelyn Underhill writes, “can humanity use to the full its strange power of…uniting the extremes of mystery and homeliness.”
What will our response be? How will we use what Underhill calls our “strange power”? It has been a bleak midwinter. It has been cold, dark, and full of news of violence, oppression, poverty, desperation, and loneliness. Some of you may think there is more bad news this year than usual, and others of you may feel that there’s good news all around us, a new day. You’re both right. The message from the angels, the message the shepherds carried out into their dark and cold world invites us to respond with Good News of our own. The shepherds proclaimed Good News with new voices and with strange power. How will we do the same?
Sometimes Good News might be a resounding “No.” To racism, for example, or oppression. Few of us feel oppressed or personally threatened but we can stand before the oppressors and say “No.” The God who gave voice to poor shepherds gives us strange power and gives us voice to say “No” in Jesus’ name.
Sometimes our Good News response is “Yes.” Yes, I will, with God’s help. I will stay in community, breaking bread with people with whom I disagree. I will not just respect but protect the dignity of every human being. I will not just seek and serve Christ in all persons, with God’s help, but yes, I will strive to love all persons as God loves. The God who gave voice to shepherds gives us the voice, the strange power, to say yes in Jesus’ name.
In the hymn, “In the bleak midwinter,” we sing What can I give Him, poor as I am? The response is What I can I give Him: give my heart.
Our response to the glorious news of incarnation is to give our hearts, to set our hearts on Jesus. Kind of like the old marriage vows, we plight our troth. We pledge all the truth of who we are to the truth God in Christ. We pledge to love.
Giving our hearts the way the shepherds do means witnessing to the presence in the world of everything the shepherds saw, heard and gave their hearts to: Good News. Peace on earth. Witnessing, as we shy Episcopalians always need reminding, takes many forms. Tonight of all nights I am here to remind us of the obvious: the greatest witness, the witness most faithful to this marriage of mystery and homeliness, is love. And love, as most of you have heard me say before, is one of the ways that Christians have always practiced resistance.
Our God is a God who emboldens and empowers the poor and marginalized. When we feel poor in spirit, marginalized by our own feelings of anxiety, anger, or powerlessness, our strange power, given long ago, is simply to love. The big deal about Christmas means that because God chose humans to bear the Christmas message, we are able to use our humanity, our homeliness, to fight prejudice, fear, hatred, misogyny, xenophobia, economic injustice. These may sound particularly relevant to our time but they are what Jesus preached about, signs of human brokenness and human need that are relevant to every time in history, signs that open us to God’s intervention and to the service of love to which God calls us in every generation.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let every heart prepare.