During the course of the six weeks or so leading up to Christmas and the first week or so after, I have found myself in a few discussions with people who are struggling mighty this time of year. Thankfully, none are “formal” members of this parish, but all are “in orbit” of us through our various ministries. I find it terribly ironic, and no doubt a work of His enemy, that so many people in the world find this time of irenic peace, joy, and hope to be so depressing, stressful, and burdensome. They have found themselves strung out worrying about gifts, worrying about what families and friends will think of them, worrying about how they measure up. A few have even remarked how they understand the allure of suicide at this time of year. And each has remarked at the beginning of their conversations that “you [Christians] have nothing to offer me that can help. I have tried the church thing and it failed.” Part of the problem, of course, has been their trying “the church thing.” Few have spent significant time in the church. But, to be fair, part of the problem is how we present church. We often build up in people the expectation that God will solve all our problems quickly. When the vicissitudes of life continue after a month, many give up. “The church thing” has failed them, and so they go looking for a better solution. And yet, our whole season of Christmas reminds us of the ups and downs experienced by God’s people until He comes and re-establishes our rule. What do I mean by the up’s and down’s?
Consider the liturgical calendar. We celebrate Christmas. Then, on the 26th, we remember the first martyr of the Church, Stephen. Then, on the 27th, we celebrate the life and ministry of John the Evangelist. On the 28th, we are back to remembering the sacrifice of the Holy Innocents (the babies killed by Herod in his futile attempt to destroy Jesus). And on the 29th, we celebrate Thomas Becket, whose ministry and martyrdom hit a little closer to home (he was killed in Canterbury cathedral by the king’s men, and the relationship between the crown and the Church was changed forever). On the 1st of January, we celebrate the Name (circumcision) of our Lord. And finally, on the 6th, we celebrate the Epiphany to the Gentiles. You might say we are on quite a roller coaster of up’s and down’s in this holy season of the Church.
And consider our readings. This week’s reading reminds us of the joy that follows sorrow, the celebration that follows mourning, and the peace that follows struggles, when one is a member of God’s people. Each of our readings reminds us of the vicissitudes of life. Jeremiah, who prophesied the Exile to the people, prophesizes their return in our periscope from this week. The psalmist, whose idyllic psalm is often read with the 23rd psalm at funerals, reminds us of the desolate valleys that must be traversed before we can dwell in the House of the Lord. Though St. Paul is praising the church at Ephesus for their response to the needy churches in and around Jerusalem, we cannot forget the need that provoked their generous response. And even our wonderful nativity scene is interrupted by Herod. The Silent Night of the birth of our Savior and the homage and awe paid by the Shepherds, the Angels, and the Magi are interrupted by the fear and ambition of a despot.
Brothers and sisters, you and I are called to remember the life to which we are called. While each of us likely would rather sit around the manger in silence, or dwell in the mountaintop experiences of our faith, or praise God at the empty tomb, you and I are sent out into the “real” world, where tragedy occurs daily. You and I are sent as His messengers into those struggles, those mournings, those sorrows known all too well by those there with us, and we are charged with proclaiming the Good News of His birth and His wonderful offer of salvation. And that offer is not meant for just a few, select individuals, but to the whole world! And so, brothers and sisters, we would do well to watch and to listen to those around us. We would do well to hear the stress in their voice, the ache in their hearts, see the depression in their countenance, the downcast in their eyes and empathize with their pain and remind them, as our collect did us this morning, that He who created them has more wonderfully offered to restore them. Better still, He has called them, as He has called each one of us, to share His divine life just as He shared our human life. That, my friends is our joy, our hope, and our peace that we celebrate at His birth. And that, brothers and sisters, is why we give thanks and praise that He has made us heralds of His birth, death, and resurrection! That, brothers and sisters, is why we look on the babe in a manger wrapped in cloths, with such love and such awe and with silent voices and love-filled hearts. We, the lost, have been found and rescued by Him!