Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve - December 24, 2014 (Luke 2:1-20)

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

There it is, shining out in the darkness like one of Richmond’s world-famous tacky-light displays: joy.

The first word—the first thought, the first idea, the first commentary—associated with the message about Jesus’ arrival is…joy. It is not some theological term like “salvation.” It is not a moral term like forgiveness or holiness. It is not even love. It is joy. And, in fact, it is not just any old joy. The angel said, “I am bringing you good news of GREAT joy.” In the Greek: mega joy.

The baby is birthed in a crude stable area, wrapped up tightly in bands of cloth that happen to be lying around laid in a manger with all that straw and—who knows?—maybe even some leftover animal slobber. Most of us would probably put ourselves in that situation and think, aghast, “Oh, NO!” but the instead heaven opens up and the messenger says “Oh yes, yes YES! Mega joy!”

"The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds" Thomas Cole (1833-34)
The centuries upon centuries that the world has waited for a Savior are finally over, and it seems as if his grand entrance is getting a little botched. The shepherds are afraid, and they’re not exactly the right kind of people anyway. Many of us would cry, “Cut, cut cut! This isn’t right!” But instead the cameras keep rolling and out of heaven spills mega joy anyway.

It seems so basic, but then again, think of how often we end up centering the news of Christmas on something other than joy! Think of how often followers of Christ, when given the chance, lead off with some other concept or doctrine or belief or emotion when presenting their faith in speech or action!

Pope Francis is onto it. In his annual Christmas address to Vatican City insiders this week, he named 15 “ailments” that can plague people of faith, especially religious leaders. One of them he termed “the illness of the funeral face,” which he went on to define as that spiritual illness displayed by “those who believe that in order to be serious it is necessary to paint their faces with melancholy and severity and to treat others—especially those they consider inferior—with rigidity, harshness, and arrogance.”[1]

It’s no wonder that all our best Christmas villains—Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch—are noted most for their severity and melancholy. That is, they’re joyless! The angels say to the shepherds, No Funeral Faces tonight, boys! A Savior is born. For you!

Years ago in another congregation I had a co-worker from the United Kingdom who, I eventually learned, had not been raised in a churched family and who had not identified as Christian until his college years. Many admired him for his confident but calm witness. Intrigued, I asked him once what had led him to faith as a young adult, especially in the midst of a such a pluralistic university environment. He replied, “I got to know a small group of people who identified as Christian and they seemed to have something I didn’t. As I thought about it, I realized it was joy. It wasn’t necessarily because I thought they were right. I just wanted to be a part of them because I wanted to have that joy.”

And so tonight we gather once again to be reminded of the joy. Tonight we come together to hear again or maybe for the first time that at the heart of the angel’s message lies the amazing news that we have been given a Son. Amid the candlelight and carols, and amid the claims that Caesars the world over make on their people…amid the harmony of the choirs, and amid the clashes of racial tension and religion-inspired violence…amid the unwrapping of presents and amid the heartbreak of loved ones’ absence…we are assembled to hear that the world’s long wait for redemption is over. To us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Mega joy.

But, just to be clear, the joy that this message brings is no artificial, fabricated joy. It is not a joy that comes from hoping that for one day each year we get to escape from our sorrows or tinsel over them, to recreate the glory of Christmases of years past. It is a joy that comes from believing that with Jesus’s birth, God has now entered each of our sorrows and leads us forward into a future of new life. It is the joy that takes root when one realizes that this isn’t news simply of a birth…but a birth that will lead to a particular death for the sins of the world.

That’s what the “To you is born” part of this really means. It means the “you” that is burdened by the worries of the world, the “you” that is tired and weary, the “you” that feels unworthy or unloved. It the “you” of a whole world that has really gone astray, a world which gropes in the darkness and lurches about looking for meaning, a “you” that will understand in due time that its Creator is not distant or indifferent but willing to suffer and join in with the lurching and meet it in the dark.

It is against this backdrop of darkness and thinking about the Pope’s warning against funeral face, about joy and gifts and wonder and grace, that I begin to remember the particular face I have come to most associate with the angel’s message on Christmas Eve. It was the face of Mrs. Rohrbaugh, a member of the congregation of my childhood. Mrs. Rohrbaugh was a fairly regular worshipper, but on Christmas Eve every year, without fail, she sat in the front pew of our sanctuary. I sat much farther back, nestled with three generations of my family in one pew.

In most normal circumstances a person wouldn’t be able to see the faces of those who sit in front of them, but in our congregation on Christmas Eve, we would all file out, pew by pew, during the final carol in order to gather for the Christmas blessing on the church steps and sidewalk. As a result, you watched people pass you, their faces illuminated by their candles’ glow. Because of where she sat, Mrs. Rohrbaugh was one of the first, to round the bend and approach my pew, And although I could tell she wasn’t trying to be seen, the bright glistening of her cheeks were unmistakable. Tears were smeared across her face reflecting the light. The corners of her mouth bent slightly downward in sadness, but her lips were open wide, mouthing boldly the words of “Silent Night, Holy Night.” And past she went into the night with us all.

That’s an image that a small child doesn’t forget: someone sobbing on Christmas Eve, when all childish senses are focused instead on the presents that will be unwrapped in the morning. It was not until I was older and another adult in the congregation filled me in on the painful and difficult stories behind Mrs. Rohrbaugh’s tears on that front pew: the early death of a first, beloved husband, followed by the cruel abandonment by a second one directly following the birth of a child with acute special needs.

Who knows what all was behind that expression, but hers was certainly not funeral face. But it clearly wasn’t happy, either. It may at the time have seemed out of place, but what a gift Mrs. Rohrbaugh gave me those Christmas Eves—what a gift she gave all of us—a glimpse of someone who was truly receiving the gift of a Savior who suffers, the expression of someone who had heard that because of Jesus, lying in the manger—and later hanging from a cross—God had met her in her darkness. I think we can say hers was the face of unbridled joy, a face that knew the hopes and fears of all her years were going to be met when the angels showed up to announce, once again, that there is good news of great joy—for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.

I suspect there are Mrs. Rohrbaughs here tonight, sitting among us, and Mr. Rohrbaugh’s, too…just as there are little childhood “me’s,” nestled in cozily with their kin. There are those like the shepherds who reside on the fringes, too, but then strangely pulled in. There are those who are wondering, those who are pondering the truth, those who are simply amazed. There’s even a pastor here who’s prone to funeral face from time to time. Well here’s something: the Savior is born for all the people.

As we gather at the manger, may God’s Spirit build in and among us such a sense of community that others will see us and say, “Oh yes, yes YES…I want to be a have some of that mega joy.”

Adoration of the Shepherds (pupil of Rembrandt, 1646)


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Fifteen Ailments of the Vatican Curia,” Abby Ohlheiser, The Washington Post, Dec 22, 2014

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