holy cross sermon for christmas 2012

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A very merry Christmas to all of you here this evening.

The words from this evening’s Gospel lesson have been familiar to Christians for a long time – although sadly, they are becoming much less so in our time. Listen again to the story, in the more beautiful rhythm of the Authorized version of the bible:

“And [Mary] brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men…. And [the shepherds] came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” (Luke 2, passim)

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

A thorough consideration of the babe lying in a manger must include a consideration of the babe’s mother, and the events that have brought us, with her, to this nativity scene. We must remember the Annunciation: how the angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “Rejoice, Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!” and how Mary conceived by the Holy Ghost.

Pope Benedict writes compellingly in his recent book (“Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives”) about this story-before-the-story, as it were, this prologue to Christmas:

“I consider it important to focus also on the final sentence of Luke’s annunciation narrative: ‘And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1.38). The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger – in which her whole life is changed – comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments – from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mark 3.21; John 10.20), right up to the night of the Cross.

“How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: ‘Rejoice, full of grace!’ and the [angel’s] consoling words: ‘Do not be afraid!’ The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch.” (p. 37-38)

The world that we all inhabit is full of dark moments. There was, as you all know, an unspeakably dark moment in Newtown Connecticut some ten days ago. And so too the darkness erupts into our individual lives from time to time, in dreadful words spoken by a physician, or over an ominously ringing phone in the middle of the night, or the more quotidian but equally bitter lonelinesses and estrangements that can stretch on for years, sapping our spiritual energy and corrupting our hearts.

The world can be a dark place, a place of urgent or plaintive questions that go unanswered. The poet Philip Larkin writes about how, to him, in such desolate or bitter moments,

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:

The sun-comprehending glass,

And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows

Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

(From High Windows)

To Larkin, the world’s sad but beautiful answer was that there is no answer at all, the disclosure of a vast nothing, beyond which there is only more nothing.

But for us, tonight, guided by this Virgin Mother, guided by a star, brought inexorably here by a sense of duty or nostalgia or conviction – tonight, by way of an eternal response to millennia of plaintive questions spoken from the world’s darkness, long-unanswered, tonight: a child is born; a son is given. And ‘round this Virgin-Mother and Child: all is calm; all is bright.

Some time shortly before the birth of Christ, a Jewish scribe, probably in Alexandria Egypt, wrote these prophetic words addressed to God, describing, without realizing it, what was about to take place. He said:

For while gentle silence enveloped all things,

And night in its swift course was now half gone,

thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne,

into the midst of the land that was doomed…(Wisdom of Solomon, 18.14-15)

Romano Guardini writes of how this passage “is wonderfully expressive of the infinite stillness that hovered over Christ’s birth,” and, as it were, enveloped and contextualized it:

For the greatest things are accomplished in silence – not in the clamor and display of superficial eventfulness, but in the deep clarity of inner vision; in the almost imperceptible start of decision, in quiet overcoming and hidden sacrifice. Spiritual conception happens when the heart is quickened by love, and the free will stirs to action. (“The Lord” p. 15)

And this, God’s way of power – in silence, stillness, and the most profoundly humble condescension, even anonymity – this stands in stark contrast to the world’s way, to our way. Think of the uproar from the media, from the government, from facebook, that erupted into the spiritual darkness of the Connecticut tragedy – tumultuous clamorings, posturing and recriminations, from every party, every angle, and from all directions.

But unto us a child is born, a son is given. The bright calm that suffuses this nativity masks its spectacular import. For tonight God himself, who dwells far beyond the farthest, most inaccessible heavens, beyond the vast nothing that was all Philip Larkin could see, beyond all of this, tonight God himself strides across the invisible borderline beyond which human vision and comprehension simply cannot reach.

But we are left with a haunting question: What child is this? This, this is Christ the King, yet what does that mean? The Church has spoken truthfully and authoritatively from ancient times about the hypostatic union of divine and human nature in the person of this child. But, in the end, this impossible eruption of divinity into the domain of creation is beyond human comprehension, beyond the capacity of what we now call “science.” But there is a more intuitive way of knowing that can carry us deeper into the mystery we are invited this night to consider.

The incomparable priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it possibly as well as it can be put (from The Wreck of the Deutschland):

The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in

the storm of his strides.

Now burn, new born to the world,

Doubled-naturèd name,

The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled

Miracle-in-Mary-of-flame,

Mid-numbered He in three of the thunder-throne!

Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;

Kind, but royally reclaiming his own…

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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