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Unworthy Gifts Accepted (in Christ) : December 24, 2017 (night)

Christmas Eve Mass
Isa 62:6-12
Ps 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20

Lord Jesus Christ,
your birth at Bethlehem
draws us to kneel in wonder at heaven touching earth:
accept our praise,
hear our prayers,
and inspire the meditations of our hearts,
as we worship you,
our Saviour, Messiah, and Lord. Amen.


From an English newspaper, just a few days ago:

Police were called to a primary school [in Cardiff] after a group of 30 parents turned up to complain that their kids were told a Christmas concert was rubbish.
They said the children were told they would be given bread and water for their Christmas party if they did not behave at the second concert on Tuesday.
The school has refuted the claims.
The second showing of the concert has been cancelled, because of the anger.
The school said the concerns should have been raised using the [official] complaints procedure.
But some parents have taken their children out of the school until it is resolved, Wales Online reports.
One parent is quoted as saying: “After the first concert in the local church hall, the head teacher told them they had done brilliantly — in front of the parents,” he claimed.
“But my son said afterwards [that] they were told that they were absolutely rubbish and if they didn’t behave better they would be given bread and water at the Christmas party.”

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/police-called-primary-school-after-11725368

 

There’s an English poet and playwright, Tony Harrison — someone of a caliber worthy of that primary school and its high standards. A few years ago he adapted some ‘mystery plays,’ medieval sketches meant to communicate the Christian faith in accessible ways.

One of the works he updated is called the Second Shepherds’ Play, where the baby Jesus is visited by three humble shepherds. The first one begins:

Hail, comely and clean! Hail, young child!
Hail, maker, of all I mean, of a maiden so mild!
Thou has confounded, I ween, the Warlock, so wild:
The false guiler now goes he beguiled.
Lo, he merries!
Lo, he laughs, my sweeting!
Ah! A well fair meeting!
I have holden my telling:
Have a bob of cherries.

(Basically: “Hail, beautiful babe, and maker of the whole world; born of Blessed Mary. You have defeated the wile devil. And look! He’s such a happy baby, he laughs so sweetly! Oh, I almost forgot, here’s some candy.”)

We’re clearly not at the level of the magi here. No gold, frankincense, or myrrh. This shepherd just has a little something picked up from a fruit stand on the way.

Then the second shepherd steps forward:

Hail, sovereign saviour, for thou has us sought! [….]
Hail! I kneel and I cower. A bird have I brought…

And the third:

Hail, darling dear, full of Godhead!
I pray thee be near when that I have need. [….]
Hail! Put forth thy hand.
I bring thee but a ball:
Have and play thee withall,
And go to the tennis.

A bunch of cherries. A budgie. And a tennis ball. That’s all they have to give. It’s all they know to give. It’s all they’re able to give. And, I should add, now Mary and Joseph have to feed and clean up after a bird. They’ve actually been burdened in that sense.

The head teacher, so disappointed with the Christmas behaviour and performance of the school’s students, would not be impressed with these shepherds.

But that famous, award-winning playwright Tony Harrison, he sees something beautiful — simple, but beautiful — in the meagre offering of these shepherds. As Paul wrote to Titus: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to God’s mercy…”


In the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel that we heard, there’s a contrast. A contrast between the first half and the second half of the story:

A contrast on one hand between the order and bureaucracy of the imperial edict — the registration and taxation that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. And the shock and surprise of the shepherds in the fields, when they’re visited by the angel, on the other. (A much different kind of announcement.)

A contrast between the unbudging lack of empathy that doesn’t find any room for Mary and Joseph in the inn. (Or, as we read from that British newspaper: The school said the concerns should have been raised using the [official] complaints procedure.) Contrasted with what I’m sure was an unexpected pop-in visit to the Holy Family, from a bunch shocked, unwashed, simple shepherds, awed at the sight of the baby in the manger. “Hail, darling dear, full of Godhead… I bring thee but a ball.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew the comforts of wealth and education, but also knew the hardships of prison, and eventually, execution under the Third Reich, wrote this about Christmas:

If God chooses Mary as God’s instrument,
if God wants to come into this world
in the manger at Bethlehem,
that is no idyllic family affair,
but the beginning of a complete turnaround,
a reordering of everything on this earth.


 

What we celebrate at Christmas isn’t just some long ago historical event, nor a mythological story. The miracle and meaning of Christmas is that in Jesus, a Jewish peasant from the first century, we claim to have seen and experienced the fullness of God. The wonder of heaven touching earth. A complete turnaround, a reordering of everything on this earth. And this turnaround and reordering begins as early as at his humble birth. And are really a fulfillment and continuation of what had been the yearnings of his people for generations and centuries earlier.

A hope for the blessings of life. For a return from exile. For leadership (from the dynasty of David). For covenant, or relationship with God. For the building up of a house of prayer for all peoples. This is what God effects in Jesus, but sometimes in ways that are so different than what was expected, or could be imagined. This reordering and restoration of all things might surprise us, just like the head teacher of that school in Wales. The Christmas concert put on by the school’s students didn’t match the memories of Christmas concerts past. There’s lots of talk of restoration in the world today. The campaign of the 45th president of the United States was built on it. “Make America Great Again.” If you turn on the TV to TLC, or Discovery, or HGTV, you’re apt to find a show about restoration. The restoration of an old car, or Coke machine, or a house just outside Vancouver, with a view to die for, but a kitchen that is does not meet the needs of ‘this (or that) growing family.’

But in our celebration of Christmas we’re not talking about that kind of restoration. The reordering and restoration that’s brought about by the birth of the Saviour is the bringing together of heaven and earth. Not a leaving behind of the ordinary. Not a denial of the earthly. Not a shunning of simple or secular things. But a reordering and turnaround that comes when we start to see the heavenly within the ordinary. Where in God’s ‘yes’ to us in taking on our human flesh and our human existence in Jesus, all our lives and all our offerings are changed, reordered. Made well.

Like Leonard Cohen expressed it:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Like the shepherds who saw the skies cracked open, and were changed by the message of the angels, may we find our lives and our offerings renewed through our celebration of Christmas.

And may we take seriously Bonhoeffer’s words:

In the manger at Bethlehem,
that is no idyllic family affair,
but the beginning of a complete turnaround,
a reordering of everything on this earth. [….]
Therefore we cannot approach his manger
as if it were the cradle of any other child.
Those who wish to come to his manger
find that something is happening within them.

“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to God’s mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

© 2017 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter