Harrowing Of Hell
December 25, 2020

Joy to the World!

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good morning Christians, seekers and friends:

Merry Christmas! And thank you so much for joining me in celebrating Jesus’ birth today. I have to admit to you all that Christmas morning services are some of my favorite all year, which is always odd since I was born and remain a life-long night owl, AND my family’s own tradition centered, as so many folks’ do, around Christmas Eve services. In fact, in my home we opened our presents after midnight mass and so would go to bed only looking forward to Santa’s gifts on Christmas morning. Even as a child, though, I loved Christmas morning.  Everything was somehow quieter and more resolved. Getting up early I remember laying on the carpet in front of our Christmas tree with the beautiful lights shimmering in front of the windows of our living room thinking: “It happened. Christmas came again!”

I have always liked to imagine, too, that first Christmas. I am sure many of us do. And I believe that, as Saint Ignatius would suggest, imagining the stories of our faith is a powerful thing – especially when we allow our hearts to be open more fully to the miraculous ways God has worked in the lives of human beings over time.  Doing so just might allow us to more easily see these miracles in our own lives too.

Sometimes our imaginings pick out the many ways Jesus’ birth story differed from ours. We all have heard the jokes about what would be different if ‘wise women’ or shepherdesses came to visit the holy family after Jesus’ birth instead of shepherds and wise men.  These jokes tickle our funny bones because those of us who are parents, or grandparents or aunties, uncles, or even friends of parents of a newborn know just how unhelpful the shepherds’ timing and the Magi’s gifts were.  What newborn’s parents would enjoy having unexpected visitors turning up in the middle of the night? Even if they came bearing expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I mean folks sometimes talk about those who were born with “a silver spoon” in their mouths, but, truthfully, no newborn has any use for a silver spoon let alone gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  This tiny child, swaddled in his manger bed – well, if, as the carol ‘Away in a manger’ imagines he wasn’t crying when awoken by the shepherds or lowing cattle, probably would have cried because he was hungry. And Mary beatific as she may have looked in starlight, now clearly looks as tired as a woman whose just given birth looks when she’s been up all night. These are the things that become clear on Christmas Day in the morning. Mother Mary needs rest. And Joseph, also weary from lack of sleep, is concerned for both his wife and child, and is probably trying to figure out the best way to make what will probably be a rather difficult trip back home– even before he learns that he actually can’t return home but must travel with the newborn and Mary all the way to Egypt. 

We sometimes talk about how different things look in the ‘clear light of morning.’ And in saying this we usually follow it up with some other aphorism or story which relates that the thing about which we marveled, or the most wonderful person we met, or the ingenious idea we came up with late last night doesn’t seem to be quite so marvelous, wonderful, or clever in the morning. In fact, it or they might seem rather ordinary or lackluster in the light of day. We certainly struggle with this in terms of Christmas, right? Christians struggle with all sorts of things around preparations for Christmas as it is celebrated in the secular United States ….folks mention how Christmas decorations are now routinely seen up BEFORE Thanksgiving; folks mention how they don’t like the term Happy Holidays; folks will mention how we need to keep the ‘Christ in Christmas’ and some more churchy Episcopalians even may take a turn Advent policing – checking off who has observed Advent fully: Advent wreath up with appropriate candles—check—Advent calendar or Jesse Tree—check, check…. Christmas tree???? Wait…now that wasn’t supposed to happen until this morning…But the one thing we don’t really seem to address is that Christmas morning, after all the gifts have been unwrapped and the holly decked halls are silent, we feel ever so slightly disappointed because after a month or months of preparation, Christmas has come and gone.

But, this morning, I want to remind us that while things may be quieter and more resolved this morning, the miracle of Christmas is NOT done. Christmas, as a season, has just begun and God has entered into our world in a new way—as one of us—and our two-thousand-year-old “new normal” began when Emmanuel, God is with us, came into the world. So why do we feel let down? It doesn’t really have to do with ‘reason for the season’ but more the way we’ve come to celebrate it. As a high school senior, I spent a year living with a Turkish family in Northern Cyprus, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea. It was there that I first realized that much of what I considered an essential part of “Christmas” was really culturally specific to the United States. My year in Cyprus had no midnight mass, no snow, or carols. It was my first time being away from my family at Christmas; it was also my first experience of living in a country where Christmas was not celebrated as a cultural or religious holiday. My host family was wonderful. They put up a tree. They and my school friends bought me gifts and my friends came over to spend the night.  But my Turkish family and friends were Muslims and Cypriots – so it was not their tradition to do any of those things. As I look back on that time, I find it interesting that I was celebrating the miracle of Christmas in which God’s great love comes and abides in the world in the form of Jesus, I was living on the island which was said to the birthplace of the Roman goddess of Love; Venus. And that got me thinking about the differing birth stories of Venus and Jesus. And the difference is profound. The God of the Israel is a relational God of love who made a covenant or promise with the nation of Israel and the House of David. And, in order to expand and fulfill his promise to humanity, the God of Israel sent his only begotten Son to be born into the world to live with us. Venus, on the other hand, the Roman Goddess of love and beauty, while seen by Romans as their ancestor as mother to Aeneus father of Roman founders Romulus and Remus came into the world as a result of a bitter and violent feud between the God Uranus and his son Cronus who wounded his father. As Uranus’ blood fell into the sea, Venus was formed. The beginning of these two gods of love couldn’t have been more different. The God of the Jews was a relational God who freed God’s chosen people whereas many of the Greek, Roman, or other gods of the ancient empires often acted like the unjust, tyrannical, and cruel kings and rulers of the ancient world.

Into a Roman world Jesus was born. While he was born in Bethlehem, his nation was under Roman rule. Like other occupied nations of the time, they were also allowed to practice limited self-rule with a regional leader, Herod, who was charged with keeping ‘the peace’ in the region. So, while Jesus was ‘born’ into the House of David, his birth was NOT a birth meant for an earthly king. As today’s gospel suggests, he was actually born in a barn – a tiny baby born into a tense region of the empire – entirely vulnerable and dependent on human parents and the other human beings around him. In this Christmas miracle, The God of Israel chooses to combine humanity and divinity in a way never conceived of or experienced before; meaning he entrusts us with care of his own Son.  

Recalling the Christmases of my youth, I will always remember fondly our family traditions –the midnight mass and how my sisters and I would often sing for the church. This year I find myself remembering the year we sang – The Little Drummer Boy. It was a fun song to sing and I remember my sister Sharon Jo made up a cool part with additional drum sounds added to our pa rum pum pum pums. My favorite part of the song, however, was the story it told from the viewpoint of a child. Being quite young then myself, I still felt that awe children feel when they see an infant and recognize how careful they must be with their tiny, fragile life. So, I could imagine just how nervous the little drummer boy would have been not only to visit a little baby – but also to know he was to be a king. I also identified with the little drummer boy when he talks about not having any gifts to bring.  I understood that all-too-well.  I didn’t have a lot of money to buy gifts for my family. Even if I saved up, I would often need work on crafts to give my mom and grandma something ‘extra nice’. But my gifts would never be as nice as the presents they would give me. One year in particular, I remember being acutely aware of how paltry my gifts seemed in comparison. It was the year my older sister Sharon Jo used her baby-sitting money to buy me a tiny pair of genuine pearl earrings. I remember knowing that they were a very expensive gift which my sister had bought me using her own money. I remember feeling both touched and overwhelmed by my sister’s generosity and a little unworthy, too. Why had she entrusted little ole’ me with such a grown-up gift? What if I lost them? Being so aware of the value and significance of these earrings must have made me more careful with them. Because here I am still wearing my little pearl earrings over forty years later. I wore them that year in Cyprus and I have worn them in dorm rooms, houses, apartments, and countries all over the world. Like the little drummer boy, my sister honored me and gave me the finest gift she could bring. And I did and, indeed, still do feel honored by her gift.

God has honored us with an even greater gift at Christmas. So, this morning, let’s reflect on this miracle entrusted to us and continue to celebrate that God is with us. Let us fully embrace the hope and promise of this morning and open our eyes and heart to this promise that is still growing into fulfillment now.

God is with us and we have been entrusted with nurturing and caring for God’s hope, love, peace and joy in the world. And so, this night owl wakes up joyfully this Christmas morning knowing that all the decorations we’ve put up, all the gifts we’ve given or received can’t hold a candle to the amazing gift that that tiny infant, asleep on the hay, brought into the world that first Christmas. Like the parable of the pearl in Matthew’s gospel, our Christmas miracle is a pearl of great price for which we will are willing to sell everything we have.

Joy to the World!