December 24/25, 2012
Nativity/Christmas DayMerry Christmas. Joyeux Noël. Feliz Navidad. Frohe Weihnachten. Mele Kalikimaka. Buon Natale. Felix dies Nativitatis.
Some of you, who know me well, know that tonight you might want to settle down for a long winter’s nap, get your kerchief and cap, because this is not going to be a short and quick sermon. This is a shock to you, I know. The children present will fidget a bit, but I challenge you to not let that distract you and make it through it all.
Why should it be long, you might ask? Christmas, after all, is one of the two most major feasts in all of Christendom. Shouldn’t we make a big deal about Christmas? Shouldn’t we actually take a little extra time for the day that signifies the incarnation of God?
I have much to say about this feast. Much, that if I did not, then I would be taking lightly my role in the Church, given how I think Christmas is being treated this year. Each year seems to get worse. However, sometimes we have to hear tough things in life. Sometimes, we need to hear things that awaken our souls. Sometimes, we just need a long sermon to awaken the spiritual acknowledgement that is needed on a day such as this.
Roman Catholic Pope Benedict recently spoke on a topic that much mimics what I too had in mind to speak about today. He refers to something happening among many Christian people today. He calls it, “Practical Atheism”. He states that “Practical Atheism” is a title applied to those who say they are Christian but live as if God does not exist. He goes on to say that this is a bigger threat than actual Atheism itself.
I couldn’t agree more. In fact I see it everywhere I go, and I suspect I am out in the public life more than his Vatican minions allow him to be. So many of us live as “Practical Atheists”. So many of us live our lives without living out our faith. So many of us are the type that go to church occasionally, and have prayer lives even less – if at all. And even if we do go to church on a regular or semi-regular basis, what happens the moment we step out of the sanctuary? We don’t live out our Christian faith. We do not witness this faith to others. It certainly is not a way of life for many, at least if we are honest with ourselves. Don’t take it too personal, because sometimes I am no better either. But let’s face it – it isn’t just about going to church. It goes deeper than that.
One can rationalize it in many ways, I suppose. In some cases, these rationalizations are legitimate – and other times they are not. Some of us have jobs that keep us away from church, but should it keep us from loving God and witnessing Jesus Christ in our lives and how we live?
Christian witness is always very hard. We are constantly challenged by the glitz and glamor of worldliness. This, I dare say, has contributed to some of the conditions in our world today. Society has become indifferent and even confused about ethics and morals in daily life. Ethics and morals that may have been more common a hundred years ago or so, have been replaced with relativism. Being liberated and free, especially in democratic countries such as ours, has become an excuse for lack of worship of, and the keeping of God in our lives.
Many folks know the Christmas story and its general meaning for our lives. In most cases, these folks even believe the story and its significance. However, the story does not come alive or even live for those of us in this category anymore. It has grown tiresome under the weight of an over-busy life. Additionally, the commercialism of the feast, such as Christmas cards, office parties, family get-togethers, family photos, gift buying, giving and receiving, and a myriad of other activities or responsibilities have stretched us further than most of us can bear. And all the while, the expense of it all, both in terms of money and energy, can make it feel like anything other than a season to rejoice.
Some folks want to believe in the Christmas story, but simply cannot see how the story can actually touch their lives. Life is full of too many bits of unhappiness, surprised unhappiness’s, unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and loads of choices made that are now regrets – all so it seems anyway. The wonder, majesty and heroicness of the Christmas story is just too pure, perfect and pristine to have any effect on our individual lives. As the story is remembered, they listen to it in simplified form, maybe even going to church, but will not allow it to seek in and let their soul seek out the one who makes this day so important for us all. Some go so far as to wonder if the story can really be believed in at all in this “modern” world we now live in. A story from two thousand years ago just does not seem to resonate anymore.
For those of us who do believe, whether a lot or in small amounts, maybe we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that maybe the whole thing scares us a bit. If God’s presence became real to us in a deep and true way, we’d have to face the things we’ve denied or shoved down or learned to keep at arm’s length; we would have to wrestle with God over how all this fits together, and how we would go on with him coming alongside - present - day after day, week after week, and so on.
Tonight/today, we are called to open the gate to our souls and hearts if you will. The Gospel of Luke begins with the premise of God’s presence coming among us as a mortal man. He does this by surprising a husband who has been crying out in desperate prayer over a disappointment that is wounding his wife and his life, or at least so it seems. We see Joseph being concerned about his wife to be, being pregnant and he is not the father, so he prays about this, and learns from the Angel of God that it is not the scandal it seems to be.
By Luke beginning his Gospel in this way, he opens the gate and welcomes all of us, wounded and wondering, to come into the story as a living story still today. We all have baggage; we all have concerns. We all have the, “How can this be?” kind of question in our hearts.
We also see the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are old and without child. In ancient Judaism, this was thought as a punishment from God. What had they done to deserve this? Nothing, which is why the Archangel Gabriel goes to them and announces that Elizabeth will indeed bear a child, even at her advanced age. Their disgrace has been taken away, not in a small way, but is a big way as the story unfolds. This was a once in a lifetime experience for Zechariah, as he is told of the pending great event while in the temple serving as Priest, but doing so for the first time, because to serve in the temple was the luck of a draw, and his name came up for him finally at this late stage in life. Was it the luck of the draw, or was God intentionally working in some form of divine providence? Zechariah, no doubt, felt he had never been chosen prior to this time because of some punishment for some unknown sin he committed. Zechariah was not being punished, but given a great privilege. Divine providence indeed it was. What does the Archangel tell them? He tells them, “Do not fear!” We are still being told that today.
The point of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth has multiple implications; however the biggest by far that we must focus on in our modern time is this. We see God act in the lives of two people – two people who think themselves abandoned by God for some sin they must have committed, but not knowing what sin it was. Finding out that apparently, and to their joy, they were wrong. Further, that God can work in ways our human intellect may say otherwise.
We see a virgin with child. How is this possible? No less than His action with Zechariah and Elizabeth, He is not limited to the intellect of humanity, but to His ominscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence!
But does all this mean that nothing in the story is transferable to us? Is it possible to learn from Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary? Is it possible we can learn from Mary’s response? Can the Spirit of God hover over us and do the same, this time for a new – renewed – creation in and of our own lives? Yes!
I too have asked these questions. I too feel challenged. I too feel unworthy. I came here 11 ½ years ago to take over a parish in decline, and I have felt as though I was very wrong for the job, even to this very day. Yet, I have to become willing to risk it, to trust that God may just be present, be with us, and have something worthwhile for me to do in life. Does God work out the seemingly impossible? Can we bring our ‘impossible” situations to him for salvation and ask with Mary, “How can this be?” Do I and St. Francis parish simply need to continue on like Zechariah and maybe receive the intervention in God’s own time?
We need to be more willing to reply as Mary had, “Let it be done to me according to your word!” Mary’s yes to God, becomes our redemption. She still had free will just as we do here today, but she trusted in God and thus the Holy Spirit gave her the strength and holiness to persevere.
Now we ask, but why all this? Why did God have to come as a man? Why come as a child? And even further, why did He wait until 30 years of age to start his ministry of salvation? Did he or does he even exist? Some of these questions, no answer will satisfy us or be suffice even to our finite intellects.
There is a story told by Lee Strobel that he witnessed which took place during his conversion from atheism. He was a reporter at the time and he relates a story of a sixty year old lady and her two granddaughters who lost all they had in a fire that destroyed their roach infested tenement they once lived in and who now lived in a two room apartment. They had no furniture, rugs, nothing on the walls – only a small kitchen table and a little bit of rice. The granddaughters, who were both eleven years old, each had one dress and only one sweater to share amongst the two of them.
Even in this state of poverty and the arthritis that kept her from working, the grandmother talked confidently in her faith in Jesus. She was convinced he had not abandoned them. As Lee interviewed them, he never witnessed or sensed any despair or self-pity in their home. The faith this women put in the God he did know, simply amazed him. He wrote an article about the family and it was published in the newspaper for which he worked.
He didn’t think much about it for a few days after, but on Christmas Eve he felt compelled to go to see how the family was doing. When they opened the door to his knock, he could not believe his eyes. The readers of the newspaper responded by showering the family with rooms full of furniture, appliances, rugs, a lavish Christmas tree with piles of wrapped presents underneath; carton upon cartons of food; clothes of all sorts, especially dozens of warm winter coats, scarves and gloves. To add to all of this, was thousands of dollars in cash.
Needless to say he was greatly surprised at what had come to pass from his article in favor to this family. But, what astounded him even more was the grandmother’s response to it all. When he arrived, the grandmother and her granddaughters were preparing to give it all away. He asked her about this, and she responded, “This is wonderful; this is very good,” she said, gesturing toward the largeness. “We did nothing to deserve this – it’s a gift from God. But,” she added, “it is not his greatest gift. No, we celebrate that tomorrow. That is Jesus. Our neighbors are still in need. We cannot have plenty while they have nothing. This is what Jesus would want us to do.” And so, she planned to give much of it away.
They had peace in their poverty, and we live with anxiety in our plenty. How can this be? The reason lies in what I started out my sermon on; we live as “practical atheists”. Virgins just don’t get pregnant and gods don’t come down in human form to help us, much less impact our lives directly.
Can we really trust the biographies of Jesus to tell us the true story of his birth, life, teachings, miracles, death and ultimate resurrection from the dead? Did the Christmas child actually grow up to fulfill the attributes of God? The answer to all of these is a resounding, “Yes!”
Many historians of past and present confirm biblical accuracy. Historians Papias and Josephus both from around the first and second centuries, just to name two of many historians who recorded events surrounding Jesus and his Apostles which give validity to the gospels. Early church fathers testify to the information that was handed down to them from the Apostles themselves. The historians even speak of the witnesses of Jesus and the Apostles and how accurate these stories really were. Anyone can find a rationalization to not believe, mainly because it is harder to simply believe. Yet, there is so much out there to help us believe that we don’t quite so eagerly seek out.
Luke, the physician writer of the gospel of Luke, is believed to have personally interviewed eyewitnesses who knew about everything from the birth to the death and to the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, this companion of the Apostle Paul said he carefully investigated everything so he could write an orderly account about the certainty of what occurred. There was no doubt that he was claiming to be recording actual historical events. Prominent archaeologists have carefully examined Luke's references to 32 countries, 54 cities, and nine islands, finding not a single mistake. In fact, archaeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible and its message.
Theologians can come up with explanations that seem to make sense, even though they might not be able to explain every nuance about the incarnation itself. In a way this is very logical, because if the incarnation is true, it is not surprising that our finite minds could not totally comprehend how it could have happened. Why is it so hard for us to believe that God wanted to come down and become part of our mortal nature so that we can see him and thus believe? Maybe we are all like the Apostle Thomas and need to see for ourselves. Maybe we are simply too busy to even think about it. In this day and age, this is the more probable reason.
In the Jewish scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament, there are several dozen major prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, whom God would send to redeem his people. In effect, these predictions formed a figurative fingerprint that only the Anointed One of God would be able to match. This way, the Israelites could rule out any imposters and validate the credentials of the authenticity of the real Messiah. Jesus lived up to all these prophecies in ways that no human being could possibly have imitated.
More than four dozen major predictions in all are in the Old Testament. Isaiah revealed the manner of the Messiah's birth; Micah pinpointed the place of his birth; Genesis and Jeremiah specified his ancestry (a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from the tribe of Judah, the house of David); the psalms foretold his betrayal, his accusation by false witnesses, his manner of death (pierced in the hands and feet, although crucifixion hadn't been invented yet when the prophecy was made), and his resurrection (he would not decay but would ascend on high); and on and on.
Maybe Jesus simply lived out the prophecies, one might rationalize. However, the odds of any one human being, especially one like us without a divine nature, the odds are so astronomical that it would be impossible for any one human being to live out every one of the prophecies exactly as they were prophesied in the same manner in which Jesus fully did.
What does all this mean to you and me? It means that we have the same opportunity that the people of 2,000 years ago had. We have the opportunity to take what we hear and what we see and even what we feel, and live out our lives as we are being called to do. The church lives out the life of Christ in sequence every single year to help us in our pilgrimage toward the kingdom of heaven. It is indeed hard for us to have faith and believe in a God such as we do, when the busyness and technological advancement of the world around us challenges us for our mental attention, our spiritual attention, and our overall faith.
We have but to look around and see. God is everywhere and in everything. Jesus as the second person of the Trinity is that person of God, the person of the one God that came among us in human form to help our weak and unfaithful minds to see that God is truly with us. We have but to ask and Christ will make himself known to anyone who asks this of him. But I say to you look around this room, look in your homes, look in your cars, look on your televisions and computers, go to your local hospital, go to some of the tallest buildings in the world and stand on the top, just go to a flower garden. Go and look at all these things, is what I say to you today. Go and read Gray's anatomy and think about how intricate the human body is and how all those organs work in very specific ways to keep each of us alive. Go into all these things, and then come back and tell me that you cannot believe that there is a God and that he came down for us in the person of Jesus Christ.
No Big Bang did this. No form of evolution did this. This in everything we see, feel, hear, taste, and can touch is due solely to an intelligent force that created it all. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” The “Word” as we all know, is what St. John used in reference to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Word. Jesus Christ is God!
Like the grandmother who was poor and destitute, we need to put our faith in Jesus Christ. We need to do this in the same simplistic form that she did. We do not necessarily have to expect what she received, fore it would be like testing God, but we certainly can have faith that we will get the answer we need even if it is not the answer we want.
I do not have time tonight/today (for that, you are probably quite thankful) to enumerate all of the possible proofs, not only of God's existence, but that of his existence in the person of Jesus Christ. But, I certainly think that I have given you something to think about. However, let me finish with this - listen to this story and see if it can touch your heart.
“I'm sorry. We're doing everything we can.
The doctors did everything they could to save my son's life. I called Jesse my miracle baby. Born three months premature, he’d amazed everyone with his fighting spirit and will to live. He’d kept his sweet nature through many traumas and life-threatening illnesses over the seven years.
This time, however, nothing seemed to work. Jesse looked so small and helpless with wires and tubes attached everywhere. I wanted to pray for him, to simply ask God to heal, but I was too tired. We’d repeated this scene so many times that I developed prayer fatigue.
Now, three days before Christmas, I could see the fight going out of him. I could feel it draining out of me, too. Trying to place Jesse in God's hands, I looked up at the silent television. Please God, I thought, don't let us have a Christmas tragedy. On TV, they always have Christmas miracles. I know you can write a better story than that.
As Jesse struggled to breathe, his abdomen retracted deeply in the attempt. He had a dangerous kind of croup and his airway was extremely narrow from the inflamed scar tissue that lined his throat. Lucille Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, in Northern California, was one of the best in the nation. The staff was doing all they could.
It just wasn't enough.
I leaned my head against the cool glass of the hospital window, breathing slowly and deeply. Oh, dear, loving God, I cried silently, I wish I could breathe for him. And Jesse wasn't the only sick child there. In the rooms around us lay other desperately ill children with equally worried parents. The atmosphere felt heavy with sadness. For me, it seemed to match the grayness of the day outside.
A whimper and a look of pain on Jesse's face made me realize he was worse than he had been.
Christmas should be about good news. Why should there be such sadness at this time of year? As I pondered what to do, I decided to call others and ask for their prayers.
‘I'm going to call people to pray for you.’ I pushed back the tears as I said to my son, ‘You're going to be okay.’
I made the calls and waited. I pulled him close to me and held him as tightly as I dared. As I stared out the window, darkness slowly descended. I was afraid of the darkness, because Jesse always went downhill in the evenings. The doctors had already told me that we should expect an especially rough night.
Just then someone knocked at the door. I called out, ‘come in.’
Two huge men entered the room. Between their size and their smiles, they seemed to fill the whole room. They were members of the San Jose Sharks, a professional hockey team. ‘We've come to bring a little Christmas cheer to the children,’ one of them said.
Jesse loved visitors, no matter how ill he was, and he waved them to come closer. Holding his toys, he strained to whisper, ‘I have two cars.’ He held up one of the shining Matchbox toys. ‘Can you find a boy in another room who doesn't have any and give him this one? Tell him I'll be his friend.’
As the hockey players left, both of them had tears in their eyes.
Thank you for this wonderful little boy, I prayed. The world needs more boys like him!
As the staff had predicted, it was a hard night, and not just for us. Alarms buzzed all over that wing of the hospital. I stood guard as Jesse held on; needing many treatments with powerful drugs just to keep breathing. I repeatedly reminded myself of a verse from the book of Psalms, ‘Weeping may last through the night but joy comes with the morning.’ (Psalm 30:5) I didn't know if God would make it come true for me, but I was determined to recite the verse and hold on.
With the sunrise came more dark clouds and rain. The doctors didn't communicate with us and the nurses looked sad when they walked into the room. Jesse couldn't stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time. My apprehension grew.
As discouragement pulled at me, I thought of a church where I visited a few times. The people there had seemed genuine and I felt such a spirit of love whenever I visited. As the morning wore on, I couldn't stop thinking about them. They care about people. They pray for people, I said to myself. As difficult as it was to share the pain of what we were going through, I called my friend Jessica. ‘Please contact the minister and the people at that church. Ask them - ask them if they'll pray for Jesse, Will you?’
Jessica was delighted to be able to do something for us.
For a long time I stared at my little boy. The dark circles under his eyes had deepened. They came from the effort it took to draw each breath. I wanted to wipe away the bruises on the bridge of his nose that came from wearing oxygen mask. His curly hair was damp and tangled, but he looked like an angel to me, as beautiful as any I'd seen in paintings or on Christmas cards.
I got up and walked to the window and stared into space. Just then, a bright rainbow filled the sky right in front of me. I didn't understand it, but I felt God had sent the rainbow just for me. I kept repeating, Thank you! Thank you, Lord! As I watched, three layers of cloud cover parted just above our window and revealed the blue sky.
‘It's like an open heaven,’ I whispered. I can't explain it, but I believe that not only was the rainbow just for me, but I also felt God had given me a special sign. I'll take that as a promise, God. I trust you to take care of him! As deep peace washed over me, I was ready to curl up next to Jesse and rest.
I didn't know it then, but word had spread quickly throughout the community about our son. People made phone calls and sent e-mails all over the country asking for prayer.
Just then, I realized Jesse wasn't wheezing. He looked so peaceful; my first thought was that he had died. But the alarms were silent. No, I assured myself, he's breathing deeply on his own.
Within minutes, my son, who struggled for every breath during the night and lay listless and unmoving, grinned at me. He sat up in bed. He yanked off his mask and disconnected the wire. ‘Let's play, mommy!’ He said.
Immediately the alarms sounded because of his actions. Nurses rushed in, expecting a crisis. Instead there were shocked expressions and disbelief on their faces.
Jesse jumped out of bed and ran around the room. Afraid he might relapse; I scooped him up and hugged him. The tears came freely now and I knew God had answered prayer - my prayer and those of hundreds of others.
One of the nurses asked, ‘What happened in here?’
‘God's helping me,’ Jesse replied matter-of-factly. ‘He's helping all the children.’ The nurses called the doctors with the good news. Within our reaching out for prayer, everything had changed.
We had to stay another day for observation, so we sent out e-mails of thanks. Jesse and I enjoyed the day playing together, and we watched holiday movies. We prayed for the other families on our floor, too.
Very early Christmas Eve morning, Jesse woke up and said, ‘Mommy, Jesus came to see me. He said I'm going to be all better. It was special. He's telling the other kids stories in their rooms right now.’ He smiled, lay back, closed his eyes, and was soon asleep.
I lay awake with tears of joy sliding down my face. Thank you, I prayed, he's coming home for Christmas.
That night was the most peaceful night we ever experienced in the pediatric ICU. Nurses remarked on how quiet it was, how strange that no alarms broke the silence. There was no crying children and no sudden crises. It was as if a sweet peace had fallen over the entire hospital wing and everyone was able to rest.
‘You gave us a good ending to our story, Lord,’ I said. ‘It's even better than TV.’
God helped my son to breathe when the doctors couldn't. After years of fighting for his life and spending far too much time in intensive care, it turned out just as Jesse said: Jesus had made him well. Even better, our son has not been hospitalized since. Even the scars are gone.
Since then, whenever troubles come, I no longer hesitate to call people for prayer. Jesse won't let me. He still believes in miracles.
So do I.
(Lisa Anne Wooldridge)
This is but one of many Christmas Miracles that happen every year, sometimes every day. We have simply allowed ourselves to forget that all that revolves around us is guided by something more than the technological device we use to organize our lives. Let us be like the Zechariah’s, Elizabeth’s, Mary’s and Joseph’s of the past, and live our lives in faith of the one who created it. Don’t let church tonight/today be the only time you think of the true reason we celebrate on this day. Do not fear.
Go away from here today and do like the bumper sticker, and “keep Christ in Christmas.” It is, after, the day we celebrate as His birthday, or have we forgotten that? I think maybe we do tend to forget that as Christmas Day transpires. My prayer for each of you is that you go away from here today and believe. Go away from here today and believe in Christmas miracles. Each day is a miracle. Some miracles are just larger than others. But most of all, remember what this day is really all about!
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.