In the flesh

Christmas Eve – December 24, 2020 – Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

It’s a joy to be able to write occasionally for Sermons That Work, an offering for the whole denomination. This sermon was published in “Sermons for Advent and Christmas 2020.” I encourage you to take some time over the next 12 days to read the words of these other fine preachers. Merry Christmas!
https://episcopalchurch.org/sermons-advent-and-christmas

Luke’s nativity story is familiar to most of us, whether we know it or not. That famous account of Jesus’ birth that we hear, year-in and year-out, begins with those ever-so recognizable lines, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…” You know where this one’s going right from the very beginning.

Christians don’t memorize much scripture anymore. Smartphone in hand, any one of us can command verse after verse with a few swipes of our thumb. Come to think of it, nobody memorizes much of anything at all anymore. Yet even today, the children in the Christmas pageant commit themselves to those words that seem to rain down from heaven: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The words from the letter to Titus, on the other hand, are not very well known to most of us. We are simply not as well acquainted with them as we are with Luke’s. They don’t provoke the same visceral awareness within us. They don’t transport us into the past quite as suddenly. They don’t put us in mind of singing carols or baking pies or unwrapping new pajamas.

The truth is, we often forget about the letter to Titus, and not just at Christmas time. “What’s your favorite book of the Bible?” “Oh, Titus, for sure!” (said no one, ever.)

Another sentiment never overheard: “Oh, how I love Christmas Eve services each year! The family gathered together, the church glowing with candlelight, and just before the sequence hymn… the reading from Titus!” Something about it just doesn’t sound quite right.

And yet here is Titus, enfolded neatly into our Christmas liturgy. Even at one of the most well-attended services of the year, I doubt if anyone leaves with Titus on their mind (or the sermon, for that matter). So, if you didn’t recognize the passage, you’re not alone. Titus makes a rare appearance in our common worship. In fact, Christmas is the only time the letter appears in the lectionary cycle. Because of that, and because this particular passage is so brief, it might just bear repeating.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”

Even though these words from Titus might not be quite as memorable as some others, they are surely just as applicable as we gather not only to observe the nativity but to celebrate the Incarnation.

You see, Christmas is just as much about giving birth to a firstborn son and wrapping him in bands of cloth and laying him in a manger as it is about the grace of God appearing, bringing salvation to all. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin, one in the very same.

At Christmas, God’s grace appears like never before: in the flesh. By coming in the flesh, God is making sure we understand how very close to us the holy presence really is. God not only wants us to see that presence, God invites us to feel it—in the flesh! And so that is precisely where grace appears. 

Sure, we may catch the occasional glimpse of grace in other places: the rainbow-sherbet sky at dusk, the music of the song thrush, or looking down on the clouds from the view of a mountaintop perch. But all such moments of grace are happenstance, fleeting, sheer coincidence. But grace appearing in flesh? That is with us always! Because the flesh in which grace appears is our flesh. Becoming one of us is God’s way of telling us that our lives matter. It is to us, in these bodies, at this time and always, that grace appears.

Through the miracle of the Incarnation, God did away with the silly notion that we are mere drones slogging our way toward some heavenly home, slowly but surely trudging through the earthly muck and mire. By becoming flesh in this world, God sanctifies our flesh, making it possible for us to be agents of God’s grace – right here on earth. In other words, eternal life starts now. You don’t have to wait to get to heaven to live in God’s kingdom.

Ever since God appeared in a flesh like ours, and lived a life like ours, humanity and divinity have been inextricably linked. I know it’s hard to believe. The paradox of this great mystery is certainly worth considering, but on this holy night, we do not come to worship in order to ponder exactly how the Incarnation is possible. We come to worship to renew our commitment to living in the world as if it is true.

“A child has been born for us, a son given to us.”

“The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

None of this means that the world is perfect. If you weren’t already convinced, 2020 should have taken care of that. If ever any year was filled with earthly muck and mire, it was this one. So much so, in fact, that not all Christians—not even some of the most privileged Episcopalians—will be able to worship together tonight, to pass the peace, to break the bread. A year ago, we could never have imagined the number of lives that would be lost or hearts that would be broken.

Jesus doesn’t guarantee that the world will be perfect, but he does supply the grace that we need in order to live like we ought to live. The author of the letter to Titus reminds us that it is this grace that teaches us how to live a life that is self-controlled, upright, and godly. Will this be a faultless life? No. A flawless life? No. A totally unspoiled life? Absolutely not! But it will be a life in which we can respond following the example of the one who appeared to us in flesh.

Because God became flesh and dwelt among us, each and every one of us, our bodies, our lives, our selves, are conformed to God during the good times and the bad. In the manger baby, God sanctifies all that we experience, even our suffering.

Perhaps at this point, it’s best to get specific. The life that God’s grace makes possible for us is not a life in which we go around blaming gay people for hurricanes or rioters for wildfires. It is not a world in which COVID-19 can simply be chalked up to God’s wrath upon all those people who are different from us.

The life that God’s grace makes possible for us is a life in which we, as Christians, operate from a place of compassion and love. It is a life in which we recognize the turmoil and the tragedy, the trauma, and the deep grief of the world and simply ask how we can help.

“What do you need? Where can I meet you? Stay right there. I’m on the way!” The world cries out for a response rooted in the grace of God’s appearing. Not, “What did you do to deserve this?” More like, “Given these circumstances, where do we go from here? How do we walk forward together?”

That is grace in the flesh, dear friends. That is what the world needs. That is what God offers us in Jesus: the grace of gifts given, not gifts earned; grace that comes to us in our own image and inspires us to live the Christmas life.

So may it ever be.

Second Sunday after Christmas

Mary (1).jpegSecond Sunday after Christmas – January 5, 2020 – Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 – Trinity, Winchester

Paraphrasing Charles Dickens’s famous first line, it is fitting to say, “The wise men had left, to begin with.” Today’s Gospel tells us of the events following the departure of the Magi.

This might seem odd seeing as how tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany. That’s when we celebrate the coming of the Magi, “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles,” as it were. But today, on the Second Sunday after Christmas, we have chosen—one of three options—to read Matthew’s account of what happens after they depart.

Sometimes we get a bit out of order; that’s fine. The underlying—and everlasting—truth remains the same. And so Matthew tells it: an angel appears to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and Mary, and flee to Egypt. Remain there until further notice. King Herod is searching for the child so that he can kill him.”

So Joseph takes his family to Egypt by night, and there they wait until the angel again appears to Joseph saying, “Get up and take the child and his mother to the land of Israel. Those who were seeking to kill the child are dead.”

So Joseph takes Jesus and Mary toward Israel, but he is frightened to learn that Herod’s son is ruling there, so they go instead, at the Lord’s instruction, to Nazareth in Galilee.

By his own admission, Matthew includes this information in his Gospel account to validate the biblical prophecy that calls both for the Messiah to come “out of Egypt” and to be “a Nazorean.”

It does far more than that for us today. This morning we are arrested by the story’s striking violence. (Violence which the lectionary people have edited out.) A king is killing children in order to find the one child about whom it has been said, “He has been born King of the Jews.” This tale of violent human desperation seems to undermine the divine message of Christmas.

Today’s collect tells us that God became human in order to wonderfully restore the dignity of the human race he created. By virtue of the miraculous incarnation we share in the divine life. As we said on Christmas Eve, such a heavenly gift can seem to be at odds with the human wickedness apparent in Herod’s response.

On the one hand, we are emboldened by God’s grace. We share in his divine life by virtue of the fact that he sent his only Son to become one of us. On the other, we are saddened by depraved human response. A black-hearted despot seeks to take the life of the One who gives us that promise.

There is indeed a tension, a peculiarity, a confusion about all of this. However, it’s not that surprising that we should end up feeling some uncertainty about the events surrounding God’s drawing near.

How else are we to experience it? With perfect clarity? I dare say it would make even less sense if it all made perfect sense! We do not—we cannot—all of the sudden understand the miraculous ways of God.

Matthew’s account of these events reveals this good news: even in the dark, violent reality of the human story—a reality in which rulers do all that they can to cling to power—God chooses to become one of us, to give us all a glimpse of true salvation.

What’s more, God will never let us go. In the miracle of the incarnation God became human so that even in our humanity we may be made like God, at least, insofar as we can be in this life.

The Apostle Paul says it this way in his letter to the Ephesians: “[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

God has adopted us all by grace in Jesus Christ. That has been made clear in the incarnation. Good Christian friends, rejoice! There is no greater gift. You didn’t have to do anything to earn it. In fact, there is nothing that you could do to earn it, but God gives you this gift anyway.

Alas, even in our joy we must admit that there is perhaps one problem with the gift. Not God’s problem, but ours. This adoption that God has designed for us through Jesus is not ours alone, but everyone’s. That, too, can be hard to reconcile.

That means Jews, but it also means Gentiles. Those who keep the law, and those who don’t. That means the free, but it also means the slaves. Those who can do what they want, and those who can only do what they have to do. And that means you, but it also means Herod. Those who gather in the promise of grace and love, and those who summon violence and brutality out of fear.

How do we deal with the fact that the gift of grace is available to all? I think the answer to that has a lot to do with understanding the true nature of being human, which God understood completely through the incarnation.

Imagine that you have been as evil as Herod. You’ve not killed innocent children, but perhaps you’ve misbehaved in other ways, even metaphorically, in your heart or mind.

The scandalous message of the incarnation is that God loves all of us, even the worst of us. Could there be anyone worse than Herod? It’s hard to imagine that. Could there be any just as bad? Yes. Indeed, human history is littered with them.

Even though we may want revenge on such dastardly people, God does not. Instead of revenge, God desires redemption, the redemption of everyone. No matter what, God will always love you.

The Herods of this world continue to break God’s heart just as they have for millennia, but each time they infect this earth with their evil, God finds a new antidote for redemption. Even in the worst of times, God still triumphs.

Up until this point I’ve been making my case using Matthew’s gospel account, but to sum it up I want to turn to Luke. In chapter six verse 35 Jesus tells us something especially fitting in light of today’s lesson. “[God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Even though such a divine trait may be beyond our human understanding, it makes perfect sense to the God that feels nothing but love for those created in the divine image.

All you need to know is this: No matter how awful, hateful, or terrible his children turn out to be, God is the kind of parent who loves them, seeks them out, bids them return to the fold, and throws a big ol’ party to celebrate when they finally come home.

For that we can only say, “Thanks be to God” . . . and perhaps, “Merry Christmas!”

 

Photo: Nativity Window, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri. 

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve – December 24, 2019 – Luke 2:1-20 – Trinity, Winchester

Tonight, from the Gospel according to Luke, we hear the same familiar story that we hear each year on this night: the story of Jesus’ birth.

The story of the Word made flesh is the story of God infiltrating humanity. The creator unites with the created in a miraculous new way. Heaven and earth come together. God and humankind are made one.

Throughout Luke’s narrative we see humanity and divinity converging in surprising ways.

To begin with, it’s census time. Mary and Joseph are headed to Bethlehem, the City of David, to be counted. As obedient subjects of the empire, they have set out to do what their emperor has asked them to do.

All along the rough and rocky road from Galilee to Judea the flesh of God kicks, and squirms, and fidgets, and turns in the womb of the young bride-to-be of a poor stone cutter from Nazareth.

Luke sets the scene very carefully. Upon their arrival in the hometown of the much-storied Israelite king, David, Mary prepares to give birth to a long-prophesied heavenly king, Jesus.

By portraying Jesus as the Son of David (through Joseph’s lineage), and the Son of God (through the Holy Spirit’s intervention and Mary’s faithful willingness), Luke cements the union of kings mortal and immortal.

Royal though the baby may be, God has chosen for him a modest passage into the world, by way of an unassuming teenage girl. God comes to earth for the first time not “robed in dreadful majesty” but swaddled in strips of cloth.

It’s not at all what we might expect. Not only does God deign to become human, but he identifies with the underprivileged in the process. These two realities are at odds. The everlasting father of the creation meets transient children of the empire. The Prince of Peace meets poor Palestinian travelers.

The surprises don’t end there.

Next we hear of “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Going about their evening routine they find themselves suddenly surrounded by God’s glory, face to face with an angel of the Lord.

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Once again polar opposites collide. Filthy, uneducated shepherds meet radiant, holy messengers who traffic in the very countenance of God.

The contrast between heavenly prophesy and earthly reality sharpens as angels relay the birth announcement of a pauper’s child. “You will find [him] wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

If God scandalizes us by becoming human, then he astounds us by becoming poverty-stricken in the process. Luke depicts God’s union with humanity by showing us that divine identification reaches to the lowest rung of the societal ladder.

This is clear: the revelatory new work that God is doing in Jesus happens even in the midst of the mundane and unflattering circumstances of human life. Jesus’ birth is proof positive that God wields his power for good in the places we least expect.

By offering such a vivid account of God’s impoverished entrance into the world, Luke enjoins us to fulfill our own role in bringing the redemptive love of Jesus to those who need it most.

God became one of us to redeem all of us. By virtue of that redemption, you are empowered to be an agent of God’s reconciliation; a participant in God’s unification of heaven and earth; a coworker in closing the gap between sin and grace.

The work of uniting humanity and divinity might sound intimidating, so it’s good to be clear. It’s not your job to bring heaven and earth together. God has already done that. But Christmas is your renewed opportunity to join in Jesus’ continuing ministry of reconciliation.

Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting heavenly affection with human concern by calling on the ill and the grieving. Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting holy food with hungry souls by feeding a stranger.

Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting human action with heavenly righteousness by righting a wrong or correcting an injustice. Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in transforming fear into peace, doubt into hope, loneliness into relationship by lighting a candle in the darkness.

This is the joy of Christmas: to have the chance to join in God’s redeeming work. Our Advent anticipation is over. Christmas is here. The Lord has come. All you have left to do is to receive the joy.

So receive it, dear ones, and then get to work, not to earn your way into heaven, but to show your gratitude for the place that God has already prepared for you there.

Christmas has only just begun

First Sunday after Christmas – December 30th, 2018 – Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18 – Trinity Church, Winchester

You can listen to this sermon by clicking here.

Today is the sixth day of Christmas. You would likely know that, even if you weren’t an Episcopalian, because of the famous song that reminds us all. Not to worry, I won’t be preaching about any “six geese a’laying.” 

Nevertheless, I want to provide you with your annual reminder: Christmas is twelve days long. It’s not a day; it’s a season. 

Sadly, by the first day of Christmas, most people—most Christians even—are tired of it. The mall has been decorated since Thanksgiving. Christmas music has been playing since Halloween. New Year’s Eve is just around the corner. (I bet we’ll be talking about our plans at coffee hour.) 

By the time we’ve made it to church on Christmas Eve and unwrapped our presents on Christmas morning, we’re exhausted.

We’re tired of all the merriment, the holiday parties, the search for the perfect gifts, wrapping the perfect gifts, paying for the perfect gifts. Some of us adults might be tired of the kids who have already been out of school for a week. And some of us kids might be tired of being stuck at home. 

It’s understandable. There’s a rush getting ready for Christmas. There are lots of sugar-cookies to frost, lots of grandchildren to buy for, and lots of places to set at the table. 

It is human nature to throw ourselves into planning and preparing for events that, all of the sudden, are over. And it’s human nature to be (at least a little bit) glad when they are over. 

Ever gotten married? After planning a wedding for months and months it’s only natural for the happy couple to pause and in some brief moment to look at one another and admit, “I’ll be glad when this is over.” 

The same is true of pregnancy. At least, as far as I can tell. I’ve never experienced it, but I have heard expectant mothers say, “I just want this to be over.” Pregnancies are hard on the body, and they take courage and hard work to manage. A friend of mine who was on bedrest for several months of her pregnancy told me, “I can’t wait until this is all done.”

When we are in the midst of stressful and emotional times it makes sense to want them to end. Sometimes, though, we get so hung up on seeing things as endings that we forget that they are beginnings, too.

Brides and grooms may say, “I can’t wait until this is over.” But they also say things like, “I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you.” The wedding may be the end of the stress and planning and anticipation of the wedding day, but it’s the beginning of life together. 

A pregnant woman may say, “I can’t wait until this is over,” but I’ve also heard her say, “I can’t wait to hold this baby in my arms.” The birth is the end of the pregnancy, but it’s the beginning of a completely new chapter of life. One that will contain a toddler, a middler-schooler, a college student, and maybe even grandchildren!

The same is true with Christmas. There are plenty of reasons to be glad that your Christmas festivities are over. It’s stressful to coordinate family schedules. Christmas is hard to face alone, especially for the first or second time. And let’s be honest, it’s awkward to make small talk with relatives you hardly ever see. But now is the time to remember that Christmas is first and foremost a beginning.

Christmas is the beginning of Christ in our midst. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The transforming birth of Jesus changes our relationship with God forever. God put on flesh and walked among us in order to tell us in the most profound way possible that God loves us. All of us. 

The Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Galatians that Christmas is the beginning of our new relationship with God. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman . . . so that we might receive adoption as children.” We are all children of God, and God lives in each of us—even in our flesh—forever. Christmas is the beginning of all that. 

I know you’ve heard it before. “It’s still Christmas.” “Christmas lasts twelve days.” “We have until Epiphany, you know.” “Don’t undecorated the nave yet!” But I’ve decided that it is not the preacher’s job to worry about over-exposure to certain truths. Rather, it is the preacher’s duty to go right on preaching them. Today that truth is this: Christmas has only just begun. 

You already know that Christmas is more than at day, that it’s a season. But let me let you in on a little secret: that season never ends. 

Even next Sunday, when we come together to celebrate the Epiphany, it will still be Christmas, because the incarnate one will be with us. When Lent comes and our sins are heavy in our hearts, it will still be Christmas, because God will be with us. Emmanuel! When on Easter the joy of the Risen Christ fills the church with triumphant “Alleluias!” it will still be Christmas because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Every year of his life until this one, Walker has had the tradition of going with his mother to see Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on stage at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. For the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to go with them. 

There’s one thing about that performance that I always seem to remember above all else. Toward the end, when Scrooge is begging for his very life, he lands on his knees in front of the “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,” and he mutters, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, I will honor Christmas in my heart, I will honor Christmas in my heart.”

Friends, if you want to honor Christmas in your heart, honor Jesus in your heart, keep him there always, and look for him in everyone you meet. If you do that, it will be Christmas all the time.

How far is it to Bethlehem?

The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord  – December 24, 2018 – Luke 2:1-20 – Trinity Church, Winchester

Last year a group from my home parish journeyed to the Holy Land to see many of the storied sites of the Bible: Jerusalem, Galilee, Nazareth, Jericho, and of course, Bethlehem. 

Bethlehem is one of the most famous cities in the region because of its place in the gospel story we just heard. The Church of the Nativity there boasts the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. I remember the day we took the short bus ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. My friend Collin shouted from the back of the bus, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately. “How far is it to Bethlehem?” Collin was surely not the first person to ask this question. Think about the biblical Christmas narratives. 

It’s census time. Caesar has spoken and Joseph has to get Bethlehem. Imagine a very pregnant Mary turning to him to ask with weary eyes, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” 

While watching their sheep on a Judean hillside, a group of shepherds hear a heavenly noise. It’s like nothing they have ever experienced before. The angel tells them good news of great joy. “Go to Bethlehem and see.” After the angels depart, imagine a group of startled shepherds looking at each other and asking, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

The magi observe a star in the east and make their way to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born?” “In Bethlehem of Judea,” the prophets have written. Imagine the three tired travelers meeting eyes and simultaneously asking, “How far is it to Bethlehem? 

It’s a question older than even the birth narratives.

The Book of Ruth tells us that Naomi moves with her family from Bethlehem to Moab. Soon tragedy befalls her. Her husband and sons die, and she prepares to move back to her hometown with her daughters-in-law. Imagine her gathering what’s left of her life and trying to remember, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

The question is still alive and well in the present age. 

Frances Chesterton wrote a poem entitled, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” It became a well-known English carol, set to various musical arrangements. You can hear both St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir in Dublin and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing it on YouTube. 

“How far is it to Bethlehem? / Not very far. / Shall we find the stable-room / Lit by a star?”

Others have phrased the question slightly differently. There is a children’s book with the title, “How Many Miles to Bethlehem?” (There’s also a sing-along song and a stage play with the same name.)

The question has been on the minds of those past and present. It’s no surprise then that tonight we still come wondering, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

As Christians of the twenty-first century we are well-versed in the Christmas story. We ask, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” knowing well what we will find there—Jesus Christ. God made man. 

At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation. God made flesh. The incarnation tells us that God came to dwell with God’s people as one of them. Once and for all God became flesh to tell us that flesh matters. People matter. You matter. 

Through Advent we heard tell of the one who is coming. Now he is here. Jesus breaks into a world of fear, of uncertainty, and of division and offers us saving grace. It’s a good thing, too, because we need him now more than ever. 

This world needs Jesus. What else can we count on? The government? No, it’s shut down. Our political parties? All they do is argue. The stock market? I wouldn’t bet on it. 

We need the one who promises to deliver us from this unpredictable and divisive world. We need Jesus. The good news is, Jesus is here. In our brokenness, grief, sadness, stress, anxiety, loneliness, and anger God is with us. Emmanuel. 

Wherever you are in your humanity, the incarnation promises you that Jesus is right there with you. Bethlehem is right here among us and in us: holy people, fed with holy food, made in God’s holy image. 

So, how far is it to Bethlehem? 

Last year my friend Collin asked a simple question on a bus in Palestine, but what I remember better now is the reply yelled back from the front. “Not very far!”  

No, it’s not very far at all.

Experiencing The Joy

December 25, 2016 – Luke 2:1-14

Thanks to the fine folks at my home parish, you can watch me preach this sermon here. The sermon starts at 7:30.

Merry Christmas!

And what a merry occasion it can be. The good news for us is, even in the silence we can experience it.

Eh, maybe music would be nice, but we’ve done that. The organist is with his family. The choir members are home watching their children rip open the packages from Santa. Members of the Alter Guild are playing with their grandchildren.

Phillips Brook’s is pretty eloquent. He wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

Yes. We’re fine.

We don’t always need an organ pipe blaring to broadcast the “still small voice of God.”

The truth is, try as they might, no trumpet fanfare could do such a voice justice. No organ riff could measure up to it, breaking forth in the chilly air, hay rustling beneath the tiny newborn limbs.

If you listen closely enough, you might just hear a little bit of it.

It’s much more than the voice of a baby.

I saw a woman in the grocery store this week. You’ve probably seen her, too. The woman who is pushing a cart full down the aisle and she has quite a long list in her hand, written out on the back of last month’s receipt. She looks stressed, confused even, by the time she gets to the relishes. Why do there have to be so many brands of pickles?

Another woman was pushing her cart the opposite way, she’s considerably younger, and there’s a baby in her cart.

For a moment it all just stops.

The older women locked eyes with the young child and they smiled at each other and she waved to him and he giggled and she forgot where she was or that she had a list or that the prices had gone up.

Everything was right there in that moment. It was unexpected joy. Mountains of things to buy and do, but she had to stop and make funny faces at him for a while.

It took her from that place. She’s somewhere else.

The other stuff will be there when they’re done.

Do you know anyone who has a cat or a dog? And it just comes and sits down in the lap whenever it feels like it?

My friends sometimes post pictures on Facebook: With a computer in their lap, books open on the table, and Scruffy plops himself right down, sprawls along the keyboard.

It’s annoying! Get off. I’m trying to finish these reports!

Well, maybe.

But what a joy. It alleviates something. It takes you away.

“Oh! I love this little guy!” And that love is unconditional.

The other night my mom texted—it was a group text to the whole family. It was a picture of a photograph of our dog, Winston, hanging on the refrigerator. It was from several Christmases ago, and he was all dressed up in his reindeer costume. We lost Winston earlier this year.

“Cheered me up before leaving the house today,” she wrote.

She was somewhere else, just for a moment.

My friend Richard, he’s such a character. I really love him, but we can sure get stuck in some places.

“How are you doing today Richard?”

He mutters, smiling, quoting a local author, “Oh Warren, we live in a fallen world.”

“Well, yes we do Richard.”
“Gosh, the burden of existence is just so much sometimes!”

“Yeah, Richard…I hear ya.”

It’s easy to get down in these things. It’s easy read a news headline on your phone or a glance at a ticker on the bottom of a cable news channel while you’re waiting on your oil change and you’re just done. You’ve bottomed out. I don’t know if what I’m dong in life makes sense anymore. Onerous troubles creep to mind and you become more aware of the fall than you are of any hand extended to help you up.

But tell a good joke, use a funny accent, or quote 30 Rock at just the right time, and Richard laughs so hard, just loses it. I’ve got videos on my phone to prove it. He can’t keep it together. It’s hard to breathe, you’re abs start to hurt when you laugh that hard.

It’s a joyful episode. 

For some people, their whole lives have become so predictable, their activity has become so restricted, that the day their granddaughters come into town and visit them, they finally have something wonderful to talk about instead of everyone’s aches and pains or who died this week. For just a moment, they leave all that negativity aside and focus on the joy.

If we go through life thinking only of that which we have to peel off the bottom of our shoe, we miss the dew-drenched meadow at dawn that we walked through to get it.

There’s plenty to get us down. It seems all too real. It is all too real. Then, Christmas bursts in. Christmas reminds us that joy is also real. It’s too easy to get stuck in the junk of life and forget about—or miss—the joy.

Jesus walks the same path we do during the liturgical year. He walks it with us. Through times of repentance and anguish and temptation and examination and expectation, but also times of joy—and that’s what it’s time for now.

We’ve had our Advent. We’ll get our Lent.

Let us settle in to the joy of God’s immanence. 

That’s what it’s time for now.

This joy does not impede our witnessing the occasions of suffering darkness, but it does helps us forge a Way with Him to walk.

When you walk out of the Eucharist today many things will still be the same.

The homeless man will still be standing at the bottom of the exit ramp.

The children of Aleppo will still be experiencing shock waves of relentless terror.

By any standard of American democracy the men and women who won on Nov. 8th will still be victors, and those who lost will still be losers.

But there will be one difference—you have been here—in the midst of the miracle.

You have sat here and experienced the silent joy of the incarnation.

You have met Him (in the body and the blood).

Cold. Alone. Scared. Helpless. Human. Hungry. Giggling. Remembering. Laughing. Loving.

This is a joy that transforms the moment. This is a joy so full and complete that it transports us away from our reality and into the heart of God.

A joy that knows no boundary

A love that knows no condition.

A peace that passes all understanding.

And…here’s what’s really cool—you can take all that with you when you go.