A friend recently told me of a meeting that was taking place at his church not that far from here, and during that meeting a baby was born. By this, I mean to say that the proceedings of the meeting in question were interrupted as a woman went into labor and gave birth to a newborn child right there in the Parish Hall. I don’t mean to say that her labor merely began in the Parish Hall before she was safely transported to a hospital. I mean to say that the child was born: delivered there in the Parish Hall before the EMT’s arrived, who’d been called as soon as anyone realized what was happening. I don’t know how long the labor lasted. (It wasn’t long.) I don’t who who assisted with the delivery. I don’t know if the father was present. I assume the meeting was adjourned. To the best of my knowledge, it all unfolded very quickly and quite safely - all things considered. And I am quite certain that mother and child are both healthy and doing well.
This blessed event took place within the last two weeks, and I have to admit that as I heard the story of the baby being born in the middle of a church meeting, I was filled not only with a bit of joy at the good news of this birth, but also with a fair measure of envy. Gee, I thought, I wish a baby had been here in the days before Christmas - what a sermon that would make!
It’s funny how quickly you can go from feeling happy about something, to feeling mildly envious that that something took place somewhere else, to deciding that the absence of such an event at you own church could just ruin Christmas. And this is precisely the thought process that took place in my head over time. The more I thought about it, the more I felt gypped that we haven’t had a baby born in the Parish Hall at Saint Mark’s during Coffee Hour, or during a Finance Committee meeting, or some such thing. It began to seem to me that, not only was it a happy omen for that other church in question that a baby had been born on the premises only days before Christmas; but it began to seem to me that, conversely, it was a sign of some foreboding and doom that no mother had even felt labor pains within our fence line here.
And every baby that’s been born in recent memory to mothers and fathers in this parish has been born in the safe and antiseptic precincts of a hospital. What’s the matter with us? I began to wonder? Couldn’t a woman give birth here, at Saint Mark’s? And how can we possibly have Christmas now, since we were not chosen to be a place where babies are miraculously delivered to mothers of such fortitude and grace that meetings going on around them may only have come to an end when the crying of the newborn interrupts the call of the chair for any new business that had to be attended to.
As I say, some of the shine was knocked of Christmas for me as I brooded on this matter. And because I have been thinking a lot lately of the importance of symbolism, I found myself more and more bereft at the absence of the quite literal symbol of a birth in church. It’s been keeping me up at night. And in my mind, as I lay there thinking about this in my bed, unable to sleep, I began to worry that you can’t have Christmas without a baby. And, I worried, that while babies are literally being born on-site in some churches, we haven’t had an in situ birth since who-knows-when - if ever! How could we, in good conscience, go ahead with Christmas?!? You can’t have Christmas without a baby!
So I’m thinking about all this... about the implications of Christmas without a baby…and I’m in a downward spiral. This is starting to look to me like a crisis - Christmas with no baby. It seems to me, in my anxiety, that everyone else will have a baby for Christmas, that babies have been born in the Parish Halls of nearly every church in Philadelphia, in every denomination, probably even the Quakers are having babies quietly delivered during meetings, who only cry if they have something to say - but not Saint Mark’s! This is terrible, catastrophic! How could this be?
Then it hits me - of course! This is Trump’s fault! But no sooner does the thought occur to me than I realize how crazy it is. Get a grip! And a much more plausible idea comes to mind - this is Obama’s fault! Thanks, Obama!
The point of all this worrying of course, was that you can’t have Christmas without Jesus. And I suppose that I got into a bit of funk that so much of Christmas seems to go ahead in the world, with or without Jesus. And somewhere deep in my psyche, I guess I began to wonder whether or not we really have Jesus with us here; whether or not the baby in question really would be present with us tonight, on Christmas Eve.
And if the issue at hand is a worry about Christmas without Jesus, then it begins to dawn on me that my job in the pulpit tonight must be to convince you that you can’t have Christmas without Jesus, and that if you haven’t made room in your heart for the Christ Child to be born, then maybe you should be as frenzied as I was, when I was having sleepless nights because a baby was born at another church nearby (right in the Parish Hall!) but not here at Saint Mark’s. What’s the matter with you? (this thinking goes) that you don’t love Jesus enough to let him be born in your hearts? You are no better than innkeepers with no room for a pregnant Mary, and her tired husband Joseph. No room at the inn: and no room in your hearts! You wicked people!
But when I think like this, I feel like one of those culture warriors who is demanding that we put the Christ back in Christmas, even though I know this is is a somewhat ridiculous thought, because Christmas is not in our control, and there can be no real Christmas without Christ, but that’s not up to me or to you. And I realize that I don’t want to be one of those culture warriors, and I don’t really want to try to make you feel guilty on Christmas Eve at Midnight Mass, because what does that accomplish for any of us, let alone for Christ? Especially since, I assume that if I talked to you that way from the pulpit, you would respond appropriately and ignore me, and you would sit there hoping that the next Christmas carol we sing is going to be a good one, because we are gonna need something after this sermon to lift our spirits again.
And as I consider the possibility of this whole entire service going south because of an inane sermon about the need to put the Christ back in Christmas - or, on the other hand, to put the Mass back in Christmas (which is an even worse sermon) - it makes me want to blame Trump all over again, even though I know the fault is all mine. Thanks, Trump.
But the point - the original point - of all my worry is still out there: that is, the problem of Christmas without the baby, of Christmas without Jesus - and how the worry about the possibility of a Christmas without Jesus makes me feel.
It makes me feel alone and hopeless.
I imagine that Mary and Joseph felt pretty alone and hopeless on that first Christmas, even though both of them had been assured by the angel Gabriel that God’s hand was behind all these things taking place, that God’s will was being accomplished, and that God’s own Son was to be born. But how did they know on that night, when they were without a roof to shelter them? How could they be sure that this was a child of the Father’s love begotten? How could they help but feel alone and maybe a bit hopeless?
When God looks at us, he sees us with all our fear, and in all our aloneness and our hopelessness. And don’t you think that when he see us thus, he says to himself, or maybe to the angels around him, or at least within their hearing, “This is not how I intended it to be. I did not make each one of these beautiful children of mine to be hopeless and alone, or even to be afraid that life could ever leave them that way - that I could ever leave them that way. I must do something.”
God remembers that he made us to be his most wonderful creatures in his most wonderful garden. And somewhere in God’s house - in more or less the same place that you and I have set up a miniature manger with little figures of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, to remind ourselves of the scene at that first Christmas, on God’s mantle, or some such place - God may have set up a miniature garden with little figures of a smiling Adam and Eve, stark naked and happy as larks, to remind himself of the scene of that first morning when creation sang, and all was as it was meant to be.
God longs to restore us to such happiness, where there was never a fear of being alone or hopeless, at least not once the creation was finished. It’s a story, of course, but it’s a story given to us by God to allow us to see that things are not the way he intended them to be; that things have gotten this way because of our intentions, not because of his. And this new story, this manger scene, was arranged by God for the giving of his Son, to begin to set things right again, and to bring the rule of his love back to the place where he first planted his most wonderful garden, and to the people for whom it was planted.
And here’s some good news. It’s not up to me or to you to put the Christ into Christmas. That’s God’s job; it always has been; and it always will be. Let’s admit that there is something arbitrary about keeping Christmas on December 25th - it’s not really Jesus’ birthday. Any day could be Jesus’ birthday, and every day should be a day when we allow the Christ Child to come bursting into our own lives and take over - even if no baby was born in the Parish Hall that day.
There is so much to keep any one of us awake at night - do you need me to make suggestions? Just think of Puerto Rico, or Myanmar, or Las Vegas only two months ago. Think of Washington DC, and no matter where you stand, you’ll find something to disturb your sleep. Think of North Korea, or Syria. Think of opioid pain killers. Think of this nation’s veterans, or think of the soldiers we are still all too willing to send to war. Think of the women whose five-letter (#MeToo) hashtag has told us a truth that ought to disrupt our easy sleep. If you are looking for something to keep you up at night, there is plenty out there.
But one thing that none of us needs to worry about is whether or not Jesus is showing up for Christmas. Christmas is only the annual reminder of an every-day truth: that God loves us and is always sending his Son to us, in the most innocent and vulnerable of ways, since anything else would make us suspicious of him. And God knows how frightened we are that we may find ourselves alone and hopeless. But God comes to us of his own volition, seeking fellowship and love, and bringing hope.
The 16th century poet Robert Southwell put it this way in a beautiful text that is sometimes sung at this time of year, speaking of the Child whose birth we celebrate: “He mine by gift, I his by debt, thus each to other due.” Jesus is God’s gift to us, and we owe him our lives, our salvation. We deserve each other - us and Jesus - and there’s not a chance he won’t be born, right here in our midst. Thanks be to God, like everyone else who seeks it, we’ll have Christmas again with a baby, the Son of God: God with us!
And if I have trouble sleeping tonight, I’ll do my best to remember most of the rest of that poem I mentioned, about the child Jesus:
Though young, yet wise;
though small, yet strong;
though man, yet God He is:
As wise, He knows;
as strong, He can;
as God, He loves to bless….
Alas! He weeps,
He sighs, He pants,
yet do His angels sing;
Out of His tears,
His sighs and throbs,
doth bud a joyful spring.
whose tender arms
can force all foes to fly,
Correct my faults,
protect my life,
direct me when I die!
(A Child My Choice, by Robert Southwell, 1562-1595)
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Christmas Eve 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia