Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6, Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; and Luke 2:1-14
Blessed Christmas everyone! I am go glad so many of you could join us for this special celebration commemorating our Lord’s birth. Our first reading from Isaiah speaks of a “people who walked in darkness,” which referred to the darkness of oppression under the foreign power Assyria, who had conquered the northern territories of the Jewish people. In the midst of this darkness of suffering and loss, Isaiah tells the people they “have seen a great light” (Is 9:1a). “Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is 9:1b). And in that light the people rejoice with “abundant joy” (Is 9:2).
So, too, in our own lives, when we have lived through a time of darkness, say depression or bone deep weariness over the tragic, unexpected death of a loved one, and we awaken to the sign of a rainbow or the sun breaking through the cloud-darkened sky, we can experience the in-breaking of moments of peace, even joy. This joy is not the hilarity of jokes, but the grace of equanimity and assurance that we are loved in the midst of our pain. We sense we are not alone. Often these moments for rejoicing, in the awareness that God is with us—Emmanuel—in our darkness, do not coincide with the actual moments of darkness. Rather, upon reflection, in stepping back from the intensity of the pain, we see the light, the insight, the wonder of God’s presence. For me, that is the mystery of God’s being with me in humble, unassuming hiddenness. Then inexplicably we experience that “the grace of God has appeared” of Paul’s letter to Titus in our second reading. We know a moment of “blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Christ is the personification, or rather, the incarnation of God’s grace. This glory echoes what shone around the angel, who appeared to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth (Lk 2:9) The angel’s proclamation to the fear-struck shepherds is: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). Have you ever had an angel appear to you in the midst of your fear? I have not, but an appearance of an angel–that alone would cause fear. We note that Luke changes the fear into an invitation, for the angel says, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). This is the second time the evangelist points to how Jesus is clothed and where he lies (see Lk 2:7). This wrapping in swaddling clothes alludes to the story of Solomon, son of King David, who was deeply cared for at his birth (Wis 7:4) and the allusion may well prefigure this new born king, who will have a much more humble life than that of his predecessor. That this little prince lies in a manger is an allusion to Isaiah 1:3, “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood me.” Since the time of Francis of Assisi, the ox and ass join shepherds and sheep at the place where the Child Jesus dwells in nativity scenes. Jesus lies in the very feeding trough of animals and will later become the bread of life for all the thousands hungry for nourishment. There is a paradox in this manger. According to the biblical scholar Raymond Brown, “Luke is proclaiming that the Isaian dictum has been repealed. Now, when the good news of the birth of their Lord is proclaimed to the shepherds, they go to find the baby in the manger and begin to praise God. In other words, God’s people have begun to know the manger of the Lord.”1
With the invitation to go to the manger scene the first angel is joined by a multitude of angels, “praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests’” (Lk 2:14). Luke borrows elements of the sanctus or “Holy, Holy Holy,” of Isaiah 6:3, where seraphim touch the prophet’s lips in the temple and pronounce him purified so as to proclaim God’s message to the people. Rather than the temple in Jerusalem, the angels declare God’s presence in the lowly town of Bethlehem. This scene reminds us that God breaks in in circumstances of lowliness, littleness and among unassuming and little regarded shepherds, to declare where God’s favor rests.
In the season of preparing for this feast day tonight, I have been collecting stories of how God breaks into human experience. I would like to share a couple of those with you. The first is in the speech of the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner, Joe Burrow of Athens, Ohio, the quarterback for LSU. Midway through his speech he referenced the poverty of the young people and children of his hometown, where many don’t know from where their next meal will come. That part of his speech led to Athens resident Will Drabold to set up a Facebook Fundraiser that raised nearly $400,000 from 11,000 donors in funds for the Athens County Food Pantry.2 What joy there must have been among the Food Pantry workers to see the abundance coming in, when one young man raised awareness of the empty manger in his hometown.
The second story of Christmas joy is taken from the experience of Steve Hartman revisiting a young deaf girl, whom he had interviewed for CBS in February and the clip was aired again last Friday evening. Two-year-old Samantha Savitz of Newton, Massachusetts, was born deaf and loves to communicate, but can only do so with sign language. Sam becomes sad when she wants to talk with neighbors, but they don’t know her language. So, Sam’s neighbors got together and hired a teacher Ryss McGovern to teach them sign language. Sam joins the class at the end of each session and when she comes in the room the first sign she makes is the one for “friend.” The learning of Sam’s language has enriched the whole neighborhood and brought abundant joy to all, who have been willing to engage this little girl, as well as joy to Sam and her family.3 Could we say that an angel has brought tidings of great joy to her community, as they responded to her need for the food of fellowship and conversation? Sam is no longer imprisoned in the darkness of her handicap; instead she is the messenger of joy as she interacts with her friends. Her very littleness, in terms of height and her deep desire to connect beyond her deafness brought about a community of neighbors willing to enter her world and be with her in friendship.
There are those people in our lives or ones we hear about, who bring a lightness of spirit and remind us that we are surrounded by God’s grace incarnated in their goodness. I invite us this Christmas season to look for the light shining in the faces of those around us; to delight in the little ones of our families and friends; to ponder the mystery of the Holy One, and to give God praise for Divine Presence hidden in the ordinary; to invite a stranger to our tables and to nourish and be nourished by them; or to sing “Glory to God in the Highest” with the angelic beings all around us.
1 Raymond E. Brown, “The Second Christmas Story (Luke 2:1-40),” An Adult Christ at Christmas: Essays on the Three Biblical Stories (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1980—third printing) 20.
2 Bill Defilipo, “Joe Burrow’s Heisman Speech Has Led To Nearly $400,000 For A Food Pantry In His Hometown,” UpRoxx, December 17, 2019; https://uproxx.com/sports/joe-burrow-heisman-speech-food-pantry-donations-college-football/
3 Steve Hartman, “This 2 year old deaf girl loves people—so her whole neighborhood is learning sign language,” On the Road, CBS News, February 17, 2019, 8:41 PM EST; https://www.cbsnews.com/news/samantha-savitz-newton-massachusetts-neighborhood-learning-american-sign-language/