from Deborah David, Head of School, adapted from the sermon she gave to the St. James’ Episcopal Church congregation on Sunday, December 13.
It’s Christmas, but between Paris and San Bernardino, I don’t know whether to rejoice or cower. Truth be told, I have always had a fascination with the juxtaposition of terror and peace in the world: fear and trembling diluted with equal parts resilience and redemption. And it has gone on forever, it seems. In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel recorded a song that ironically paralleled the 7:00 newscasts of the day with the iconic strains of “Silent Night, Holy Night” – the news finally overtaking the music to announce the death of comedian Lenny Bruce of a drug overdose; the fair housing efforts, mostly failed, of Dr. Martin Luther King; and the insidious escalation and carnage of the war in Vietnam –all with Silent Night hauntingly sung in the background duet. It is the human condition, set to music.
Sometimes we experience the terror that exists today as a new kind of evil, the product of twisted minds and hearts that could only live – we think – in this digital age of jaded commercialism, topsy-turvy capitalism, unbalanced and downright dangerous world leaders. An age of greed, of envy, of lust, of jihad. But terror is as old as the world itself. Cain bullied his brother Abel and finally murdered him. We were only four people into being the human race and already we had a bloody murderer in our midst. Didn’t bode well for mankind, did it?
George Bernard Shaw in his play Saint Joan asks, “Must there be a Christ crucified in every generation?” It seems to me there must be – or at least that there has been. There was Saint Joan. But picture, too, the protracted horror of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, each family waiting in slow-moving horror for their own arrest and for the inevitable train ride to their deaths in Auschwitz or Buchenwald; the poetic misnomer “Kristalnacht,” recorded so indelibly in the dark ink of history. Think of journalist Daniel Pearl. Or Matthew Shepard crucified on a barbed wire fence in Laramie, Wyoming. Or the blessed innocents of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Yes, it does seem a holy innocent must die in every generation that the rest of us might be saved… and not just in every generation, but every day, in every country of the world. Whole nations endure genocide; entire religions suffer at the hands of other contradictory belief systems; and we Christians have ourselves been religious fanatics and extremists in our own times and in our own ways: persecuting infidels in Spain; burning innocent young girls at the stake in France; hanging them in Salem; Protestants slaughtering Catholics, and vice versa, in Ireland; and on and on it goes.
But if there must be a Christ crucified in every generation, then so too must the Child of Bethlehem be born anew in every age, right?
Speaking of Bethlehem, just over there I can almost see the gift our True Love gave to us, rocking rhythmically on the road to Bethlehem, secure in his mother’s womb atop a very gentle beast of burden. They’re off to register for the census. If you listen with the ear of your heart, you can hear the dust-soft clopping of a young donkey’s hooves on the hundred-mile journey to Bethlehem. He’s their beloved pet, that donkey, and their sole means of transportation. They loved him; and in my imagination they named him, of course. I bet they called him Caleb.
And there’s Mary – barely older than these little choristers behind me – swaying dangerously, precariously perched on the Caleb’s warm, broad back. If you have ever been nine months pregnant, then you probably remember those days so close to your delivery date when it took two people to haul you in and out of the passenger seat of the family car. Imagine Mary, feet and belly swollen in the last exhausting stages of her pregnancy, face wind-burned from her trip, tired to the point of tears, and very, very hungry. She knows little of either childbirth or being a mother, but she is all-too-aware that this birth and the thirty-three years of motherhood that lie ahead will bring her a depth of pain so exquisite it will rend her very soul. Since the angel’s visit to her chamber nine months ago, she has had her moments of compliance and even joy to be sure, but this is not one of them. Right now, on this donkey’s bumpy back, she is not thinking, “All generations will call me blessed!” Her soul is not magnifying the Lord, nor is her spirit rejoicing in God her Savior. She is thinking, “Please, Yahweh, help me find a place to rest… before I fall off Caleb’s back.”
As evening falls, that strange star they’ve been watching begins to appear again in the sky – a star with a mysterious trailing radiance, a tail-like swath of stardust in the night. Halley’s comet? Astrologers think maybe so. Or perhaps it’s a star tossed up by God the Father to spangle the night sky for the birthday party of His Son, a giant glitter ball spinning high above the hills of Judea.
And God said, “Star light, star bright. First star I make tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, save the world from sin tonight.”
Orion guards the western sky, his shoulders broad and his sparkling legs akimbo, jewels dripping from the sword at his starry belt. The world is all aglow out there. And this little family is filled with light. As Joseph strains to see the road in the gathering darkness, maybe Mary, too, begins to glow. The radiant mask of pregnancy – or is it something more? Maybe it’s the luminous haze of Heaven’s grace and glory illuminating their poverty-stricken life, portending that moment of birth that lies just ahead. If we could see them from afar, I think we would see Mary wrapped in a mantle of light, a living Ark of the Covenant moving ineluctably through the night, incubating in her belly the Light of the World, the mighty God. The Prince of Peace.
Around them as they travel, plots are hatching. Evil like a deadly, creeping spider is steadily weaving its devastating web, but wars have actually ceased for now, just for the moment. That banished angel Lucifer has taken a break, has perhaps been silenced or temporarily paralyzed so that Peace might make its way unharmed into a tiny stable in the Middle East.
An innkeeper scratches his beard and slaps his fat belly, preparing to hang out the no-vacancy sign in front of his humble hotel, never knowing that he would be known for all eternity as the poster child for all those who reject the poor, who turn away the desperate refugees, and deny those who hunger for food. Or rest. Or for a place to be born.
If we are one with our family at Christmas, then so, too, are we one with a certain young mother in Bethlehem, bursting now into tears of joy as she holds her newborn Son for the first time. We are one with the shepherds who heard those unearthly strains of exultation echoing through the hills of Judea, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” We are one with the Holy Child of Bethlehem Himself.
O Little Town of Bethlehem… Star of Wonder, Star of Night… Silent Night, Holy Night…
At midnight, somewhere on the great continuum of time and space – maybe just at the magical crossroads where B.C. gives way to A.D. – there was born to us in the City of David the source of unimaginable Peace and perfect Goodness. On Christmas Day we received a gift so great that it defies description. It is the Still-Point; the ultimate Balance in the Universe; the final Cessation of Terror; the end of fear. The gift is Love Itself. And it has come again.
Hug the ones you love, and hold them close. And pray that this everlasting gift of God’s Love, the gift that is born anew to us each Christmas, may bring with it at long last true “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.”