Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

Luke 2.8-20
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

If you’re looking for the real grinch who stole Christmas, look no further than Oliver Cromwell. In the middle of the seventeenth century, during Parliaments dominated by Cromwell and his Puritan friends, Christmas was banned.

The logic was somewhat sound. Christmas, they argued, was becoming less religious and more secular in nature. Too Roman Catholic, they argued, with the “mas” of Christmas being the first clue. And too unruly, they argued, with Christmas Day just the beginning of twelve days of wanton celebration unrelated to the Lord’s birth.

And so they banned Christmas. Caught in worship on December 25th and you faced a stiff penalty. Close your shop on December 25th and the Lord Mayor would assess another penalty. Even the army got into the act, raiding homes and confiscating cooked meats and other obvious signs of celebration. And Parliament set the ultimate example, meeting on December 25th to reinforce their belief that this was simply one more day on the calendar.

Eventually, the madness ended. With the so-called Protectorate swept away by the return of Charles II, all legislation passed under Cromwell was considered null and void. People were free once more to celebrate openly and the public celebration of Christmas returned to England.

It’s a lot of fuss for something that began so simply. Setting aside for a moment all the noisy shepherds, the angel choirs, and all that loud proclaiming, the birth of Jesus was far from controversial. Then, as now, babies were born everyday in the empire belonging to Rome. Poor and humble, rich and connected, people were having babies. Maybe an important baby might have earned a notice in the Roman Times (New Times Roman?) or maybe noted in some written chronicle, but probably not.

Back then, you see, it was all about the grown-ups. Childhood hadn’t been invented yet, and infant mortality being what it was, society seemed to take a wait-and-see approach. You become an adult when you were old enough to lift a shovel or a sword, and off you went to do the work that empire demanded.

Even among the high-born, the wait-and-see approach dominated. Emperors had children, and children grew up to rule, but as often as not the children of emperors never found their way to the throne. It was all about who you knew, how you were regarded, and how creative you could be in creating your own reality. A quick example would be Drusus, son of Tiberius, set to become emperor but poisoned by his wife and her lover instead. But their bid for power failed, and eventually cousin Caligula took the throne instead.

Back in Bethlehem, things were dull by comparison. This child was a threat to no one, at least not yet, and would be allowed to thrive and grow up into adulthood, and only then become the threat he was born to be. Someday, the one “born a child and yet a king” would be given the title Son of God, the very same title that Augustus demanded and was given, and so you see the beginning of a problem. A Roman “son of god” felt strongly about being an only child, and was not inclined to share. But that would be jumping ahead to the spring.

Another thing common between Bethlehem and her contemporaries in Rome was a love for the theatrical: “Do not be afraid,” the angel said, “Today I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” A heavenly host gathered and sang, shepherds gathered and wondered, and a holy family basked in heavenly light. This is divine theatre, with an ensemble cast that will only grow and diversify as the story unfolds. Call this Act One, Scene One, with the stage already set for Sunday when we see Scene Two.

This past week I heard an interview with Bruce Dow, one of the stars of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Bruce spoke in general terms about acting, and how he approaches each role. He said two things: the first task of an actor is to uncover the truth at the centre of the play. What does it mean? What message is the play ultimately trying to communicate to the audience?

The second is this: The actor asks ‘what does my character need?’ What need will be met through the unfolding of this story? And how will this happen?

He could have been speaking from Bethlehem, rather than some studio on Front Street.

If the events unfolding in Bethlehem were theatre, than the answer to the first question is incarnation. The truth at the centre of the play is God’s desire to be human. We were born in the image of God, but that’s not a real connection, real like birth and all the messiness that comes with being human. God wanted more, and the truth at the centre of the play is God’s desire to feel pleasure and pain, to feel connection and loss, to feel the sun on a human face and understand what life on earth is really like. Incarnation is truth, and the truth is God’s desire to know us completely.

And what does his character need? What does God need, having gone to all the trouble of entering human experience? To be loved. We sing “come let us adore him” and so this is our chance. God needs love as we need love, because without love this baby will fail to thrive and the entire project of incarnation will fail. Remember the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism? (That question was rhetorical)

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

And all the glorifying and all the enjoying begins tonight. It is what we were made to do, it is our chief aim, to love this child-king and enjoy him every day. May it always be so. Amen.


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