Let me begin, good friends, by addressing you in the same way that the anonymous gospel storyteller that we know as Luke addressed his congregation, for I trust that each one of you are indeed “Theophilus”. LOVER of GOD from the Greek words: “theo” which means “God” and “philus” which means “lover”.
Dearest lovers of God, welcome to the Gospel according to Luke. ‘Tis the season for the first two chapters of Luke which read much like a Broadway musical. While others may have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events exactly as they were passed on to us by the original eyewitnesses, the anonymous, gospel-storyteller that, for the want of knowing his or her actual name, we call Luke, has put together an opening to his portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth in the grand style of Jewish midrash, with a cast of characters aptly named to put his audiences in mind of some of the Jewish people’s greatest heroes; a real blast from the past with a view toward a new kind of future. Over the years, those who have heard Luke’s account have added the musical score which includes Zachariah’s “Bennedictus,” Elizabeth’s “Hail Mary” as well as Mary’s “Magnificat”. And that’s just in the first chapter!
The Gospel we call Luke came into the life of the Christian community in the late 9thor early 10thdecade of the Common Era, or some sixty years after Jesus’ earthly life had ended. It opens with a magical birth story never intended to be viewed as history. Let me say that again. It opens with a magical birth story that was never intended to be viewed as history. The story is filled with supernatural signs: angels that sing, fetuses that communicate, a virgin that conceives and even a post-menopausal pregnancy. It is the author of Luke’s attempt to capture in parabolic language the essence of who he thinks Jesus is – namely the one through whom God can be experienced.
Like I said before, the author is unknown to us. The name Luke was given decades, perhaps centuries after the book was actually written. All we really know about the author is that he, by his own admission, was not an eye-witness to the events of Jesus’ life. We know from his own writing that he wrote excellent Greek; a feat only accomplished by the most highly educated people of his day. Based on the way he wrote, and the phrases he used, experts have concluded that he was in all likelihood a gentile convert to Judaism who then became a Christian. By his own account, he is writing not an accurate detailed account, but rather, an account that will make theophilus, the lovers of God, believe. His account takes the form of a series of short stories; short stories that are easily dramatized. Some, New Testament scholars believe that these stories were told over and over again in dramatic ways; ways designed to hold the interest of their audiences.
To this day, the first two chapters of the gospel according to Luke lend themselves well to the production of a pageant, especially if those pageants are supplemented by a few characters and scenes from the Gospel according to another anonymous author that we know by the name of Matthew. Pageants are designed to be irresistibly magical and none more so than Christmas pageants. The first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke has miraculous power. The narrative has the power to turn each and every one of us into time travelers. Just the mere mention of Zachariah and Elizabeth and were off on a journey that takes us back to every Christmas pageant that we have ever been a part of. Zachariah, Elizabeth, Mary and the Angel Gabriel do it to me every time. I can’t help it, the names alone are enough to conjure up memories of little boys in their fathers’, fluffy oversized bathrobes, and little girls adorned with glitter-strew cardboard wings and reams of blue cloth for the lucky little girl who gets to play Mary.
Over the years I’ve helped to produce and direct so many Christmas pageants, and when I read the first chapter of Luke, I can’t keep from smiling, as my mind wanders back in time to nervous children hoping that they will remember their lines. I can see the shepherd boys banging each other about with broom-handles that we are expected to imagine as shepherd crooks. I remember darling little angels looking over their shoulders marveling at their newly attached wings. I suspect that the magical power of Christmas pageants comes from their ability to get us in the mood for that perfect Christmas that we are all so very eager to create. It doesn’t matter if we are as young as the tots who perform in these pageants or as old as Elizabeth and Zachariah, we have all been trained to desire that perfect Christmas for ourselves.
I suspect that a great deal of the hustle and bustle that we’ll all engage in over the next few of weeks will, in one way or another, be all about the quest for the perfect Christmas. Every year finds us trying to replicate some perfect, mythical Christmas that exists in our memories of Christmases past. Some of us just can’t help ourselves: we are trapped in the hopeless task of trying to create the perfect Christmas that we’ve never managed to pull off in the past, that we hope is waiting for us out there somewhere. So, we scurry about trying our best to come up with the ingredients that will enable us to embody the very spirit of Christmas. By the time Christmas Eve arrives the level of expectation is positively palpable with each of us seeking, grasping for the perfect Christmas of our longing. Christmas time has the power to bring to mind those moments we remember, whether they are real or imagined. It’s as if Christmas time allows us, just for a moment, to step outside of time as we travel back and forth searching our memories and imaginations for that longed for moment that will fill us with the spirit of a positively Dickensian Christmas past/present and future.
I remember one Christmas long ago when my own quest for the perfect Christmas was overwhelming me and no matter how hard I tried; I just couldn’t get into the spirit of things. The season of Advent is usually my favorite season of the church year. But that year the Advent blues offered not hope and joy, but sadness and longing. The parties and the dinners I attended just didn’t seem festive enough; the Christmas carols left me cold. It just didn’t feel like Christmas. It was all so very ordinary. No matter how hard I tried the festivities all fell flat. All I could feel was a deep emptiness. I was longing for something, I knew not what, but somewhere out there, or back there in the mists of time, were the memories or impressions of the perfect Christmas, that reality just wasn’t living up to. I was miserable. I was in no mood for the Christmas pageant that was being presented on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, but some friends insisted that I put away my ba humbug attitude and come along to church to help out with the preparations. So, I painted a smile upon my face and resolved to endure the amateur production.
When we arrived the preparations for the pageant were in a state of pure bedlam. The madness wasn’t helped by the presence of the baby Jesus. Tradition dictated that the youngest member of the congregation be given the honour of playing the role of the baby Jesus. This particular baby Jesus was just eight weeks old, and according to her mother the baby suffered from colic. I had absolutely no idea what colic was, but there was something about the look in her mother’s eyes that compelled me to take the baby from her. I’d always been good with babies and I was sure that I could calm her down, if I just got her away from the madness that was going on around us. The church had a little nursery attached to the sanctuary, so off I went with the baby Jesus in my arms.
It took some doing but after some furious rocking in a rocking chair baby Jesus lay quietly looking up at me. She was a strange little Jesus. She had the most striking red hair, and the most amazing green eyes. And she frowned up at me as if to say, “Who are you?”
Not wanting her to start screaming all over again, I rocked a little faster, it seemed the faster I rocked the more content she became. Finally, after much intense rocking, back and forth, back and forth, the scowling baby Jesus smiled up at me. It was overwhelming.
With the sounds of dueling shepherds and excited angels out in the narthex, I sat rocking the Christ child. And suddenly I was filled with the glory of, I don’t know, dare I say, “God”. Filled to over-flowing. Connected in some mysterious way to something so much bigger than myself. It was as if, in that little child lay all the hopes and dreams of all the earth. At that very moment I held eternity in my arms.
Dear Theophilus, dear lovers of God, friends, if you’re scurrying about during this Advent season trying to create, or re-create the perfect Christmas; if you’re longing for loved ones, long gone, or far away; if you’re pre-occupied by what the future may hold, if you know an emptiness deep inside…it is time to stop and take a good look around you.
Advent and Christmas time is a time to be present to the here and now. Advent and Christmas time, like all time it is eternal time. And it is true, the empty place inside cannot be filled by longing for what was, or for what is to come. The empty place inside can only be filled here and now in this moment, by the MYSTERY that inhabits eternity. Eternity – that which has no beginning and no end, eternity a quality of being that is beyond time and space. Eternity a state of being in which we are permeable to the sacred. Eternity that exists here and now in the present moment. So, in the words of the mystics: “Let God be borne in you.” Christ comes to us in the flesh here and now. Not in the perfection we seek, but in the imperfections of the ordinary stuff of life.
What I didn’t know all those years ago, what’s taken me almost a lifetime to understand is that what I was doing, there in that nursery, rocking that child, was praying. Praying is being open to the presence of the sacred in this very moment. That’s the Good News of the birth of the baby under the stars. That’s the Good News of each and every birth. For at your birth the angel chorus sang to God’s glory. You are the hope of the whole world. In you Divinity has chosen to dwell. In you, the MYSERY that we call God, lives. In you lives the hope for peace on earth and good will to all.
On this day of days, indeed each and every day, open yourself to eternity. Let the empty space in you be a manger to receive the Christ Child. Let that emptiness be filled with the Spirit of Christmas that is our God; Emmanuel – with us, in us, through us, and beyond us, Emmanuel. Open yourselves to the sacred in the ordinary stuff of life. Open yourselves, to the present moment for it is here and now that the reality of the One who is LOVE longs to be born in you. This is the peace, the shalom, of Christmastime.
Let there be peace in, with, through, and beyond you. Peace in each greeting. Peace in each embrace. Peace over each meal. Peace in every attempt to be helpful. Peace in each song you sing and dance you dance. Peace in every gift wrapped and unwrapped. Peace in every tear shed and each memory you savor. Peace in every act of kindness. Peace in the love you share.
Peace dear Theophilus, peace in the ordinary stuff of life, for in that peace dear lovers of God you will discover the sacred, the Holy One who is the Christ for whom we long for in this moment, here and now. Amen.