You can view this sermon as it was preached at Holy Cross in Newmarket here
By now most of us are well on our way to “Preparing the Way.” Unlike John the Baptist’s plaintive cry to clear a straight path, fill every valley, and level every mountain, our preparations find us harkening back to the Christmases of our childhood, so that we might capture the love and joy that we imagine awaits us if only we prepare to do Christmas, the way it was done way back when. Right about now, in gatherings all over the place people are telling stories about how it was “way back when.” You know, “way back when” people knew just how to prepare the way for Christmas. I remember way back when I was just a little girl, you know long, long, ago, way back when Christmas celebrations were so different. Way back when I was a child, we didn’t hang fancy, specially dedicated stockings on the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. No, way back when, people didn’t have the money to waste on special, fancy, Christmas stockings that were only used once a year. Way back when, we just went into our sock draw and pulled out the largest sock we could find, and we hung it up, in the hope that if we’d been good, our stockings would be filled with treats, instead of the dreaded lump of coal that our parents had been threatening us with for weeks. Come Christmas morning, way back when, we were happy when our sock was filled not with stocking-stuffers like we have these days, but with the same thing we got every Christmas in our stockings, an apple, an orange, a few toffee’s and a couple of coins.
You see way back when, fruit was seasonal and fresh apples and oranges were a real treat. These days we can haul crates of tiny delectable oranges from the grocery store all year long. But, way back when, oranges at Christmas time, they were a real treat. I never did like oranges very much, so I would always try to trade my orange with my brother so that I could have two apples instead. You see, way back when, children were easier to please and Christmas was different.
Which leads me to another story. I don’t remember when or where I first heard this story about way back when, World War II had just ended, and refugees were loaded into camps until the world could figure out what to do with the millions of displaced people. Back then, refugee camps were filled to overflowing with children who’d lost their families during the war. Apparently, there was this little boy in a camp in France, we’ll call him Andre. Andre couldn’t have been more than about seven years old and he could barely remember the family he lost almost three years before the war ended. He’d been living in the refugee camp, more of an orphanage really, for almost a year.
The camp was run by a few nuns who never could scrap together enough money to feed the children properly. But they did their best, and the children were, after all was said and done, lucky to be alive. The children hardly noticed that Christmas was approaching until one of the nuns announced that a neighbour had promised to come by on Christmas Eve to drop off a sack of oranges. Andre had only a vague memory of an orange. The year before a stranger had shared an orange with him and he remembered the taste of the three tiny sections of his share of the orange that oozed precious juice down his half-starved throat. Andre spent the days leading up to Christmas Eve dreaming of having a whole orange of his very own. He thought about the smell of the orange, dreamed of peeling the orange, and carefully considered whether or not to devour each and every section of the orange all at once or whether he should divide it and save a section or two for Christmas morning.
When Christmas Eve arrived, the nuns did what they could to bring some Christmas cheer to the camp, and the children were more than a little excited. When the neighbour arrived, there was so much jostling for position that little Andre found himself at the end of the queue. He strained to see the treasure that awaited him and sure enough the aroma of oranges began to waft Andre’s way. As campmates danced their oranges around the room, Andre saw the neighbour’s expression begin to change. The neighbour looked so very sad when he began to deliver the shattering news to Andre that all the oranges were gone. The neighbour was trying to apologize when Andre shot from the room and ran all the way to his dormitory and flung himself on his bed and began to sob.
In the midst of his grief little Andre didn’t hear the other children come into the room. As his body heaved and his sobs robbed him of his breath, he didn’t feel the tap on his shoulder. It was the smell of orange that finally caught his attention. As Andre raised his head from his pillow, he caught sight of the little girl’s outstretched hand. On her palm lay a peeled orange, it was made up of wedges saved from the oranges of the other children. Each child had donated a wedge. Together they had created the most beautiful, tangy, juicy orange. After a lifetime, some 93 years of savoring oranges on Christmas Eve, no oranges ever tasted as sweet as the orange that his campmates created and so generously offered to him on that Christmas Eve way back when.
Way back when, before Santa, or Rudolph, or Frosty, or any of the sugarcoated stories of tinsel-town, people celebrated Christmas differently. Were they simpler times? No. Life was just as complicated and challenging way back when. The truth is the way we celebrate Christmas has changed over and over again. Did you know that there was a time when Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, didn’t wear red? That’s right, way back when, Santa was all dressed in blue. It was Coca Cola who dressed St. Nick in its company colours of red and white.
Did you know that way back when, the celebration of Christmas was illegal in the fledgling colonies of North America and that there was even a time under Cromwell when the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in England?
Did you know that way back when people did more than just pronounce the “t” in Christ-mass? You see, way back when, they believed that Christ and not the birth of the baby Jesus was the most important part of the Christ- mass celebrations. Over time, we have all but lost the Christ in Christ-mass. The very word Christ has almost fallen out of usage at Christ-mass as we focus on that beautiful baby boy as if that’s all our celebrations need to focus on. While we’re busy explaining that the birth stories about Jesus of Nazareth are really parables and not history, and others are trying to prove or disprove the details of the nativity myths, the Christ in our Mass is all but forgotten. While so many people continue to bandy the word Christ around as if it were Jesus’ last name, far too many of us have forgotten what the church has been teaching for centuries. Way back when, at about the end of the 13thcentury John Duns Scotus insisted that the Christ was the very first idea in the mind of God and God has never stopped thinking, dreaming and creating Christ.
Did you know that Christianity’s fascination with the parables of the nativity didn’t actually happen way back when Christianity began? Indeed, the fixation on the nativity parables didn’t really begin to take hold until the thirteenth century when St. Francis couldn’t fit his growing congregation into the local church on Christmas Eve and came up with the brilliant idea of holding the Christ-mass outside in the streets. St. Francis set up an altar in the niche of a rock near the town square and legend has it that because Christ-mass was an important market-time the town was full of all sorts of farmers bringing their livestock to market. That’s how the cattle, the sheep, and yes even the donkey made it into the nativity scenes, the gospels certainly don’t mention animals. Away in a manger, I don’t think so, the Greek word translated as manger, is “fat-nay”which could very easily describe a humble peasant dwelling. Remember, way back when most families slept with their animals in the same shelter.
Way back when, the gospel storytellers were crafting their stories about the birth of Jesus, they did just that, craft their stories. The church has from the very beginning understood that these stories are myths designed to communicate truth beyond words. Way back when, there would have been no arguments about the historical truth. Truth is beyond history’s ability to define.
Did you know that taking the bible literally as historical fact is a very recent phenomenon in the history of Christianity? From the beginning the church has taught that the words of the bible have layers upon layers of meaning. We seem to have forgotten that the nativity stories are parables not records of what actually happened. Remember the parable of the good Samaritan, in the words of New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, no one ever asks if the story of the good Samaritan actually happened, it’s a parable designed to make you think. The stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels according to Matthew and Luke are just that, parables designed to make you think. The problem is that for too long now we’ve limited our thinking to Jesus and forgotten about the Christ. In the words of theologian Richard Rohr: “Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Remember the words of the first chapter of the Gospel according to John. “In the beginning was the Word” the logos, otherwise known as the Christ. In the beginning.”
The Gospel According to Mark, the very first gospel to be written, at least 40 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth never mentions the nativity parables. The nativity parables weren’t crafted until the end of the first century. The Apostle Paul whose writings make up almost half of the New Testament never mentions the birth of Jesus. Paul focuses on the incarnation of the Christ. Of the birth, St. Paul writes only the few words in his letter to the Galatians. “When the designated time had come, God sent forth the Christ—born of a woman.”
The Christ is an aspect of the MYSTERY that we call God, that has been present from the very beginning. Theologian Richard Rohr insists that: “The Incarnation of God did not happen in Bethlehem 2019 years ago. That’s just when we started taking the incarnation of Christ seriously.”
Rohr declares that, “The incarnation of Christ actually happened 14.5 billion years ago with a moment we now call “the big bang”. That’s when the MYSTERY, the SOURCE of ALL BEING, this LOVE that we call God actually decided to materialize and to self expose.”
The mystery of Christianity, indeed the mystery of life is that the spiritual and the material co-exist. The Christ-mass is a celebration the incarnation of the Christ, the incarnation of the LOVE that we Call God who is not some person in the sky, but rather the incarnation of the Reality that lies at the very heart of all that IS. The incarnation of LOVE that the nativity parables point to is the same LOVE that was encountered in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In this radical, freethinking, boundary breaking, justice seeking, peacemaker, wound-healing individual, the people discovered the image of the MYSTERY who is the LOVE we call God, in ways that shattered their understanding of reality. It was their experience of the person Jesus that even death could not rob them of, that emboldened the Apostle Paul to declare that in Jesus they had met the Christ….the same Christ who was present at the beginning of time, and who is born over and over again in creation.
That’ s why the Christmas story has become such an important parable in our annual celebrations of life. Everything about the nativity parables point us to the reality of the spiritual in the everyday stuff of life. In the simple birth of a child, in the poverty of a people, in the struggle to be fee, in our quest to love and to be LOVE in the world, it is here in us that Christ takes on flesh and dwells among us. Wherever we are connected in right relationship, you might say, wherever we are “In love” there is the Christ, the body of God, the essence of life itself. Life is so much bigger than mere words can express.
The Reality that lies at the very heart of all existence is so much bigger than we have words, images, or parables to contain. Not even Jesus of Nazareth can contain all that the Christ IS. To celebrate the Christ is to celebrate the LOVE that is born over and over again. It is to recognize the intimate connection between the spiritual and the material and to marvel at the Reality that holds it all together. To celebrate the Christ in the Christ-mass is to open ourselves to the wisdom of the ages and dare to explore the wonders that we are discovering each and every day.
So, in the darkness of winter, we await the coming, the advent, of the ONE who is LOVE. To warm our darkness, we tell stories about life way back when. Advent it is also a time to take in the wonders of the MYSTERY that IS, and to look forward to ALL that is to come.
I still don’t much care for oranges, except for the ones we get these days at Christmas-time.(hold up the fragments of the orange) This orange is broken, and there are all sorts of gaps. We simply don’t have the whole story, but the sections we continue to piece together are rich and sweet.These days, I eat oranges because I know that they are good for me, they nourish me in ways that I am only beginning to understand. But there’s more than one way to consume an orange at Christ-mass time. (chocolate orange)
I simply adore chocolate oranges. Today, this chocolate orange, is the perfect metaphor for the celebration of the Christ-mass. For the joy of a chocolate orange begins with a big bang! (slam the orange on the pulpit)
This metaphor opens up such wondrous spaces that are full of a glorious aroma that give the air a hint of the fruit of the earth, mixed with the hard work of those who mold the material riches of creation into an ingenious gift of such delight. Each wedge holds the potential of a way of searching and knowing that is capable of nourishing our hunger for knowledge and our quest for joy. I can devour history, savor science, relishing in the smooth spiritual delights, or let the philosophical taste of unknowing open my senses to the depths of my humanity. I can pause as the taste reveals the beauty of simplicity, the complexity of the chemistry, or the insanity of those who are deprived of the flavor because of the madness of economics/ Or maybe, just let the chocolate open me to the pure physical pleasures of the smell, taste, and felling of this delectable beautiful life.
There are indeed one or two sections that are damaged, and these broken wedges point to the tragedies, struggles, pain and injustices that all too often overwhelm us. The gaps, the spaces represent for me the room to evolve more deeply into our humanity, to become more fully who we are created to be as together we seek justice and peace and learn more about what it means to love and be love in the world.
These spaces also point me to the discoveries that are yet to come as we continue to explore the wonders of the MYSTERY that is the Source of All REALITY. There is so very much we have yet to discover about this marvelous, wondrous, miraculous gift that we call life.
So, when we tell the old, old, stories, let us never forget that there is so very much more to know, to be, and to do. But for now, taste and see, that life is sweet and good. Let the feasting begin as we celebrate that once again Christ is born and dwells among us and that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow after that, LOVE will be born again, and again, and again. Prepare the way, for Christ-mas!
You can view this sermon as it was preached at Holy Cross in Newmarket here