There’s no Christmas tree in our sanctuary this year. We knew that come Christmas, we would not be able to gather in person to celebrate, so we didn’t put up a tree. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss the tree until I recorded last Sunday’s worship video. I was standing in this empty sanctuary, just me and the camera and I couldn’t see the beautiful Advent decorations. All I could see was the empty corner where our tree usually stands. It reminded me of a scene in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I’m old, so I’m talking about the 1966 cartoon, where the Grinch steals Cindy Lou Who’s Christmas tree. Staring over at that empty corner, it was as if the COVID-Grinch has stolen so much of what we hold dear about Christmas. The COVID-Grinch has stolen our family gatherings, and our crowded Christmas Candlelight Communions and no tree for us this year. So, I’m left standing here like a Who from down in Whoville whose crying “boo hoo.”
Back in the 60’s when the Grinch stepped up his antics, artificial trees were all the rage. Those early artificial trees were about as life-like as the flat animations in that old cartoon. But still people couldn’t seem to get enough of them. I remember our family’s first artificial tree. It may have been our first, but unfortunately, we had it for most of my childhood. That hideous artificial tree is what turned me into a real tree enthusiast. That poor excuse for a tree consisted of a center pole which looked like a broomstick. The pole was painted green and holes had been drilled into it where these metal branches adorned with what I can only describe as short pieces of green tinsel were poked in.
Every year, my parents would haul out this artificial monstrosity and erect it in our living room so that we could decorate it with our treasured bobbles. Needless to say, the trauma of this hideous artificial monstrosity caused me, once I was old enough to pay for them, to insist on always having a real tree. No artificial trees for me! Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a real tree. Except for that one year, when I was broke. I was sharing an apartment with four roommates who were also broke. We simply couldn’t afford a real tree. One of my roommates had the bright idea that we should check out the local charity shop to see if they had any cheap artificial trees which we could afford. Now it was just a few days before Christmas, so the pickings were slim in the charity shop. An exasperated salesclerk explained to us that all they had left were some odds and ends, as she directed us to a bin full of mismatched artificial tree-limbs and told us we could help ourselves to whatever we wanted. Inside that bin were all sorts of fake tree branches representing the various artificial tree fashions of the previous decades. There were fake pine branches made of wires and some made of plastic. There were even branches reminiscent of my family’s hideous green tinsel tree, and a few silver tinsel branches of that same genre. Perhaps the most offensive branches were the ones which were coated with some sort of white crusty stuff, no doubt designed to simulate snow. Very few of the fake branches looked related to one another, let alone looking anything remotely like a Christmas tree. But one of my roommates found a fake tree trunk, which looked suspiciously like a broomstick. He insisted that we could easily attach some branches to it, add a few bobbles, toss some tinsel on it and Bob’s your Uncle, a Christmas tree would be born out of this bin. Thinking that he was joking, we decided to join in the fun and proceed to gather together the most offensive of the branches. We were going for the ridiculous look.
I don’t really think that we actually intended to bring our insane selections home. We just sort of got caught up in the madness. Madness is the only way I can explain the monstrosity of a tree that was erected in our living room. There was nothing beautiful about our creation, except of course the laughter with which we created it and the LOVE which that monstrosity bore witness to as we danced in jubilation around it. At one point, I’m not sure if it was the insanity of our excuse for a tree, or maybe it was the wine we consumed creating it, but we actually attempted to reenact a scene from the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” for in fact the Grinch cannot steal Christmas. I will never in all my days, forget the joy which we had standing around pretended to be a bunch of Whos from down in Whoville chanting: “Fahoo Fores Dahoo Dores, Welcome Christmas.”
A couple of days ago, Carol and I came into this sanctuary to change the paraments from Advent to Christmas. For a while all I could see was the empty corner where our tree ought to be. All I could see was what was missing. I know that this Christmas many of us will have difficult seeing beyond what is missing. Who can blame us? This is a Christmas like no other we have ever experienced. So, much of what we love about Christmas, simply will not be here. There will be empty corners, empty places where you usually sit, and worst of all empty chairs at Christmas tables. It isn’t easy to see beyond what’s missing. It is as if there is a wall separating us from the Christmas of our longings. That wall is reinforced by so much of we are hearing and seeing in the media. Our screens are bombarding us with dire news. It is so very tempting for us to stare blankly at our screens. And as the wall gets higher and higher, we sink deeper and deeper into despair.
As Carol and I continued to decorate this sanctuary, my attention was shifted from the empty corner to the creche. It isn’t in its usual place this year. We wanted to make it easier for the camera to capture it as we were recording this service. As I look upon the scene which symbolizes the myths which have sustained generations, a gap appears in the wall and I can begin to see beyond the darkness to the LIGHT which continues to glimmer with hope.
So much of the world’s attention is captured each and every day by stories of scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness. Our focus is captured by images on screens which dominate our conversations, our thoughts, our beliefs and even our way of life. Each story which portrays scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness as the way life is, was, and ever more shall be, generates fear. Our fears re-enforce the wall, which leads to more and more actions based upon the principals of scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness, and the wall just becomes more and more impenetrable as our fears feed upon one another.
As I look upon this nativity scene, it is so very tempting to linger over sentimental trivialities only to forget the subversive nature of the parable which is symbolized by this idyllic scene. For this parable which has sustained generations is the very anthesis of our fear. The parable which sustains us right here and right now denies the very foundational blocks upon which the wall of fear is built. Whereas our wall of fear is founded on the principles that life is all about scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness, the symbols of our foundational parable, point us beyond our fear to the reality that our lives are a gift and LOVE is the point.
Life is a gift born not out scarcity, but out of the abundance of Creation. A simple walk in the woods on a snowy evening is more than enough to shift our focus from notions of scarcity to glimpses of the magnificent abundance with which we are blessed. I’m also pretty sure that the mere fact that there is a vaccine on the horizon, is not the result of competition, but of co-operation. I also know that greed won’t get that vaccine into the arms of enough people to move us beyond this pandemic. In order to vaccinate enough of the world’s population, rich countries like ours are going to need to be extremely generous, outrageously generous.
Tonight, this nativity heralds the birth of LOVE, and points us toward the reality of the passion of a person who understood that scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness create fear. Jesus lived and died to proclaim that beauty, truth, and goodness is in abundance all around us. Jesus said, “I have come that you may have life, and live it abundantly.” Abundant life is characterized by our generosity, our cooperation, and our passion; our passion which gives birth to LOVE.
Abundant life does not mean life without fear, nor does it mean that scarcity, competition, greed, and selfishness do not exist. Living life abundantly means not allowing these things to be foundational to our lives. When we live life abundantly, what is beautiful, true and good, nourishes us so that we can be generous, cooperative, and passionate in the way we encounter our fear. Living life abundantly means seeing beyond the wall built by our fear. In practical terms it means noticing that there is no tree in our sanctuary this year and being able to see the blessing of our technology which empowers us to find new ways to be LOVE in the world. It means missing our families and being grateful that we have families to miss. It means being stuck at home and being grateful that we have a home to be stuck in. It does not mean ignoring the realities of evil, or the tragedies which surround us, or even the empty chairs at our dinner table. It does mean grieving, for to grieve is to have LOV-ed. It is that LOVE which will nourish us, so that we can see beyond our pain to the LIGHT which continues to grow; the light which is fueled by beauty, truth, and goodness, guiding us to respond to scarcity not with fear but with the realization of the abundance of blessings which continue to flow all around us, to respond to competition not with a fear of losing, but with cooperative alternatives, and to respond to greed and self-centeredness, not with fear but with generosity and compassion for our neighbours.
Tonight, this nativity points us to the birth of the ONE who lived passionately proclaiming that abundance, generosity, co-operation, flow out of beauty, truth, and goodness, to create LOVE, the LOVE which will comfort and restore us; a LOVE which resurrects our passion for life.
Christmas is a holiday, a HOLY day in which we celebrate what is good about the world. Our celebrations will not deny the suffering which is going on all around us. Our celebrations, if we let them, will empower us to see our suffering in the context of the abundance of blessings which come to us each and every day.
Yes, I do miss our tree. I miss all of you filing this sanctuary with song. I also know that a long dark, difficult winter stretches out before us all. But I trust the LOVE in which we live and move and have our being to give us the strength to meet this winter not motivated by our fears but empowered by the passion inspired in us by the abundance of goodness, truth, and beauty which surrounds us. So that we can see beyond our fears. So that we can discover new ways of being LOVE in the world.
As I look upon that nativity, I can see beyond the sadness, longing, and fear, to the beauty of the candlelight. And even in the silence of this empty sanctuary which is bigger than this building; this sanctuary in which we live and move and have our being, is a LOVE beyond my fear, a LOVE which IS BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also.
So, wherever you are watching this, whatever your circumstances may be, do not let the COVID-Grinch steal your Christmas. For not even the COVID-Grinch as despicable as it may be, not even this can steal Christmas, because LOVE is about to be born in us.
May you each of you see beyond the walls built of fear to the LIGHT which continues to glow. May that LIGHT help you to see the abundance of blessing which are all around us. May you rejoice in the gift of your life, so that LOVE may continue to grow in, with, through, and beyond you. “Welcome Christmas, fah who rah-moose. Welcome Christmas, dah who rah-moose.” Let us live this LOVE-given gift of life abundantly. Merry Christmas.
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