Sermon for Christmas Eve 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

You may have noticed that we began this evening’s liturgy with a peculiar para-liturgical element, “The Proclamation of the Birth of Christ.” It is taken from the Roman Martyrology, a sixteenth century catalogue of saints published as Europe transitioned from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar. I used it both because I think it’s a beautiful text and also, more importantly, because it places the events which we celebrate tonight in the context of both human and sacred history.

Perhaps it seems obvious to you that the God has a role in history, but it is not necessarily self-evident. What in theological terms we call “Divine Providence”—the idea that God is sovereign over time and history, that God oversees the long arc of the progress of the created order (general providence) and miraculously breaks into that order from time-to-time (special providence)—is, I would argue, a non-negotiable tenet of the Faith. This creates some issues regarding human agency, but you’ve come to celebrate the Birth of Christ, not to hear me give a theological disquisition on free will, so for now (one night only!) I’ll spare you and simply say that I think this theological problem is soluble.

Anyway, the proposition is that God is sovereign over history, that he is Alpha and Omega, the Lord of all that was and is and is to come. This may seem obvious to the one who believes, yet it is not so obvious to the world at large. Since Lyotard coined the term metanarrative (actually, métarécit, since he was French and all), there has been a skepticism in intellectual circles about such grand, unifying theories about the progress of history. This is for good reason. Marx believed that history was the story of class struggle, that the proletariat would revolt and seize the means of production, that they would establish a humane society based on common ownership, and that this would signal the end of history. He was wrong. Francis Fukuyama believed that the end of the Cold War signaled the end of the development of history, in which Western liberal democracy and free-market capitalism would be adopted as the final achievement of human civilization’s evolution. He was also wrong.

What these views and so many other grand, universal stories of the human experience (so many other metanarratives) lack, though, is imagination. They are materialistic in the proper sense, not in the sense that they are concerned with human control over things (though both Marx and Fukuyama fall victim to that problem), but in the sense that the material world is the only thing that exists. We are basically bags of meat that, in the aggregate, behave in predictable ways and organize ourselves along lines that a smart enough socialist could see a mile or a millennium away, and whether we end up blowing ourselves up, baking ourselves to death, or solving everything through our inherent genius and adaptability, we are, nevertheless, all there is.

What’s the alternative? With apologies to any postmodern hipsters in the congregation tonight, I do not believe that the answer is the one given by Lyotard & al.: to reject metanarrative in favor of a million different “little stories”, playing whatever language game contextually suits us. This seems to me just as unmoored from anything eternal as a materialistic “grand story.” This seems just as unimaginative, just as dull, just as stifling.

Rather, I believe with all that I am that the only answer is the reassert “The Story.” I believe the answer is to posit, contra mundum, perhaps, that history does have a purpose, that it comes from someplace and that it is going somewhere in particular, and that the only way to make sense of that long process is to look back to the hinge point of human history, to the divine vertical line in the long horizontal line of human striving through time, which gives our whole story its cruciform shape.

We look back to twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah, thirteen centuries from Moses, eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges, one thousand years after the anointing of David as King. We look back to the year of the one hundred ninety-fourth Olympiad, the seven hundred fifty second year from the foundation of Rome, the forty-second year of the reign of Octavian. We look back to that very specific moment when human and divine history intersect to see the one, true God taking flesh in Jesus Christ.

This, my sisters and brothers, is the turn of the tide. This is the moment when the world rejoices, for in the first breath of an infant in Bethlehem of Judea, the world has been given its own first breath, faint and fearful at first, but growing in timbre and temerity until all the world can hear the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

My sisters and brothers, tonight we have been shown that we are highly favored. We have been shown that the God who made the world loved it enough to enter it, that in a moment of time all of time has been redeemed, that at the turning point of history God gave us the promise that at the end of all things, he will be there and all races and peoples and nations will stream to his light, as it were the Star of Bethlehem, and will kneel before him as did the wise men of old.

My sisters and brothers, this is not just “our story.” It is “The Story.” The savior of the nations has come among us and will come again. This night we travel even unto Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place; we kneel at the crib; we worship the Christ child; we feed on God’s mercy in the most precious Sacrament. But then, upon the Lord of Love being born anew in our hearts, we heed his call to spread that love, because it is not ours to keep. The Trinitarian Mission, the pouring forth of divinity from the Godhead into this messy world, is, by its nature, not solipsistic, nor is it a treasure shared by a few enlightened. It is perfect love unleashed on all humanity, that our mortal race, from the beginning of time through the last day, may be saved from sin and death, from systems that oppress and forces that frustrate the will of God for the human family. Now we treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts, as Our Lady did, but soon we most, like the shepherd, return to our fields, praising and glorifying God, and sharing this Good News with all the world.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 4 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I made a terrible mistake in my sermon preparation regimen this week. It’s not like I got the readings mixed up or anything like that. Instead, I made the mistake of writing my Christmas sermon before writing my Advent 4 sermon, and I think I got the seasonally appropriate tone and likely audience switched in my head. So at Christmas Eve tomorrow you’ll hear about dialectical materialism and the consummation of history, and today, this Fourth Sunday of Advent, I’ll talk about a dumb Christmas movie. I pray it all comes out in the wash, as it were.

Also, fair warning, this might be the third time in my life I will be accused of ruining Christmas. The first time was when I shared some unwelcome speculation with my kindergarten class about the true identity of the provider of Christmas gifts. The second time was a choir member at my former parish, after I said we could have Advent Lessons and Carols during Advent or Christmas Lessons and Carols during Christmastide, but not Christmas Lessons and Carols during Advent.

So, let’s talk about a really bad Christmas movie, and I apologize in advance if you like it and if this ruins it for you. As the youngsters say, “don’t @ me.” Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. To explain Rotten Tomatoes’ 0% rating, one should only need to say the following seven words: “‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ Breakdance.” The late Roger Ebert dubbed this moment “the whitest thing [he] had ever seen.” Cameron, for his part, blames “atheists and haters” for the bad reviews, but I for one am neither an atheist nor (I hope) a hater. I just think it misses the mark in some significant ways.

Now, there are some “so bad it’s good” moments in the film, particularly the scene where St. Nicholas is shown beating up the heretic Arius at the council of Nicaea, shot like an action movie. But on the whole the movie is just “so bad it’s bad,” and this is largely because of its peculiar raison d’être.

You see, the point is not what you’d expect. It is not an indictment of secular culture ignoring or de-Christianizing Christmas- an argument which I personally find tiresome, but I understand why it gets some folks exercised. Instead, it is intended to convince Christians who are uncomfortable with the apparently pagan roots of some Christmas traditions (Christmas trees, the establishment of December 25th to coincide with Saturnalia and the Nativity of Sol Invictus, &c.) that these traditions were in fact first invented by Christians and then coöpted by pagans after the fact.

Now, I know there are a few putatively Christian churches that refuse to celebrate any holidays, but since old school Puritanism has more-or-less ceased to exist, it seems like Cameron is really preaching to the choir, as it were. As early as the first generation after Christ’s death and resurrection, Christians have taken non-Christian practices and ideas and Christianized them, as evinced in the Acts of the Apostles when St. Paul reinterprets the “Altar to an Unknown God” in the Areopagus as pointing to the God of Israel and of Jesus. But, for whatever reason, Cameron cannot permit such historical accretions to pollute his pure religion.

Some of the points he makes have historical merit and others don’t, but it’s really not worth taking a deep dive, and I don’t recommend seeing the movie. Go watch A Charlie Brown Christmas instead.

There is, however, one point (the last point which the film tries to make) on which I think the movie goes from harmless schlock to actually problematic. The argument goes something like this… Christmas, you argue, has become too commercialized, too materialistic. But in the Incarnation god becomes matter. Thus, matter is good, so we should be materialistic. Therefore, don’t feel any guilt about spending too much on gifts, making the most lavish feast for Christmas dinner, and forgetting about the poor and needy.

Now, I suppose we could construct a straw man who argues that giving gifts to family and friends and having a nice dinner are totally selfish and un-Christian, but I don’t actually know anybody who makes that argument. Generally, one assumes that showing generosity to those who are close to us by ties of kinship and friendship and showing generosity to the most needy among us are both goods, and the trick is to strike the right balance in this regard. But Saving Christmas is not interested in balance.

More fundamentally, this move ignores the fact that the very word “materialism” has too meanings. I’m going to get into this more tomorrow, but for our purposes now you should know that materialism could mean either “an inordinate love of possessions” or “a philosophy which holds that matter is the only thing which exists.” Neither of these, I would argue, should be reckoned an appropriate philosophy for the Christian, the former on moral grounds and the latter on ontological grounds.

However, there is a sense in which the materialist philosophy is a reaction to an equally problematic, equally extreme, equally un-Christian, claim: namely that matter is either an illusion or it’s bad (as the Gnostics would claim), and our goal is to save ourselves or be saved from this corruption by transcending the material world through spiritual athletics or through the acquisition of secret knowledge.

Christ’s Incarnation, his taking on the human condition, is not materialist in the sense that it makes selfishness okay, but it is in the sense that it lays claim once again to the created order, speaking again God’s affirmation that “it is good.”

And there are few avowals of both sides of this equation more profound than Our Lady’s song of hope and triumph which, we just heard twice. Mary’s Magnificat is a powerful reminder that when God acts it is among us, in our fundamentally good if sin-sick world, to turn the greed and selfishness and violence by which we are surrounded into justice and mercy and loving-kindness, first in this world and then in the next. Mary’s song is an indictment of the kind of materialism that Kirk Cameron seems to want to encourage while at the same time it is an affirmation of this material world being the best and most proper place for the transformative work of the God whom she bore to take place.

As we conclude this holy season of penitent expectation and enter the season of joyfully greeting the Christ Child, let us watch and pray and work for the fullness of God’s love to become manifest in signs as powerful as the Blessed Virgin’s proclamation- in the lifting up of the lowly, the exaltation of the humble, the hungry being well-fed, the promise of God’s New Jerusalem. It is, no doubt, Christ alone who gives the victory in this regard, and only fully in the life of the world to come. But here, even among things that are passing away, we can begin to participate in that Kingdom in its nascent form, knowing that the good works we do live on in the mind of God.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.