Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day

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

You all probably know that Christmas is a twelve day season which concludes on the eve of the Epiphany, but when precisely does the season start? Sundown on the 24th? As soon as the liturgy of that evening starts? When you pop your Christmas crackers and light the pudding on fire? For some of us who love hymnody, there is a different, though admittedly highly subjective answer: The Chord. I’m referring here to the famous chord played in the last verse of Sir David Willcocks’ arrangement of Adeste Fidelis, “O Come All Ye Faithful.” For you musicologists out there it is a “B half-diminished seventh.” For those who aren’t musicologists, it’s that strange yet stirring sound, played at the word “Word.” (I’ve requested each organist I’ve ever had to make sure to pencil it into their hymnal, and Neil did yeoman’s work with it this year, unsurprisingly!) Some organists studiously (and perhaps a bit superstitiously) avoid using the chord at any moment during the year other than at the Christmas Eve mass.

I think it’s so popular because it’s so haunting and otherworldly. How appropriate that it is played over the word “Word”, for the divine Logos becoming flesh is a haunting and otherworldly event, that which is eternal–outside of history–invading our temporal, material universe. As an aside, I chose this Sunday’s bulletin cover image by my favorite modern artist, Joan Miró, because I think it does something in the visual medium that Sir David’s arrangement does in the musical medium. It baffles us and draws out an affective rather than intellectual response, and it might even disquiet us a bit. And it should, because we cannot completely integrate concepts like divinity and infinity into a purely rationalistic view of the created order. The same entering the created order is, thus, a shock to the system.

This isn’t to say we can’t say anything, at least analogically, about the relationship between the divine Word and the universe created and ordered by means of his eternal existence. This reading comes up every year, and I usually do try to say something about what a Christian metaphysics looks like. To merely say “it’s a mystery” is rather unsatisfying and dismissive, and it would surely lead to a failing grade on a systematic theology exam. But this year I want us simply to ponder this in our hearts, as our Lady did in response to the Annunciation when the Word of God actually became incarnate nine months prior to the Nativity. In order to appreciate the magnitude of the birth we must grapple with Christ’s eternal generation, his preëxistence from before time.

The church father and “hammer of the Arians,” St. Hilary of Poitiers, wrote “I will not endure to hear that Christ was born of Mary unless I also hear ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God.’” You see, without this, what we heard on Christmas Eve was just a sweet story about a woman giving birth under less than ideal circumstances. When we acknowledge that this little baby is nothing less than the Lord of the Universe, that our very existence is contingent on his creative will, then what we’re talking about is the single most disruptive event in all of history.

So, today let us with gladness ponder this truth and all it means for us. He who made the world came into it as a child. The world which was made good and fell has been remade. Christ remains in his glorious, risen body, the first-fruits of all bodies which will be redeemed, and he comes to us still, his very body present on this altar. Let us go then, even unto Bethlehem, for today begins the work which is fulfilled on Calvary and in the empty tomb and which will find its consummation on that last great day when the trumpet shall sound and we shall all be raised incorruptible.

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

Sermon for Christmas

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

One of the important ways of separating the wheat from the chaff this time of year is to quiz one’s friends and relations on what is the best Christmas movie. Some will choose a classic like It’s a Wonderful Life or The Bishop’s Wife. Some in my generation will provide a defense of Home Alone or the best adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol–namely, the one starring the Muppets. Some will breathlessly argue that Die Hard is, indeed, a Christmas movie, and some poor souls will stake their reputations on one of the literally hundreds of Hallmark original Christmas movies.

Well, friends, I am here to tell you that there is an objectively true answer in this seemingly purely subjective question. 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is the greatest of all time. Don’t “@ me.” It has become harder to watch this in recent years; sic transit gloria mundi. It aired for one night this year on public television, but otherwise one needs an Apple+ subscription. I have a “hack” though! I own this relic of a bygone Christmas on something called VHS. For the youngsters here, this is a plastic cassette with a magnetic tape inside, which one places into something called a videocassette recorder (or VCR), which we also own. Thus we can watch it without having cable television or installing an unsightly antenna on the roof of the rectory or giving Apple any money!

Anyway, I hope you’ve all seen it at some point, so I won’t give you a plot rundown. The salient point is that Charlie Brown bemoans the conspicuous consumption which defined mid-century Christmas celebrations (and which still does in the Year of Our Lord 2021) and starts to wonder what Christmas is even all about. Finally, Charlie’s best friend, Linus (the one who always sucked his thumb and carried around his security blanket) stands up and recites the Christmas story from Luke that we just heard. If you’re paying close attention you’ll notice he actually tosses his security blanket down when the angel tells the shepherds “be not afraid.” And he concludes by saying, “that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

What a lot of people don’t realize is that the executives at CBS, which initially aired the special, pressured it writer, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, to omit the scene. It was deemed “too religious.” These days some folks look back to post-war America as a golden age for mainstream Christianity; sorry if this bursts anybody’s bubble, but while church membership and attendance were indeed at all time highs during the fifties and sixties, this doesn’t mean that the culture had been succesfully Christianized or catechized or transformed into the Kingdom of God, and being too outwardly religious might have been even more outré in some spheres than it is today. So the execs wanted him to take the bible out of it. Schulz basically said “it’s in or it’s not happening,” and good on him! It’s not only the climax of the special, it is, as Linus said, what Christmas is all about.

I’ve been a priest for over twelve years now. Early on it my vocation I would fret about what to preach on Christmas Eve and Easter Day. What can I possibly say that will be new and interesting? How can I say something that will intrigue the visitor or the semi-annual communicant so that they leave inspired or impressed or whatever. I think I’ve finally come to the point where I realize that this is precisely the wrong way to think about it (and not a little self-important to boot). There’s nothing I could say which could possibly make this story any more compelling, because it is already the most compelling story ever told.

Here is the Creator of the universe, who has come to us as a little baby. Here is the one whom we spurned, to whom we must be reconciled if there is any hope for us, and instead of permitting himself his rightful vengeance, he has come to save us all as one of us. Here is he who governs all of history through his Almighty Providence, and he has come to be subjected to all the changes and chances of a world which seems so often not to make much sense.

The story speaks for itself, and the preacher might be better served taking the Linus approach. That’s what Christmas is all about. Right there. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of Grace and truth.”

I wish you all a happy Christmas. I hope your celebrations are are as fulsome and joyous as they can possibly be during this peculiar pandemic-time. Most of all, I pray that you and I might once again invite the Christ Child into our hearts: to be born there just as he was born in Bethlehem, to take up residence in our sin-sick souls just as he took up residence in our broken world, to bring us at last to his heavenly home where we might dwell with him eternally.

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