Eve of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sermon by Rev. Canon Patrick P. Augustine, Rector Christ Episcopal Church, La Crosse, Wisconsin. December 24, 2003

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Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96: 1-4,11-12, Titus 2: 11-14, Luke 2:1-20 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its j

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For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!' When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.' So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2: 1-20)
It has been a busy season for many of us. This morning I got up so excited in anticipation of the festivities and celebration of our solemn liturgy of the Nativity of our Lord. In the middle of the day I had to tell Kris my secretary that I need to calm down. Last week from Barnes and Noble I bought a book "The Joy of Christmas" written by Martin H. Manser and Andrew Bianchi. It has a chapter titled Slowing down and a prayer helped me to focus on the real stuff for this holy night. May I share this prayer with you:
Lord, help me to see you in all this Christmas "stuff." Help me to remember you, to turn aside from myself and my world and think of you, for even a few minutes, this Christmas time. If I do turn to you, I know that somehow (and I'm never quite sure how you will make me new inside. Give me the courage and strength to bring myself, just as I am, to your infinite greatness. Help me to be humble enough to come afresh and worship you, Lord, Jesus, the new born King. Amen[1]
Christmas is for most of us a magical moment in the year when we gather with our friends and families. For children, it is the delight of gift giving and receiving. For believers, it is the joy of observing once again the celebration of the coming of God's Son. I wonder if the image of "coming home" might be an appropriate beginning for our Christmas meditation tonight? This image particularly struck me yesterday evening when our son Gibran came back home from Washington D.C. for the festivities of the holy season.

I am reminded of the story of G.K. Chesterton, a wonderful Christian writer, who had the habit of getting lost around London. One day he found himself at Market Harborough but with no idea where he was going. So he sent a telegram to his wife saying: "Am in Market Harborough - where ought I to be?" and she, being a practical woman, sent a terse telegram with one word: "Home." That is the message of Christmas: come home.[2] There are many reasons we "come home," for Christmas. But what makes this night so special for the Christian community is the celebration of the coming of God's Son into our troubled world, of God making our home, God's home.

St. Luke sets the story of Jesus' birth within the context of a government census ordered by Caesar Augustus which required everyone to travel to their own ancestral home to be accounted for. In this obscure place, a child is born to unknown parents. In the mighty halls of power, who cared in Rome if a child is born in lowly Palestine? And whose name was going to matter in the annals of history? Caesar's or the name of this unknown Jewish baby born homeless in a stable to powerless and poor parents? On this first Christmas night, a word from heaven came concerning such a birth -- one that was witnessed - not by the community at large, but by angels, animals and the poor shepherds. And this important news was not given to the emissary in Rome, the great super power of that time or to the high priest in Jerusalem, but rather, to some obscure farmers and shepherds living out in the fields that nurtured a bunch of sheep. The God of the Bible always reaches out to the poor, the oppressed and the ordinary to give them the good news.
"To YOU is born this day," said the Angel of the Lord. Never before had anything of such historical significance been addressed to these people, these nomadic sheep herders, namelessly tending their sheep every day and every night! This personalized announcement makes Christmas what it always has been; what most people dream it can be for them, a direct personal announcement from God, to you, and to me. What does the announcement means?

The message of the Angels, enshrined in our Christmas liturgy tonight proclaims in words far more forceful and eloquent than mine that the birth of Jesus Christ is a living sign of God's personal love for the world, for you and for me. Today there are many who are without hope in our world. There are people I meet everyday in my pastoral work right in our own community. Pick up any newspaper and you shall find that there are places on our planet earth where countless number of human beings suffer. Tonight we pray for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan that peace may be restored to these troubled lands. We pray for their safety and pray for God's comfort for the families of those who have lost their sons and daughters in the war against terrorism. For many years Christians, Muslims and Jews in the Middle East have lived in fear and anxiety, with the reality that their lives are saturated by the hostilities and violence in their region. This week Bishop of Jerusalem, Riah Abu El-Assal said that Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem this year are cancelled as most roads are damaged and there is hardly any lighting between the checkpoints and the nativity. Thirteen million Kashmiris in India are oppressed for the last fifty four years by the Indian authorities. In a religious conflict 2.5 million Christians have been killed in the last twenty years by the Sudanese government. At the time of the first Christmas the people of Palestine lived in pain and under oppression and we still live in a flawed world and are in desperate need of peace.

Christmas is all about giving us the hope that God cares and that He sent His Son to be incarnate in human flesh to share God's love and peace with us. The message of the angel to us all is "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" God's favor is shared with us tonight and we are the harbingers of God's peace to share and to proclaim it to a wounded humanity. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news and the agent of hope for the world. We must cling onto that hope and put Christ, the prince of peace, back in Christmas. St. Bernard of Clairvaux asked, "Lord! Almighty and Eternal God! What made you so small?" And his ecstatic response was, "It was love."

That is why the Angels could speak good news of great joy to a dark and sleeping world in those days equally filled with injustice, economic and social oppression. What we hear in their message and discover in the manger is that in Bethlehem God shattered the darkness forever. God took on flesh and joined the human journey. God became human to touch our emptiness, to taste it, to share it, and to make possible a love that can fill our emptiness, to bring us back into the one relationship we were designed for. The Christ-child comes to touch our fear, and by his own self-offering on the cross to bestow on our world, a love that casts out all fear. Where can one find a love so tender, and so strong? Where can we hear such proclamation of the divine choir, a song from the heart of God: Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those with whom he is pleased! At Bethlehem, say the Church Fathers, "God became a child, that we all might become the children of God." I can't tell you how much that truth has meant to me in my human pilgrimage --to know that God cared enough about me, to walk my road to share my human nature, to live and die, for me. That is a love worth coming home to. It is the love of God we celebrate tonight.
May our hearts be filled with joy and awe on this Christmas eve and let us worship and adore Him: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father," Merry Christmas!
[1] Martin H. Manser and Andrew Bianchi, The Joy of Christmas, 2003 Barnes and Noble Books. Pp.15-16.
[2] George Carey, I believe, Chapter 13, p.90.

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