Featured Image is the Great Rose Window of Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix, by Vada Roseberry
Sermon from The Rev. Mark R Sutherland for the Solemn Mass of the Nativity 2019
Each one of us creates or constructs individual stories to explain our experience of the world. Together as cultures, faith traditions, communities, and nations, we construct our collective stories- stories that tell us about our origins, who we presently are, and why we are here. Both as individuals and as communities our stories mold and shape our perceptions of self and the world. Our stories once brought to life, make claims upon us.
The demands of daily life distract us from an awareness of being shaped by the stories we tell. Gaining a little perspective on our stories allow the swirling snowstorm of ideas and feelings -as in a swirling snow globe to settle. Gaining perspective allows us to perceive our lives to reveal the hidden dissonances between the life actually lived and the stories we continue to tell ourselves about that life.
The Christian story is a drama in two acts. In Advent I’ve been thinking about this with a particular interest. I have found myself -at this relatively advanced stage of my spiritual journey returning with a renewed appreciation for the second act in the Christian faith drama.
By advanced, I don’t mean wise or sophisticated and certainly not proficient – all meanings that often attach to the description of something as advanced. No, what I mean it this. At the age of 64 -going on 65, I’ve been at this faith thing for a little while now. For most of this time I’ve paid scant attention to the second act of the Christian drama – beyond the inattentive repetition of liturgical formulas referring to the Parousia or the second coming of the Lord.
I mention the second act of the drama on the night when we are meant to be completely given over to the celebration of act one, because most of us have forgotten there is a second act – without which – our understanding of the first act remains partial and thus unconvincing because an incomplete story is easily dismissed.
It’s Luke who tells the best story of the birth of Jesus. It’s Francis of Assisi who populates Luke’s story of the birth of the savior with the visual props of the traditional nativity play. We now can’t think of Christmas Eve without the mental images of a ruined stable lean to, bestrewed with straw, with grazing sheep, lowing cattle, incredulous shepherd yokels, and an angel or two singing glory to God in the highest and peace among all people on earth.
As with viewing an old master depiction of the nativity, we have to keep our eyes exclusively focused on this foreground scene in order to avoid having to notice the darkness in the background. Glory to God in heaven is all well and good but the reign of peace on earth is far from having been realized. That’s why keeping the second act of the Christian drama in view is so important. With the birth of Jesus, the story has begun but it’s ending is not yet insight, so don’t be so quick to dismiss it as not true to life. As Sonny Kapoor, proprietor of the Most Exotic and Best Marigold Hotel proclaims it will be OK in the end and if things are not OK it’s because it’s not yet the end.
The Christmas hymn “It came upon the midnight clear”, witnesses that the glorious song of old may well have come upon a midnight clear but the world continues to suffer long. It laments that beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong. As we begin the third decade of the third millennium, waring human kind continues to hear not the angelic tidings of peace on earth and good will among human kind – the song the angels bring.
And so, the nativity of the babe Jesus with all its medieval farmyard trappings has become consigned by most Westerners to the realm of those once upon a time, quaint fairy stories we love to enchant our children with, and which, we adults may still love but can no longer take very seriously as a description of reality.
However, stories are all we have and that as human beings we create meaning from the stories we construct. Contrary to popular perception, meaning is not something lying around waiting to be discovered. It’s only through the construction of stories, that we bring meaning and purpose to life.
The enchanted magical realism of the Matthew and Luke stories of Jesus’ birth among angels, shepherds, and wise men may no longer speak to us as it once did in previous generations. Yet, buried in these stories lie the tension between safety versus risk that if we listen carefully speak powerfully of our own struggles and anxieties between invulnerability or vulnerability, belonging and rejection, courage and fear.
What stories capable of changing lives might we construct together as we listen carefully in the spaces in between Luke’s descriptions?
The question is not is Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth a true depiction of events, but how are our lives enriched through allowing the priorities of this story to shape our sense of ourselves and the world around us? I believe in the power of the story of the birth of Jesus to change our lives. I believe in this story, not because I mistake it for a literal description of true events, but because to not believe in it impoverishes and limits me. My life is all the richer, my ability to weather the vicissitudes of fate strengthened, because I believe that the Creator has entered into the very structures of the creation to experience it as we do. The universe has a purpose and it is not only that God is actively engaged in bringing that purpose to its fulfilment. That we have a role in furthering this process also through what our Jewish neighbors refer to as Tikkun olam – works of social responsibility that further the divine in breaking of social justice as a sign of the repair of a broken world.
Larger stories reframe our own self-limiting life story. Faith-based stories challenge our awareness of pernicious cultural stories that lay claim on us, competing for our primary allegiance. Good stories break the power of the illusion that we have no choice – as if there are no other stories to draw from or no other ways to reframe the stories we have. Luke’s story is our story also and this -maybe is worthy of our closer consideration?
Our Christian story is a drama in two acts. In the birth of Jesus God has inaugurated messianic age in which we live. Keeping act two in mind orients us to the work of the messianic age, i.e. the remaking of a broken world despite the frustrating fact that the in breaking of justice and peace is still in the process of moving towards its final completion.
I love to paraphrase my hero poets. I’ve drawn a lot from T.S Eliot this past Advent so it’s not T.S Eliot this time, but a more contemporary voice of our age, the late John O’Donoghue:
May the stories we choose to live by – enlivening us to the invisible geography that invites us to new frontiers, breaking the dead shell of yesterdays, risking being disturbed and changed, giving us courage to live the lives we long to love, and to postpone no longer the life we came here to live and waste our hearts on fear no more.Morning Offering