A Joyful Choice
Christmas Eve & Christmas Morning - 2019
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
I begin by wishing you all a very merry and blessed Christmas! And saying: I am delighted to be celebrating here with you! But I have to ask – just to be clear: what is it that we have come here to celebrate?
After all, at its heart, Christmas is not an event. Christmas is not a holiday. Christmas is not a season. Christmas is not a church service.
Christmas is not a set of familiar carols, or decorations of red and green, or a jolly, bearded man in a red suit with eight tiny reindeer. Christmas is not chestnuts roasting on an open fire; not festive lights or decorated evergreen trees. Christmas is not an occasion, or a party, or a festival. It is not a piece of history, or time off work, or a gathering with family and friends.
All of these things are connected to Christmas. And they are important elements of the way we celebrate Christmas. But fundamentally, Christmas is not an event.
So, just what is Christmas?
Christmas, my dear friends, is a choice.
Now, we would do well to remember that Mary didn’t have a choice about being on the road when she went into labor.
And Joseph didn’t have a choice. He was required by a royal edict to register for the census ordered by Emperor Augustus, and that meant traveling from Nazareth, in Galilee, in the north of Israel, to his ancestral town of Bethlehem, located in the south. Joseph didn’t have a choice about the fact that this child was not biologically his own. It was a done deal by the time he found out about it.
Neither of them had a choice about the fact that this child would be born in a stable. There was no room at the inn, so it was either make the best of the invitation to stay in the barn, or give birth in a ditch by the side of the road.
And these parents were made vulnerable by their circumstances: vulnerable to gossip about Jesus’ parentage; vulnerable to physical pain, and the danger of death during childbirth in Mary’s case, the fate of many women in those days; vulnerable to a feeling of failing to adequately plan and provide for his new family in Joseph’s case.
The shepherds didn’t have a choice about being out in the fields with their sheep in the dark and the cold. The sheep needed tending and guarding, and the sheep were the shepherds’ livelihood, their means of economic survival. The shepherds’ occupation left them vulnerable to predators, the weather, and the terrain.
They also didn’t have a choice about the visiting angels. The entire host of heaven suddenly bombarded them, descending on them out of nowhere, filling the night sky with deafening shouts of “Gloria!” and “Alleluia!”. Understandably, the shepherds were terrified by this unexpected phenomenon, and had no defense against their unanticipated fear.
As you think about your life this year, where do you feel like you didn’t have a choice? What happened in your life, or the lives of other loved ones, that you did not choose? It’s likely that many things come to mind: You don’t have a choice about the Alzheimer’s, or progressing dementia, that has taken over not just the life of your spouse or parent, but robbed you of some of your own life as well. You don’t have a choice about the heart attack, or cancer, or stroke that took away a loved one all too soon. You don’t have a choice about the boss you hate, or the job you lost, or the job you can’t get. You don’t have a choice about your own struggles with food or relationships, with sleep or alcohol or depression, the ongoing fight to make good choices that you seem to lose over and over and over again.
Despite wanting it to slow down or speed up, we don’t have a choice about the fact that time moves along at its own pace. And so, here we are again at the final days of another year. Whether we feel adequately prepared or not, Christmas has come around once more. And Christmas, unlike so many things in this mortal life, is all about God giving us a choice.
God places the power of Christmas in our hands. God comes into the raging inferno of our hectic, manic, sometimes insane world, and says to us, “Do you want me? Will you allow me to be born among you? Be born within you? Will you accept this tiny infant as your savior and your friend and your hope? It’s your choice.”
And we’re free to say no. Because underneath that choice is another, deeper choice . . . and here then lies the true choice of Christmas.
We have to choose whether or not we will be open and make ourselves vulnerable to joy. ‘What?’, you may say ‘Vulnerable to joy? That doesn’t seem to be much of a choice. Who doesn’t want to experience joy?’
But, like so many of life’s choices, it’s more complicated than it may first appear.
Despair and cynicism and even hatred are actually the paths of least resistance in life. When something offends us or frightens us, the easiest response is to lash out in anger and vicious self-defense. And with the difficult situations in our personal lives compounded by the conflicts within our larger society, most of us will find that our walls are built very, very high right now. We are resolved not to be caught defenseless. We will not be left unaware. We will never again be caught off guard, or made to look foolish, or left to become a victim of a surprise attack. And so, the defensive walls go up even higher. Our fear makes us wary of the light, compels us to seek out darkness, search for somewhere to hide, allow the darkness to cover us and protect us behind the walls we’ve built around our hearts.
And how does God answer our minds and hearts and communities bristling with self-defense so aggressive that it actually seems to be offense?
Amazingly, God’s answer is to give himself to us in the most vulnerable form possible: a fragile human baby.
And given that inexplicable gift, how can we respond with anything other than joy?
But, joy is surprisingly difficult to let ourselves fully feel. Past experience and hurts, life experience, worldly experience, emotional and relationship experience and hurt, has taught us to hedge both our expectations and our expressions of pure joy. We may even question whether pure joy is even possible, or appropriate, or wise. We celebrate and give thanks, but in the back of our minds, there is the firm belief that this goodness could be lost in a moment, that it will probably all turn bad in the future, the knowledge that even this Christmas light does not erase the everyday darkness in our lives. And so, we hedge our sense of joy, unwilling to let go of those last shreds of defended self-consciousness, the final walls that protect us from being completely and utterly vulnerable, and open to being hurt.
But true joy requires nothing less than total vulnerability. We have to set down our weapons, take off our armor, lay aside our power and control and self-interest, in order to even see and acknowledge the infant Christ in each other, much less kneel and adore him. True joy requires us to make ourselves vulnerable, which is why pure, unbounded, unchecked joy is such a terrifying prospect.
But the choice of Christmas that we make is in answer to the choice that God made, the choice to come to us fragile, undefended, vulnerable, utterly reliant on us humans for his survival in the world. And God took joy in giving himself to us in this way. So if we can choose to take the same risk that God did, we can feel the same joy God feels. Light meets light, joy touches joy, and the darkness itself bows in awe at the radiance that shines out of the fragile infant Christ, this Messiah, this tender Savior come among us and laid before us.
And what happens when we do take off the armor? What happens when the walls are torn down? What happens when we stop trying to be right all the time, safe all the time, in control all the time? What happens when we let the light radiating from that small face in the manger penetrate our hearts?
And that experience of joy may surprise you. You may laugh. You may cry. You may laugh through your tears and cry in your laughter. For real joy is deeper than happiness or celebration or giddy exuberance. Joy is a force that knocks down all the walls around our hearts and levels the boundaries we erect with the goodness, the grace, the unearned and unending love and healing and mercy that is our newly arrived Jesus.
Joy has the capacity to remake us; to re-create us anew. Joy has the capability to tear down our cynical and fearful identities and give birth to a self that is trusting, loving, patient, open, believing, faithful, knowing that all will be well and all manner of things will be well. Joy is the reward of the long-nurtured faith that got us here. Joy is the quiet and lasting and deep and rock-solid foundation that endures, while the more mercurial currents of happiness and grief wash back and forth over the surface of our hearts.
Joy is the first breath the resurrected Christ takes in the tomb on Easter morning. It is the breath behind the healing words he speaks to you when you clutch at the hem of his robe. It is the quiet, sweet breaths of the sleeping baby in the manger as we look on, feeling our hearts overflow. The joy of Christmas, the joy of Christ can become our own breath. And if we surrender this far to grace, we could no more choose not to live in him than we could choose not to breathe.
That is what awaits us behind the choice of Christmas. That is what being vulnerable to joy feels like. That is what joy can do to us if we let it — if we have the courage to let go – if we choose to enter into the miracle that is at the center of Christmas.
You have the power to choose. Make that choice this Christmas!