24 & 25 December 2021 at St Agnes, St Peter, St William Churches in Naples, Florida
Micah 5, 1-4 + Psalm 80 + Hebrews 10, 5-10 + Luke 3, 10-18
I don’t know who first got the idea of staging Christmas Pageants for and with children, but I want you to know that as an old priest and a pastor with parochial schools for way too long, I sat through more Christmas Pageants than any of you could imagine. That experience has led me to the conclusion that I’ll never have to worry about Purgatory. I’ve been there.
You know how they go, the little ones who can’t be trusted to remember lines are angels with various kinds of wire wings who flutter around and bump into one another looking anxiously around for someone to tell them when to get out of the way. Then there is always the character of Mary. Who plays that role is always a matter of great concern. It’s almost a preview of the anxiety over who will be the Homecoming Queen. Then there is Joseph who just stands around with nothing to say, his face itchy with that fake beard fearful he might trip over his father’s bathrobe. When I was that age, I never wanted to be a shepherd because they had to carry stuffed animals, and I thought that was weird. One time someone thought it would be great to have a real lamb. It got loose. That was the end of the show.
What all this has left us with is some rather odd and off the mark ideas about the details of the Good News we share tonight. We have so often imagined that the whole scene is the consequence of an in hospitable inn keeper who slammed the door in the face of this young couple leaving them alone, cold, and stuck in a stable. I remember another time when the kid who was the innkeeper slammed the door with such enthusiasm that the whole elaborate set fell over. Somehow all of that has dulled our imagination about what it all really means and what Luke was really announcing with this very dramatic event.
Not having been to a Christmas Pageant for several years, I’ve had the time to re-think this scene deciding that the inn-keeper is hardly a cruel and thoughtless human being. In that time and culture of the middle east, hospitality was and still is a very important matter for the Hebrew people. If he sent them to the stable, it was a thoughtful and considerate gesture, because with animals there, it would have been warm. That whole business about swaddling clothes so often thought of as rags for the poor is hardly that. For in those times, it was a way of receiving and wrapping with warmth someone who was welcome and embraced.
This is really a story of hospitality, and while we might at first think it’s about us being hospitable to the Divine Child, I would like to suggest that it might be the other way around. Perhaps it is about God welcoming us into the wonder of God’s new creation which has begun with this child. That story of the Annunciation is really a creation story. God makes something out of nothing by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s creation. The news we share with the help of Luke’s Gospel is that there has been a “restart” to creation. A hospitable and loving God is welcoming those he loves. While we might like to think that we are welcoming the Christ Child, perhaps it really is the other way around. Maybe Luke used the story of a child’s birth to touch the hearts of every parent reminding them of how they felt when that first child was born. Remembering the joy, the unimaginable love, the thrill of emotions that comes when you first hold your child.
I recently read, and I believe it, that the love of a parent for a child is somehow different and greater than the love of a husband and wife.
Think of that tonight. Think about a God who has come among us sharing every human emotion from birth till death. This is a God, revealed by Jesus, not as a remote judge or manipulative creator, but as one we can call “Father.” It is God’s hospitality that we enjoy day by day in this life. It is God’s hospitality that draws us to this table God has spread before us. It is God’s hospitality that feeds us with Divine Food, flesh and blood. Welcome guests in God’s creation do not leave wet towels on the bathroom floor. We pick up after ourselves and treasure every moment we have together on this beautiful earth. Having been welcomed by God we too welcome our brothers and sisters to enjoy a share in the bounty of this precious earth.
For the first time in his Gospel, Luke uses the word “today.” As we hear that word in this assembly it becomes a present call to share the joy of what we find here and gaze with the eyes of faith on what those shepherds saw glorifying and praising God, and then going home changed and ready to tell others. We find Christ today in the feeding place of this Eucharistic Table and also in those around us now with whom we say, “Amen” when we receive the Body of Christ.
We live in the hope of another “appearing”, a coming at the end of human history. Then in one final act of hospitality, Jesus will gather to himself all those who have given him the hospitality of their hearts.
Remember, it all happened in the night when it was dark as a reminder that the darker the night, the more joyous the dawn. Children of the light, praise the God whose love for us can never be lost. Give glory to the God who calls us all to a new day and a new creation where we can live without fear in a lasting peace that rests upon the power of his love. Give thanks to the God whose gift to us in his Son we celebrate today. Go home tonight knowing how welcome you are in God’s house and in God’s presence, and imitate God’s gracious hospitality.