Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Real "War on Christmas"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
Year B: The Nativity of Our Lord
December 24, 2005, 11:00PM

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
Psalm 96: 1-4, 11-12
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2: 1-20

The Real “War on Christmas"

After all these centuries, the story has lost none of its power. Mary and Joseph desperately searching for shelter. Placing the newborn baby Jesus in a manger – the Son of God in a feeding trough for animals. The angels appearing to the shepherds with their wondrous message of good news. The young mother Mary – probably just thirteen or fourteen years old – pondering in her heart all that she has seen and heard. It is a rich, deeply moving story and tonight all around the world people are once again retelling and rehearing it in countless languages and places. But, I think tonight, maybe more than ever, we need to ask a difficult question – Yes, it’s Christmas, but so what? What difference does Christmas make for us here in Jersey City at the end of 2005? Really, what difference does it make for any of us that Jesus was born? So what?

What difference does Jesus’ birth make, especially as we consider our world in 2005 – I don’t need to remind you that for the world this has been in many ways a terrible year – beginning just after Christmas last year when the horrific tsunami struck Asia killing thousands upon thousands of people. What difference does Christmas make in the face of suffering such as that, or for the victims of hurricanes and earthquakes? What difference does Christmas make for those who suffer because of evil human acts? Our own little parish has faced much sadness and suffering this year, with members of our St. Paul’s family no longer able to be with us this Christmas. Some have died, others are unwell. Some have anxiously faced surgery or waited for test results. In the midst of all this suffering and anxiety – here and around the world - what difference does Christmas make? It’s Christmas – so what?

Well, it certainly seems like a lot of people care a great deal about Christmas. During a time when American men and women are bravely sacrificing their lives fighting a dangerous and difficult war, the media, especially certain cable news networks and personalities, have been pouring out reports and commentary on the so-called “war on Christmas” that apparently is taking place across our country. In a recent five-day period, one cable news network broadcast fifty-eight stories about this attack on Christmas – a battle which seems to be taking place mostly in America’s stores where cashiers and sales clerks have been criticized for wishing people “Happy Holidays” rather than saying “Merry Christmas.” One well-known commentator angrily declared, “I am not going to let oppressive, totalitarian, anti-Christian forces in this country diminish and denigrate the holiday!” And, “I’m going to use all the power I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that!” He went on, “There is no reason on earth that all of us cannot celebrate a public holiday devoted to generosity, peace and love together! And anyone who tries to stop us from doing it is gonna face me!” Um, merry Christmas?

We may or may not agree with this kind of talk, but I actually do believe there is a kind of war on Christmas going on today, but it’s a war that has nothing to do with what some in the media are yelling and screaming about. It’s a war that has nothing to do with saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” No, instead it’s a kind of war that goes on inside our own hearts. And if we can understand this internal war – a war that we’ll never see covered on TV – we may be able to answer this Christmas question: so what?

A 17th Century mathematician and philosopher named Blaise Pascal said that there is in every person a God-shaped void that only God can fill. That rings true to me – that in each of us there is a space, an emptiness that hungers for God – a God shaped void that only God can fill. But, even though only God can heal that emptiness we do a pretty good job of looking for other ways to fill that void – and there are lots of people out there who are more than willing to help us.

You name it, we try it. Some use alcohol or drugs to fill that emptiness. Others turn to food. Or sex. Or we try to make the people in our lives fill this emptiness. Those of us who have the means – and even some of us who don’t - turn to buying stuff – lots and lots of stuff. If I only have – fill in the blank – then I’ll truly be happy. And, of course, manufacturers, stores and advertisers are more than willing to try to convince us that these things will truly make us happy. That these things will fill the void we feel in our lives. But, it’s not true – and on some level we know it’s not true, and yet many of us fall for it each and every time, year in and year out. Now don’t get me wrong, most of this stuff is perfectly fine and enjoyable – believe me, my family will tell you I like Christmas presents at least as much as anybody else, but none of these things that we buy or unwrap will make us truly happy if we haven’t filled that God-shaped void in our hearts. And hoping that stuff is going to feed us spiritually ultimately can lead us to self-destruction.

And, that’s the real war on Christmas – because what is Christmas, really? What is the “good news of great joy” that the angels announce to the startled shepherds in the field? The good news is that God has come to fill that God-shaped void inside of us. God has heard our cries – O Come, O Come Emmanuel – and God has come into the world in Jesus. In Jesus, God and humanity – God and us - meet in a new, decisive, and transforming way. In Jesus God says “This is who I am.” And in Jesus God also says to us, “This is who you really are – this is what I dream you will be. This is what humanity will be.” That’s the “so what” of Christmas – our God-shaped void is filled by Jesus. We are saved.

Actually, not quite. It turns out the Christian message is really an invitation. In Jesus, God shows us the way to be what we were created to be. In Jesus, God shows us what life with God is like. But, it’s still only an invitation – we are free, so it’s up to us to respond. We need to open our hearts, put our faith in God, to live like Jesus – to allow God to fill that void that only God can fill.

And that’s the hard part. And that’s why even we Christians who should know better – and do know better - still try to fill that God-shaped void other ways like by misusing stuff rather than turning to God. In a way, it’s easier isn’t it to just go to down to the Newport Mall, or even all the way out to Short Hills, and search for joy and happiness? It’s easier, except of course, it doesn’t really work.

In Jesus, God reveals both who God is and who we really are. And so as we read the whole Gospel story we have a really clear sense of what God is calling us to, what God wants us to be. To be like Jesus, we are called to offer loving service to others. We are called to teach and to heal. We are called to condemn sin, especially hypocrisy. We are called to preach repentance and reconciliation. We are called to love – especially people we don’t particularly like and even those who are our enemies. To choose life, not death. To follow Jesus is not to sit around waiting for heaven, but to transform life here on earth – and if Christmas teaches us anything it is that God values life on earth, our here and now human life very, very much.

All this is all very hard for us to do, but we know that the Lord is with us – holding us up, praying with us, leading us on. And maybe most importantly, the Lord is suffering along with us. After all, to be Christian is certainly to believe in a suffering God.

One of the things I love about the Bible is its honesty - it never pretends that any of this is easy. It was not easy for Mary to accept the amazing news the angel told her – “How can this be?” she asked. It was not easy for Joseph to accept what God called him to be and to do – to stand by Mary and to be father to this child. It was not easy for Jesus to preach repentance and love, to resist temptation, and to be abandoned and rejected. And it is not easy for God – forever reaching out, desiring relationship with humanity, and over and over being abandoned and rejected. And, of course, the ultimate rejection took place on the cross. Yet, God forever seeks us and so is able to transform what seems to be a crushing defeat into a spectacular victory. The resurrected Jesus reveals our own future – if we accept the Christmas invitation and allow God fill that God-shaped void in our hearts.

So, tonight let’s call a truce in the real war on Christmas. In faith, let us open our hearts to God. Like Mary, let us ponder in our hearts all that God has done in our lives. Like Joseph, let us have the courage to put our faith in God, even if, especially if, we are frightened or confused. Like the shepherds, let us look with awe and wonder at the miracle of Jesus – the Word of God – made flesh in the world. Like the angels let us boldly proclaim “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.”

And on this holy night and always let us be like Jesus – Jesus who makes all the difference for us and for the world. Jesus who teaches and heals. Jesus who loves and sacrifices. Jesus who is present right now in our community here in Jersey City, right here at St. Paul’s and here in a special way in the meal of bread and wine we will share. Jesus who reveals both who God is and who we truly are meant to be. Now, that’s something to celebrate! Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 04, 2005


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
December 4, 2005
The Second Sunday of Advent: Year B
Isaiah 40: 1-11
2 Peter: 3: 8-15a, 18
Mark 1: 1-8
Psalm 85


Advent is usually my favorite church season. I love the sense of anticipation, the building excitement about Christmas. We wait and we watch. Week by week we light the Advent candles. Some of us open the little doors on our Advent calendars. Churches like ours are beautifully decorated in blue, others maybe in a bluish purple. Of course, it’s the start of the church year, the alpha – the beginning – once again it’s a fresh start, a chance to try again, a time to begin the story anew – we find John the Baptist back in the wilderness, crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John’s back down at the Jordan, baptizing with water and prophesying the one who will baptize with the Spirit. Once again the angel appears to the young Mary with a fantastic, almost unbelievable, announcement. She says yes and God mysteriously and miraculously becomes one of us. It’s Advent - usually my favorite season.

But there’s the other side of Advent, the purple side, the penitential side, the omega side, the side that looks ahead to the last days. To use seminary language – it’s the eschatological side – no matter what you call it, it’s the side of Advent I usually prefer to ignore. During Advent while we look back to the days leading up to Jesus’ birth we also look ahead to the end – the end that Jesus describes in the reading from Mark we heard last week on the First Sunday of Advent. For me, and probably many of us, this eschatological side of Advent – this looking ahead to the last days - is much less appealing, maybe even downright frightening. The lighting of the Advent candles each week seems less like the buildup to a joyful birth than the countdown to God’s judgment.

When I began thinking about Advent this year I saw only the purple side. Frankly, hasn’t the world seemed pretty eschatological lately? For many months not a week has gone by without some new horror occurring somewhere in the world – horrors produced by nature such as hurricanes and earthquakes that kill tens of thousands of people in an instant and the human-made horrors of war and terrorism. And, of course, there are the threats of more to come, whether carried by flu-infected birds or the unattended packages that I am reminded of and warned about each day while waiting for the PATH train.

So it was in that spirit – the spirit of our broken and exhausted world – that I approached this Advent and today’s readings. Today’s psalm, Psalm 85, immediately caught my attention. This psalm powerfully speaks to this Advent. Maybe written after the time of exile in Babylon, the psalmist looks back with gratitude for all the good things God has given – “You have been gracious to your land, O Lord” “You have forgiven the iniquity of your people” “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”

At the same time the psalm acknowledges that right now things are not the way they should be, the way they were meant to be - we still have a way to go, we still need more restoration. “Will you be displeased with us forever? Will you prolong your anger from age to age? Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you? Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

And finally, the psalm looks ahead to the future not with fear, but with confidence. “Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven. The LORD will indeed grant prosperity and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.”

When I read the beautifully rich language of this psalm – mercy and truth meeting, righteousness and peace kissing, I was reminded of a word from one of my favorite books, a novel called Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, which as it turns out has just been made into a movie starring Richard Gere. The movie has gotten so-so reviews. I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t speak to its faithfulness to the book, but the book is a wonderfully wise reflection on love, family, spirituality, and even spelling. One of the characters, a middle-aged woman named Miriam is motivated by a mysterious mix of religion and mental illness to steal seemingly random and insignificant items from stores and people’s homes. Inspired by Jewish mysticism, she believes that through her petty theft she is somehow reassembling all the pieces of matter that were shattered in the moment of creation. She calls this strange collection “perfectimundo.” Perfectimundo – restoration back to the way things were meant to be.

Well, unlike Miriam, we certainly don’t need to steal shoes and ashtrays and carefully arrange them in a storage locker to experience “perfectimundo” – restoration back to the way things were meant to be. Actually, didn’t we experience a little perfectimundo a few moments ago listening to Psalm 85? “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Isn’t that a glimpse of what we might call “perfectimundo”? Isn’t that a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven – the kingdom that breaks into the world in a new and decisive way when Mary says yes to the angel? And isn’t that also a taste of the Kingdom of God we look forward to on the last day?

How does the psalmist respond to this perfectimundo, this restoration back to the way things were meant to be? “I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him.” I will listen to what the LORD God is saying. Our psalm today calls us to listen, calls us to live mindfully, to really pay attention. It is Advent! God is at work restoring the world – bringing mercy and truth together, inviting righteousness and peace to kiss each other. Perfectimundo.

In the midst of our tired and broken world, this Advent, and always, we are called to do some hard work. We are called to listen and to watch, to remember and to anticipate. We are challenged to be mindful. In that spirit, and in preparing for today’s sermon, over the past few weeks I have tried to be a little more attentive and to look for God’s work of restoration in my life and in the world. I would like to share two of my discoveries with you.

It just so happens that the Second Sunday of Advent has a special meaning for my wife Sue and me. For the first couple of years we were married, our Christian faith was not much of a part of our lives together. Teaching at a Jesuit high school I had lots of opportunities for prayer and community – masses, prayer services, and retreats were all a big part of my life at school. But Sue and I came to recognize that we wanted to belong to a faith community together – this was something missing from our relationship. So, five years ago on the first Sunday of Advent we went to a Saturday evening mass at a local Catholic church - which will remain nameless to protect the innocent! To be charitable, let’s just say we didn’t find what we were hoping to find. It was, for both of us, a major disappointment.

The following week I was telling this story to a colleague (some of you may remember her – Patty Nickerson) who mentioned in an offhanded way that she went to the local Episcopal church, St. Paul’s, that was actually just a few blocks from our house. In part because as a local history buff I was curious to see the inside of this Victorian wood frame church, Sue and I went to St. Paul’s the following Sunday.

Perfectimundo – restoration to the way things were meant to be. We found not only a beautiful building but a lovely service with gorgeous music. We heard an intelligent, honest sermon. At the sign of peace, instead of a quick handshake with the person in front of or behind us, the St. Paul’s family was out in the aisle greeting and embracing one another. The rector made sure to say hello and welcome us to the church. I remember sitting in the pew that first Sunday watching the rainbow of people one by one kneel at the altar rail to receive communion. And, just when I thought this powerful experience was over, came the invitation to coffee hour. For some reason, at this church people did not – the moment they heard the words “go in peace” – race to be the first out of the parking lot. Instead, they socialized with one another. For an hour! Or even longer! Perfectimundo!

That day remains very special for both Sue and me. Of course we did not know then that we were starting out on a pathway that has led to some pretty amazing changes for both of us. And we did not know that Dave would become such a very close friend. I don’t know if any of you ever watch the TV show Boston Legal, but each time I see the warm friendship between the character Denny Crane (played by the great William Shatner) and Alan Shore I am reminded of my friendship with Dave – but, of course, ours is without the drinking, the cigars, or the dementia. Yet, all at once, he’s somehow brother, father, best friend, mentor, and the greatest priest I know, a treasured gift. Perfectimundo.

My second Advent discovery concerns a very different church. Just a few months before the end of World War II the allies launched a devastating raid on the German city of Dresden – a city which had long been regarded as one of the most beautiful in Europe. The city burned for week and over 30,000 people were killed. After the war Dresden was in the eastern, communist, side of Germany. The East German government set out to rebuild Dresden but decided to leave one of the city’s architectural jewels, the massive and ornate Lutheran Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, standing as a burned-out ruined shell. For over forty years it stood as what one person described as “a gaping wound” - a stark and haunting reminder of the horror and the cost of war.

Once Germany was reunited the government decided to rebuild the church, a project which took a decade and over 200 million dollars to complete. Much of the money came from people in Germany’s wartime enemies, Britain and the United States. The gold cross that tops the church was donated by the British city of Coventry, which itself was crushed by German bombings during the war. This cross was created by the son of an English pilot who dropped bombs on Dresden in 1945. Perfectimundo – restoration to the way things were meant to be. I was fortunate enough to be in Dresden in 1995 and saw some of the early stages of the reconstruction. The church was surrounded by giant metal shelves holding carefully labeled pieces of masonry - an immense jigsaw puzzle that was finally rededicated just a few weeks ago, at the end of October.

It’s a puzzle completed by combining the dark, burned stones of the original church with new light colored sandstones. And perhaps that’s a fitting symbol for our Advent this year – a kind of bluish purple to remind us that while we have a ways to go, God is at work – bringing about restoration, restoration back to the way things were meant to be. So once again let’s join John down at the river. Once again let’s sit with Mary and ponder the words of the angel. And like the psalmist let us celebrate God’s past graciousness and forgiveness. In the midst of our tired and broken world let us look carefully for the times and places today when mercy and truth meet, and righteousness and peace kiss each other. And let us look to the future with confidence, knowing that truth shall spring up from the earth and righteousness shall look down from heaven. Let us wait and watch. Let us light our candles. It’s Advent! Let’s pay attention – after all, perfectimundo is all around us.