Sunday, January 03, 2016

The Shadows of Christmas

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 3, 2016

The Second Sunday after Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

The Shadows of Christmas
            Merry Christmas!
            Although the world has already moved on to other things, here in church it’s still Christmas.
            It’s still Christmas, so, Merry Christmas!
            Christmas is a joyful time for lots people – and we’ve certainly had – are having - a joyful Christmas here at St. Paul’s – with a church full of all kinds of people along with great music and adorable children and delicious food and so much love and generosity just about blowing the roof off this old place.
            But, most of us know, and as a priest I’m especially aware, that Christmas isn’t joyful for everybody.
            We know that Christmas isn’t joyful for lots of us.
            There are the shadows of Christmas.
            The shadows of Christmas include spending the holiday alone, mourning those we’ve lost, grieving those we’ve lost to disagreement, distance, or death. The shadows of Christmas include the disappointments of life, the wrong turns we’ve made, the connections that were missed, the loves that once had such promise but are no more.
            The shadows of Christmas include our fears of illness and unemployment and poverty and even homelessness.
            The shadows of Christmas include the mess of the world, the war and hatred and terrorism and the ever-widening gap between the few who can jet around the world, flying high above all that mess and the many who can’t escape or are forced to take drastic and dangerous measures to flee war, terrorism, and lack of opportunity, often arriving in places where they are not so welcome.
            Yes, it’s still Christmas, and there’s lots of joy around but there are also shadows – the shadows of Christmas.
            And, actually, the shadows of Christmas have been there right from the start.
            The shadow of a young girl pregnant in a most unexpected way. The shadow of small-town neighbors who almost certainly gossiped about and smirked at and, maybe, even shunned Mary and her husband, Joseph, who inexplicably stuck with his pregnant fiancée.
            The shadow of that same couple desperately looking for a place to deliver new life and having to settle for a cave or a barn, having to make do with an animal’s feeding trough instead of a crib.
            The shadow of a world that, right from the start, didn’t – wouldn’t or couldn’t – provide a home for Jesus, the newborn king.
            The shadow of the Magi, the wise men from the East and the gifts that they presented to the newborn king: gold for a king, frankincense for a God, and myrrh…an oil used to embalm the dead.
            And, then there’s the shadow of the old king Herod, a particularly brutal tyrant, notorious in his own day for the murder of his own sons.
            There’s the shadow of Herod who pretended to welcome the Magi from the East, wanted them to let him know the location of the newborn king so he could also “pay homage.”
            There’s the shadow of Herod who ordered the killing of the children of Bethlehem, in a bloody but failed attempt to be rid of the newborn king – the shadow of a world that wanted to be rid of Jesus right from the start.
            And, finally, as we heard today, there’s the shadow of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt, fleeing into the unknown, fleeing into the place that had enslaved their ancestors long ago, fleeing in a desperate attempt to save the life of their holy child.
            Yes, the shadows of Christmas have been there right from the start.
            And, that’s exactly the point.
            Jesus wasn’t born into a make-believe world filled only with love and joy and rainbows.
            No, he was born into the all-too-real world filled with homeless families making do, an all-too-real world filled with tyrants who spread hate and oppress the people, an all-too-real world filled with refugees fleeing for their lives, an all-too-real world where so many of us often feel lonely, frightened, disappointed, and unloved.
            Jesus was born into and lived in and died in the all-too-real world.
            But, so what?
            I mean, what are we doing here on this Second Sunday after Christmas while others are squeezing out the last few hours of Christmas break or just getting ready for the week ahead?
            Why do we gather here week after week?
            Why do we follow Jesus?
            Why do we celebrate Christmas? Why do we re-tell the story of the birth of a poor Middle Eastern child two thousand years ago when there are plenty of children being born into poverty and violence in the Middle East right as we speak?
            Well, we come here week after week, we follow Jesus, and we celebrate Christmas not because of Christmas - but because of Easter.
            We celebrate Christmas because of Easter, because Jesus’ crucified, dead, and anointed body wasn’t the end of the story.
            We celebrate Christmas because of Easter - when light cast out shadow, when we all learned that, while it may not always look like it, in the end, Herod and Pontius Pilate and all the other tyrants past and present, they all lose.
            We celebrate Christmas because of Easter, when, in the end, love and light win, defeating shadow and death.
            It’s only because of Easter that the Evangelist John can write at the start of his gospel that we read on Christmas morning and also last Sunday: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
            So, yes, thanks to the hard work and participation of so many, we’ve had a joyful Christmas here at St. Paul’s.
            But, yes, for some, maybe many of us, Christmas hasn’t been so joyful.
            There are the shadows of Christmas.
            The shadows of Christmas have been there from the start, when Jesus was born into our shadowy world, bringing the love and light that ultimately defeat shadow and death.
            So, even in the shadows, we still celebrate Christmas, it’s still Christmas, we still say Merry Christmas because…
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!