May I be the first to officially wish you a “Merry Christmas?” Here at Holy Communion we say we are welcoming and diverse community. We take those values seriously. Whoever you are, whatever brings you to church tonight you are welcome. Whether you are here because your parent or grandparent asked you to come (it is good to build up political capital at home), if you are here because you have a sibling or friend in our choir, or you are here because it is Christmas and you are taking a gamble on coming to church, you are welcome. We are glad you are here. Merry Christmas.
Throughout the Sundays leading up to Christmas I preached about the topic “hope.” Tonight, on Christmas Eve, I want to talk about the hope’s. Hope often seems a fragile thing; it seems weak. Hope does not seem powerful. But in the Christmas story hope powers everything. This story upsets our sense of what is powerful and what is weak. God’s power comes to earth in human fragility, in worldly weakness. The all-powerful God must be nurtured among us.
As a priest I am sometimes asked: “How can you believe in an all-powerful God?” We live in a world with so much suffering, so much pain. How can God be both all-loving and all-powerful? How can God permit so much anguish? I wish I had all the answers. I don’t. I will share with you a hunch, a start on a potential partial answer. I wonder if part of our confusions comes because God’s power and our understanding of power, our measure, of power do not align. Perhaps God is all powerful, but not in the way we’ve been taught to expect.
Throughout JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series the dark specter of “he who shall not be named,” Lord Voldemort lurks. His power builds through the series, but even as his following grows, we know he has already once been defeated. Young Harry carries the mark of his defeat on his brow. As a young man, Voldemort studied the darkest of arts. He learned the most powerful spells, and yet he was defeated, by Harry’s brave mother. Voldemort thought himself invincible, the most powerful wizard the world had known. But all his dark magic could not beat the power she brought to bear, the power of sacrifice, the power of love.
Throughout the books the wizarding world cannot seem to understand what saved Harry. They wonder what could possibly have protected “the boy who lived.” The power of love is not understood. You can’t conjure it with magic words, or boil it into a potion. How can love been powerful? How can vulnerability provide protection?
The same questions might be asked of our Christmas story. How can love be called powerful? How can a baby, so needy, so weak, so vulnerable be compared with the king, the caesar, the one known by the title “son of God?” Do we misunderstand what it means to call God all-powerful?
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus, that all the world should be registered.” Caesar Augustus was great-nephew of Julius Caesar, and his adopted heir. Augustus was considered Rome’s first real Emperor. His rule marked the real end of the Roman Republic. Augustus dispensed with democratic institutions. This caesar centralized his power.
Was Caesar Augustus correct? Is that how we measure power? Do we show power by building walls? By sending militaries? By imposing a tax? By forcing people to register? Are these measures of power accurate?
You will have noticed our bulletin covers. The linocut art is by Benjamin Wildflower. Our cover is a little ahead of tonight’s story. Mary and the infant Jesus escaped across a national border as refugees, on the run. They have transgressed. The powers that be did not happily receive the news of Jesus’ birth. Herod, that client king of Rome, made a credible threat, gave Jesus’ family a reason to flee a reason to flee. By today’s International law, Mary and Jesus would have reason to ask for asylum. Even as we sing this night, we know the world out beyond the manger is dangerous. The silent night did not last long for the holy family.
In the image Mary’s halo holds the word “Theotokos,” the God-bearer. God’s power does not found in the barrier. God’s power does not enforce the border. God breaks through. God’s power seldom corresponds to our plans, to our carefully drawn lines. The Christmas story tells us that our God is a God of disruption, who shows up in the least likely moments, who demonstrates power in the strangest of circumstances. The artist reminds us that God’s power often circumvents our human authority.
Even in the Christmas story, the story we tell tonight, Jesus’ family find themselves on the edge, on the edge of the edge. Bethlehem of Judea is the center of nowhere. This is hearing that God has come to St. Charles, Missouri. (Now there’s nothing wrong with St. Charles, but it’s not exactly where you’d expect God to arrive). Bethlehem stands outside Jerusalem, in those days about a day’s journey away from the capital. Yet even in this outpost, there is no room for the young mother-to-be and her new spouse Joseph. They lay their child in a manger, a sheep pen. There is no room in the Inn.
The church of the Nativity in Bethlehem today stands atop a complex network of sacred caves. Beneath the mosaic floors saints have gathered. There, in the caves of Bethlehem Jerome made the first translation of the Bible, in the then-vulgar language of Latin. Far at the back of this complex is the holiest of the grottos, the cave where it is said Jesus was born. That’s right, in Bethlehem they believe Jesus was born in a cave.
Have you ever stood at the mouth of a cave? Have you felt the liminal energy, the cold air coming up from the dark? Sacred stuff happens in caves. The entrance to a cave often feels like a threshold, a limit of the world’s power, the beginning of a space where our rules may not apply.
Great mystics from Mohammed to Francis of Assisi spent time in caves, listening, meditating, waiting to hear God’s voice. The prophet Elijah heard God’s still small voice after discerning God was not in the wind, God was not in the earthquake, God was not in the fire. There at the mouth of the cave, God was more mysteriously present in the quiet. There is something powerful about a cave.
Jesus’ story famously ends in a cave. After the soldiers mocked Jesus during his crucifixion saying, “you saved others. Save yourself. Come down from the cross.” Show us your power they jeered. The people of Judea hoped for a military ruler, an anointed king to raise an army and beat back the might of Rome. The king in the line of David was meant to set up an everlasting reign in Jerusalem, a mighty nation. But Jesus does not come down off of the cross. He dies. After the crucifixion, three days later, comes the cave. In the tomb hewn from the rock, in the side of a quarry, John and Peter rush in at Mary’s invitation. They see the linen wrappings laying empty. What happened in those three days, before the stone was rolled away? The resurrection, the ultimate victory of God over death, over the deadly machinations of Rome, God’s work of power and triumph happens in the dark, underground, away from human eyes.
So it is fitting that Jesus’ story also begins in a cave. The power of God is so mysterious to us. God’s power comes at the edge, at the edge of the edge. God is underground, at the back of a house, at the edge of a town far from the center of the city, far from the center of worldly power. The mysterious power of God brings the divine life among us.
There is the contradiction, the strange display of a strange sort of power. The all-powerful God dwells among us, but the infant who comes needs nurturing, needs care. Life is fragile. Love is fragile. True power takes nurturing it seems. The divine hope appears weak. God’s might does not come like a comet crashing down, but in the quiet murmur of a newborn child on a Silent night, to a family being rushed from their home by an imperial government.
God’s power, Christmas tells us, has nothing to do with summoning armies, with causing explosions, with building great walls. What if God’s power was measured differently? What if the fullest display of God’s power looks to us like weakness, like fragility? What if the greatest measure of divine majesty was a display of vulnerability? Can we put stock in that power?
It is said that no argument can change a mind. Don’t we know that well these days, in our politically divided reality? No argument can change a mind. Only a story can do that. Tonight we tell a story that on the face of it makes little sense.
In Bethlehem of Judea, in a cave, far from the centers and seats of power, God’s power has come to dwell. Christmas tells us that God chooses us, and chooses the part of the human family who find themselves on the very edge. God’s power does not look like human power, and that is Good News. All our displays of human might leave us in perpetually dangerous circumstances. But in the midst of all the tumult humanity can muster, under the thumb of a despotic ruler, pushed around by a military dictatorship, by imperial power, God still shows up.
Our Christmas story teaches that all of creation, all of it, is shot through with the divine presence, even the unlikely bits, especially the most unlikely bits. If you really want power, if you really want to change hearts, and souls, and minds, learn to tell a story, (learn to listen to stories as well) learn to share love, learn to be vulnerable. That is the power of hope, so unimpressive, so hard to measure by our standards. God has come among us in the most unlikely way, which must mean there is some strand of truth because who would have made this story up?
The Christmas story invites us, again, to know that God’s story is our story. God did not come with great might. God didn’t raise an army. God simply broke in, and asked to be held, to be nurtured. God chose to be born by an unwed mother, at the edge of an empire. If God can choose her, can choose there, God can surely choose here, choose you. Our God invites us carry God’s love, God’s story, God’s hope into this hungry, divided, and yet still beloved world.