Blue Christmas and Holding it All

A word of welcome. If you’re here in person, or joining us online, welcome. This service has become a tradition, and this year, like with many traditions, we’re reinterpreting. In the past we’ve celebrated blue Christmas in the Sundays leading up to December 25. This year, we’re here on the day after Christmas Day, and somehow it fits.

Mental health professionals tell us the days after the holidays are among the most difficult. There’s so much cultural build up for Christmas, it’s almost impossible not to feel some let down. So many of us say, internally, “let me just get through to Christmas.” We put so much energy into just making it through, that by today we are sputtering on fumes. If that’s you, you are welcome in this space. Really. Let the music wash over you. Let yourself be just exactly where you are.

Luke’s Gospel is the one we read on Christmas Eve. It’s so thick with imagery and symbolism. Shepherds and angels, shouts of good news and Gloria’s ringing out. Today the sheep and the winged messengers have all gone home. Here we are with John’s cosmic poem about the Word becoming flesh.

The Word became flesh, flesh. You’ve got to know, in the Greek language of John’s Gospel, this sentence is messy. On Christmas Eve my sermon was of God breaking the separation. There was supposed to be a fundamental rule. God is God and we are not. God breaks the boundary, out of love. And in John we get a sense of just how messy that is. Because John says, the word became flesh.

Flesh in the Greek was the messy word. St Paul equates flesh often with sin, with the worst of embodied life. If we don’t know one another, I am dad to a toddler. My husband and I adopted Silas just as the lockdown began in 2020. He came to us at 9 months old. He was small enough that we’ve dealt with some of the messiest fleshiest moments of humanity together. We’ve been through diaper rash so bad it made all of us cry. We’ve cleaned up more human fluids that I ever imagined facing as an adult. Having a small human is really really disgusting at times.

And we didn’t experience together the pain of childbirth, the blood, the sweat the tears. We didn’t nurse. But let’s be clear: the word becoming flesh was messier, more painful, it involved more blood and amniotic fluid than we ever include in a manger scene. But this word, flesh, John chooses, it’s messy in just this way.

The Messiness of Life

Life begins in an incredibly messy way. I don’t quite understand how we think life will get any less messy, any less complicated. Even as much as we like to clean up the story in church, even though we paint stained glass and layer on the Christmas lights, thank God, the Gospel remains complicated and human.

As he grows, Jesus struggles through emotion. He weeps for the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus gets angry with those closest to him. And Jesus gets angry at politicians and religious leaders. Jesus experiences dread and sadness, alongside his happiness and joy. Jesus isn’t particularly peaceful. He’s not too quote unquote “zen.” Jesus, the Word made flesh, stays fleshy, stays complex, stays messy.

If you need it, take permission. To be a follower of Jesus, you don’t need to have your stuff all together. You don’t need to be merry and bright all the time. The Son of God could be an emotional mess, what makes you think you’re going to do any better.

Since it’s still Christmas, I want to call BS on one particular line in a Christmas carol. In “Away in a Manger,” for some reason, we sing of the little lord Jesus: “no crying he makes.” B.S. There are no babies that don’t cry. If they don’t cry, something is wrong.

You’ve got to know, church, part of why I love this congregation so much is because right now my child is probably the most disruptive kiddo in this place. He’s three and he’s so much sometimes. And multiple times in recent weeks, parishioners have come up to me and said, “Mike, it’s okay. Here at Holy Communion we expect people to act their age. And it’s great.” I love this church. I love how you get it.

I’ve talked a lot about my kid today. I know. This is a service where we say, it is okay if your emotions are complicated. Right now, my emotions are most complicated around my kid. He’s so wonderful, and he’s so much, and I can hold those two together. If you’re struggling today because so much about Christmas is about children, and you’re struggling with fertility, or loss, or whatever you are feeling, know that is okay too. There’s room for you to have complicated emotion.

The Light Shines in the Darkness

There’s a line in this Gospel, “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” The line is complicated because we tend to divide light and dark into good and bad. We tend to lump emotions together in those categories as well. We judge so called good emotions, joy, happiness, with the light. We talk about sadness, anger, loss and frustration with darkness. In this line at least it’s a little messier than all that clear division.

A few years ago, preparing to preach this sermon I had to confess to the congregation in the weeks before Christmas, as I thought about this text, I had mis-remembered a crucial line. Here is what I was planning on preaching about: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness COULD not extinguish it.” Could not.

Then, as I sat down to write out my sermon, I re-read the Gospel, and I saw the crucial difference: did. “The darkness DID not extinguish” the light.

Well, that’s a different sermon, I thought to myself. The darkness did not extinguish the light. Light and dark exist together. One does not overcome the other.

So if this Christmas, you are full of complication and mess, well you’re not alone.

Yes, part of the miracle of Christmas is that God is big enough to hold it all: the pain and the sorrow the joy and the delight. Part of the miracle of Christmas is that God’s love can hold together darkness and light without one extinguishing the other.

But there is another profound miracle at Christmas. And if you take nothing else from this sermon take this, part of the profound truth of Christmas is that flesh could contain the contradictions as well. The word becoming flesh was messy, and sorrowful, and frightening and complicated. And Christ’s birth was joyful and holy at the same time. Your flesh, your ability to contain these multitudes is miraculous.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu died today. In person the arch as he was called was remarkably short, but his laugh could fill a cathedral. I know a number of you met Bishop Tutu during his life. His reach was incredible. Even our sexton Zack was telling me this morning how he’d met Bishop Tutu, and always remembered the day. Somehow in one life he brought together infectious joy with resolute anger. Desmond danced as he protested apartheid, and his efforts earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. Desmond Tutu often remarked on his admiration for people. “Human beings can leave you speechless” he said, “they can leave you speechless with the incredible things they can do.” As he led the truth and reconciliation process, victims of racist violence would often forgive and embrace the perpetrators, and the archbishop always told these stories with awe, that humans can hold together pain, sorrow, and love. Baba Tutu preached against injustice, but he always always preached hope. “Hope” he said “is being able to see there is light, despite all the darkness.” The Arch would have loved the music today.

He joins the saints like Pauli Murray, Episcopal Prost, civil rights pioneer, Saint Pauli once wrote that “hope is a song in a weary throat.” You can’t know hope unless you know what it is to struggle. You can’t know hope, unless you’ve held a candle in the dark. Hope is an emotion that can only be felt as a complex with sorrow and frustration.

So if you are feeling sorrow and joy, God Bless. If you are feeling loss and at the same time hope, you are not a grinch. Give thanks for the miracle, for the powerful mystery that our flesh has the power to hold so much at once. Christmas isn’t simple. It isn’t clean. Don’t buy the commercial version of the holiday. Christmas isn’t just joy, just light. That’s what makes it holy.

This is a different sort of Christmas. As hard as we all tried to make it joyful and bright, as much as we wanted it to be so-called normal, instead it got complicated. And friends, in my limited experience, God tends to show up in complicated ways.

And so today we sing the blues, the day after Christmas. We lean into this music that can contain the depths and the heights of life, the dark and the light, and we give thanks for the mystery of love, that God can hold us through it. We give thanks for the mystery of the Word made flesh, which tells us our ability to be sad and joyful in the same moment, that is a miracle too. God bless you this Christmas, with the ability to hold it all.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “Blue Christmas and Holding it All

  1. Thank you for this. I haven’t been to church for a long time because I didn’t feel at home there. I haven’t felt that women were really and truly welcome there in a long time unless they were submissive. I grew up Catholic, but as I learned more about the world and more about who I am, I’ve realized that I don’t agree with conservative Christians, and that I feel that who I am and who they are, are just not compatible and to the point where we are considered offensive to each other. I am proud of who I am, but that has lead to a disconnect with the church. Your sermon here though spoke to me because you didn’t just talk about what happened in Ancient times or about traditions that have become meaningless in the modern worlds but you spoke about the modern world and what it means to be human–you give us permission to be human rather than condemning us for it. So, thank you for this, and I look forward to your next sermon.

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