by the Rev. Jered-Weber Johnson

If you know our dear Associate Rector, the Rev’d Craig Lemming, then you likely know he has one of the most expressive faces on God’s good earth. In a world of stoic midwesterners who’ve all been socially conditioned to hide their emotions, Father Craig’s face is almost always a window into his genuine and authentic feelings, and this is a gift.

There was this moment, a week ago, at our annual celebration of Nine Lessons and Carols, I can’t be sure, but I want to say it was during that particularly gorgeous singing of David Willcocks’ fabulous carol Whence Is the Goodly Fragrance Flowing and I looked across the chancel at my dear colleague, Craig, and his face was an exquisite mixture of both grief and joy. As Tony Potts, the soloist for that piece intoned the words 

Praise to the Lord of all creation
Glory to God, the fount of grace
May peace abide in every nation
Goodwill in men of every race

Craig’s eyes were filled with tears, while a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and I could only imagine what diverse feelings could be felt so simultaneously as to yield such a sublime reaction. And then I was swept up in that moment too, feeling all my own feels, in the candlelight and the fragrance of cedar and pine, and the music and the tears. It was, as the kids say, a whole mood!

Well, ok, I’m told the kids don’t say that anymore. But, whatever, I’m getting older, and it was a whole mood. And when I saw my dear colleague weeping and smiling, that was my first reaction, to feel it as a whole mood, to identify with it and resonate with it in all its emotional complexity. How could I not. How could we not. The year that has passed, was a terrible year. I don’t need to enumerate the instances of pain and grief from the news – we came here tonight with these things fresh on our minds. We are exhausted and we are weary. And yet, we sing, “Glory to God, the fount of grace, May peace abide in every nation”. It is possible still for beauty to wash over us, like a goodly fragrance, sweet and on the breeze, and there are moments still when we can be swept away in rapture, not in spite of the hardness of the world, but because it is still full of exquisite glories and grace abundant. I am reminded of the lyrics to another Christmas carol, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” You may have seen the photo in the news or in your social media, but a church in Bethlehem, in the Holy Land this year changed its traditional creche, placing the holy family and the Christ child amidst a pile of rubble, pulling all our minds to that destruction that has now come to define life in Gaza. The baby Jesus is born to us amid the exhausting, terrifying, destructive forces of the world, and yet he is still born this night and every night, to a world that is caught between tears and still saturated with beauty. Weary yet rejoicing, grieving yet hopeful, that is a whole mood!

In a preface to his tiny volume, The Mood of Christmas, mystic and civil rights activist Howard Thurman writes “Christmas is a mood…It is never merely a fact. As a fact it is a date on the calendar — to the believer it is the anniversary of an event in human history. An individual may relate himself meaningfully to the fact or the event, but that would not be Christmas.

Rather, says, Thurman, 

The mood of Christmas… is a quickening of the presence of other human beings into whose lives a precious part of one’s own has been released. It is a memory of other days when into one’s path an angel appeared spreading a halo over an ordinary moment or a commonplace event. It is an iridescence of sheer delight that bathes one’s whole being with something more wonderful than words can ever tell. Of such is the mood of Christmas.

Thurman was no pollyanna nor one to gloss over the evils and wrongs of the world. But, he did believe deeply in the transformative power of faith, especially a faith made incarnate and real in the everyday – a faith strengthened through acts of deep inner work and profound spiritual practice. And, the realism of Thurman was always balanced by a rich spiritual well of wisdom and faithfulness, and it was these that fueled the engine of his work for Civil Rights and social change as much as these same things helped keep him open to the beauty of the world and his ability to make beauty within it. I see and hear this wisdom in so much of the ministry we have done over the past year here at St. John’s – and it is this work that is giving me some glimmer of hope amidst the grief and despair all around us. If there is weariness in the world, the ministries and worship of this community have given me cause, again and again, to rejoice at what is possible when God’s people incarnate the words and actions of Jesus. 

Like many of you, I have rejoiced again and again at the beautiful and powerful words of our monthly preachers for the Racial Reconciliation Holy Eucharists, telling us of the transformative work of saints past and present, whose lives lift up racial justice and healing for all of us. As we continue to live in these Twin Cities still grieving and scarred years later by the murders of Philando Castille and George Floyd, the words of those sermons and liturgies are sinking deep into my soul, like a balm in Gilead. In the midst of wearying transphobia in our country this year, like so many of you, I rejoiced as we celebrated with our members observing a rite of renaming and affirmation of gender identity, here in these very pews, watching as courageous folks stepped forward to declare their new name and claim their gender as a gift from God. Like so many of you, I have been heartened and joyful at the rekindling of our parish women’s group, not only as a source of solidarity in the work to regain full bodily autonomy as women, but as a place of spiritual growth and new life, as the women of our parish build kinship with one another across boundaries of age and class and sexuality. I take joy at the steady progress of our Creation Care team, who prayed us through Advent with calls for environmental stewardship and the healing of all Creation, and whose work beautifies this space tonight in our Advent wreath made completely of Minnesota native plants and greens. The world is weary, yes, but we rejoice at these actions, both small and large, which are, as Thurman says, quickening our hearts, spreading a halo over the path ahead, and in those truly profound moments, are bathing our souls and minds in an iridescence of sheer delight! This is the mood of Christmas, all year long.

Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus – a fact, yes, and an event, to those of us who have been compelled from that moment forward to live according to his way. On this holy night, we celebrate how love came down and lived among us, and was known to us in the life of a person, flawed and imperfect as we are. Tonight, as that first night around a manger and beneath the brightness of a single star, we celebrate again the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of God. We celebrate these things, which are part of our story, and yet, are, in their totality, so much more. Christmas is, as one colleague tells it, two pregnant women conspiring together about the downfall of empires, while the men are silent. Christmas is peasants and shepherds being promised the upturning of the social order. Christmas is something powerful and world changing happening on the periphery and among those at the margins. It is indeed a whole mood!

Again, as Thurman says, Christmas

“ is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live. It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.”

This is Christmas, my friends, and it is a whole mood. I hope you find it and feel it and celebrate it all year long!

Merry Christmas!

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