The Big Stage on Which Christmas Happens
A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
December 22, 2013
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics went to Peter Higgs, professor emeritus at Edinburg University, for identifying the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass. This process takes place because of what was named the Higgs bosom, also called “the God particle,” where inert material is given form, mass, and energy; in other words, it comes alive. Higgs devised his theory in 1964 and another scientist confirmed it in 2013, giving new credibility to the Big Bang theory of how the universe developed. The Big Bang supposedly activated the Higgs bosom and tiny particles acquired shape and size and mass.
That paragraph represents conversations with two scientists and two or three hours of reading about particle Physics that I never want to repeat! We’ll return to it later though, so hold that complicated thought…
I suggest to you the outrageous proposition that, if we approached the Christmas story as a scientist might, we would find a narrative equal to that afforded us by the culture and even, in some ways, the church.
But first some background….
Stories of Jesus’ birth are in only two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke. They tell of a poor, young, unwed teenager and her fiancé, who make a long journey to accommodate the taxation demands of the occupying Roman government in whose hands the fate of the Jewish population lies.
This young girl gives birth in a barn – or a cave (we don’t know) —surrounded by animals, their sounds and smells and droppings. She puts the baby in a feed trough, “a baby so fragile a mule could have stepped on it and shattered his skull,” as Philip Yancey says.
Shepherds, guided by an exceptionally bright star, came to check out the baby. This wasn’t a high compliment since, as one writer tells us, proper Jews considered them a ripe and randy group and usually confined them to the outer courtyard of the temple. After some time, the new family is on the run, hunted by the authorities who are out to kill the child because of what is said about him.
Philip Yancey writes this about the political climate where Jesus was born: “Herod the Great, King of the Jews, enforced Roman rule at the local level… Before he ordered the massacre of the Jewish children (to eliminate the supposed Messiah), he killed two brothers-in-law, his own wife Mariamme, and two of his own sons. Five days before his death he ordered the arrest of many citizens and decreed that they be executed on the day of his death, in order to guarantee a proper atmosphere of mourning in the country. Scarcely a day passed without an execution in Herod’s regime.” This is what awaited the newborn Jesus after the Wise men spill the beans to Herod about the new king being born.
There is not much meek and mild about this scenario. But history, culture, and the church have domesticated Christmas and made it less dangerous and prettier. It is about family, firesides, food, and festivities. It is about gifts and Santa, parties and carols celebrating the birth of the Messiah, while its secular music evokes sleigh bells, snow, sentiment, and romance. Nativity scenes in homes or yards are colorful, serene, and clean.
These are wonderful things, of course, often magical, but if they leave you feeling like something is missing, or some dissonance is present, you’re not alone, and there is good reason for your feelings. In many ways, Biblical Christmas and Contemporary Christmas don’t match.
Which is okay; it can be “the most wonderful time of the year.” But it can be even more if we consider who we are.
C.S. Lewis said that two main ways we experience God the Creator are through the moral law God has imprinted on every human heart and by experiencing the universe God created.
The moral law is a deep sense of right and wrong that virtually everyone has. So at Christmas, we may feel twinges of guilt when we compare what we have to what the less fortunate, such as a refugee family in Africa. This guilt may result in increased generosity in December, and overwhelming feelings of gratitude, for example, on Christmas Eve when our family (or the memory of them) is present and there is magnificent food on the table and presents under the tree, all within a safe house, neighborhood, and country.
But Lewis also says that we must pay attention not only to the moral voice within us, but to the universe God has made, and here is where I think we fall short most often. The heavens, the night sky, are far more than a backdrop for choirs of angels and a special star.
Unless we’re at a science-fiction movie, we are completely earth-centered. We don’t wake up in the morning and think, “Here I am, on this relatively tiny blue and green ball spinning in space around the sun, part of one galaxy out of 200 billion! Here I am, clinging through the force of glorious, God-given gravity to my little planet Earth.”
We think, here I am in the winter and it’s going to be a heck of a day.
The Roman Catholic writer Richard Rohr says that the first time that the Spirit of the Universe decided to show itself was 14 billion years ago when creation happened – probably with the big bang. A second time, he says, is when the Spirit of the Universe took human form in a person named Jesus and came to planet earth to bring a message – that the Creator loves us, expects us to love each other, and physical death is not the end of our existence.
The question is why? Why would God do this?
One explanation is given by my favorite evangelical, the writer Philip Yancey, who talks about having a fresh water aquarium and how much work it was to maintain it, monitoring nitrate levels and adding antibiotics, filtering water, dropping in food three times a day. “You would think,“ he writes, “that my fish would be grateful. Not so. Every time my shadow loomed about the tank they dove for cover into the nearest shell. They showed me one emotion only: fear. To my fish I was a deity. I was too large for them, my actions too incomprehensible, my acts of mercy they saw as cruelty, my attempts at healing they viewed as destruction. To change their perceptions, I began to see, would require a form of incarnation. I would have to become a fish and speak to them in a language they could understand. A human being becoming a fish is nothing compared to God becoming a baby and yet according to the Gospels that is what happened at Bethlehem. The God who created matter took shape within it, as an artist might become a spot on a painting or a playwright playing a character in his own story.”
Or as Nobel Laureate Peter Hicks might say, the force in the universe we call Spirit acquired mass and shape in the person of Jesus. (I’d never thought of this before but isn’t it interesting that the word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving, but the whole service is often called the Mass.)
So the inevitable questions arise: Was this the only time God’s Spirit came to earth? What about other religions who believe that God revealed himself differently than in Jesus?
In 1999 the Hubble Space Telescope estimated that there were 125 billion galaxies in the universe, each with its own group of who knows how many planets. And the universe is over 13 billion years old. Doesn’t the law of averages suggest there has to be or will be something resembling life out there somewhere at some time? If so, are Christians the only one to whom God has shown his love in all this time, in all this space?
I really, really doubt it.
The Catholic priest Andrew Greely writes, “Isn’t it just a matter of time until some space ship or other will encounter somewhere in the universe more life forms to whom the Creator has manifested his love? From what Jesus has told us of his Father, we would find it difficult to see how he could avoid getting involved with whatever other life forms are to be found out there among the galaxies. If he managed to fall in love with us, if he could be insanely generous with such rather low level life forms as we, how could he not love whatever life should appear in the universe?’
On Christmas, we celebrate God’s incarnation as one of us earthlings. We celebrate it with passion and joy and we look to the star over the manger, yes, but also to the heavens that surround it, the heavens holding stunning evidence of the scope and power of the Creator, who loved us earthlings enough to send Jesus with a mighty message of eternal love. On Christmas Eve, look to the night sky and remember all that is “out there.” Look to your heart and remember all that is in here, the deep love for others, the complicated, intense feelings. The heavens to the heart is the incredible scope of the Creator.
As Yancey says, “Could it be true, this Bethlehem story of a Creator descending to be born on one small planet? If so, it is a story like no other. Never again need we wonder whether what happens on this dirty little tennis ball of a planet matters to the rest of the universe. Little wonder a choir of angels broke out in spontaneous song, disturbing not only a few shepherds but the entire universe.”
Let me close with the musings of Alice Meynell in her poem, “Christ in the Universe.” Here she speculates what we might say to others about Jesus in ages to come and in galaxies far away:
◦ With this ambiguous earth
◦ His dealings have been told us.
◦ These abide: The signal to a maid,
◦ the human birth,
◦ The lesson,
◦ and the young Man crucified….
◦ But in the eternities,
◦ Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
◦ A million alien Gospels, in what guise He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.
◦ O, be prepared, my soul!
◦ To read the inconceivable, to scan
◦ The myriad forms of God those stars unroll
◦ When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.
Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew,” 1995,
Andrew Greely, The Jesus Myth, 1971.
Alice Meynell, “Christ in the Universe,” The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse, 1917.