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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


Thank God for Christmas


A Sermon Preached on Christmas Eve, 2005


By The Rev. Ernest Cockrell




                  It’s been a rough year.  My thoughts were, “Thank God for Christmas.  At least we can have a small reprieve.   The tsunami, hurricanes and floods, a horrible earthquake; the war, conflict in the Middle East, starvation and AIDS epidemic in Africa and around the world have all lead to ‘donor fatigue.’”   We need a break, and - as best we can - let heartfelt affection have a moment in this gentle time of Christmas pageants presented by innocent children, a moment when the star of Bethlehem can shine down and give us hope, as well as a glimpse of peace.   In that spirit enter the Christmas story with me:  “It came to pass in those days. . .’  I found 3 parts to our celebration tonight: Jesus’ birth; the stories of Jesus’ birth written by Luke & Matthew, their meanings woven in; and our own stories about his birth.   


Last week I took an on-line test sent to us deputies to next summer’s General Convention to check out our Biblical savvy about Christmas: 20 multiple-choice questions.  I missed only two answers – the 3rd time I took it!   Let’s see how you do on a select few. 


8:00 PM                                                                                                                           11:00 PM

1.  For the journey to Bethlehem Mary and Joseph.                      5.  Who directed Mary & Joseph

A: walked                                                                                                            to go to Bethlehem?

B:  Joseph walked and Mary rode a donkey                                        A.  Herod

C:  rode a bus                                                                                                               B.  an angel

D:  The Bible does not say.                                                                              C.  Caesar

Correct answer:  D: the Bible does not say.                                                     D.  the IRS

                                                                                                                              Correct answer: C: Caesar

6.  Just what is a “heavenly host?”

A:  an angelic choir                                                                               9.  The baby Jesus was born in a

B:  the welcoming angel in heaven                                                              A:  cave

C:  an army of angels                                                                                             B:  manger

D:  none of the above.                                                                                           C:  barn

Correct answer:  C: an army of angels                                                                D:  Who knows

                                                                                                                              Correct answer: D: Who knows

8:  What song did the angels sing?

A:  “O Little Town of Bethlehem”                                            11.  What is a manger, anyway?

B:  “Joy to the World”                                                                                          A:  barn

C:  “Glory to God in the Highest”                                                               B:  a place for hay

D:  none of the above                                                                                            C:  a feeding trough

Correct answer:  D:  none of the above                                                                D:  Greek term for nursery

                                                                                                                              Correct answer: C: feeding trough

19.  When the wise men brought their gifts

to Jesus, they found him in                                                              16.  What did the innkeeper say

A:  a manger                                                                                                       to Mary & Joseph?

B:  a house                                                                                                                     A:  I have a stable out back

C:  a church                                                                                                                   B:  No room in the inn

                  D:  none of the above                                                                                            C:  both A & B

Correct answer: B: (Matthew’s version) a house                     Correct:  D:  none of the above


Knowing the Christmas story by heart, I didn’t bother to read the birth narratives before taking the test - and  I don’t mean this to be an excuse - but to my horror the first time I took it, I got only 40% correct.  It dawned on me that all of us have internalized the Christmas story from earliest times hearing it, incorporating Christmas carols and legends into the story, each of us holding a unique version of what happened, the special meaning it has for each of us, in much the same way Luke and Matthew internalized it.  Only then could they fashion it in their own words into terms their readers could understand, adapting the story to different world views: Luke writing his for Theophilus, the Roman audience, Matthew for his Jewish audience.   We, also must internalize the story, hear the voice of the angels proclaiming peace on earth for people of good will, and in this new time with its own world view of “heaven and nature” - invite people to the manger by being an inviting person, attracted to the manger by the joy they see in  you.  


My inaccurate memory revealed a secret: I knew the Christmas story by heart!   When the realization dawned, I understood that we internalize Jesus’ birth into our hearts – not so much our minds - and that’s good, because our heart is where love lives   A cartoon last week showed a sister reading the Christmas story to her younger brother, explaining, “God had to send an angel to proclaim the baby’s birth, because they didn’t have E-mail back then.”    Each of our experiences of Christmas – pre-and post-E-mail - gets woven into the story of Jesus’ birth, and we keep adding to it every year of our lives.  Those complex layers are why we feel deep emotion in the music of the carols, especially “Silent Night.”   In a sense, we turn out the lights so we can see the star, shining in the darkness of our lives.   As we gather to remember Jesus’ birth, all the memories of Christmases with our parents and children come flooding back, including loved ones who populate our hearts, no longer with us.   No wonder there’s so much sentiment.  Bethlehem is not the only place where “the hopes and fears of all the years are met.” All those memories, all those people, meet us here as we gather round the manger, illumined by that star shining over the manger in our hearts.  But, there’s more than mere sentiment.


                  Like Matthew and Luke, we see the manger from the vantagepoint of the cross.  The cross is what made the manger important, that caused people to want to know more about Jesus’ birth.  The cross was the event that gave meaning to the manger.   Look closely at the star of Bethlehem and you’ll find the cross imbedded in its rays, the rays themselves beams of resurrection light streaming across time, together combining into an ancient spotlight that hovers over the crib proclaiming this child holy in a way his parents would not have seen or ever imagined.  Ever notice that children populate our Christmas pageants, but are hardly seen at the pageant on Good Friday?   That day is reserved for adults, who know and appreciate the end of the story, how hard life is, how fragile, how full of pain.  It was also there that I discovered that ancient promise:  God with us - Emmanuel – hope and meaning found in the rough times as well as good, in death, as well as birth - every moment of your life.


                   I believe it is a holy mystery:  the Star of Bethlehem guides us to the manger not back then, but right now: to the starving boy in Darfur, Sudan; the little girl without shelter in the freezing weather after the earth quaked in Pakistan and India, the homeless child  in Bagdad, the orphan of AIDS in Africa and the tsunami, the traumatized children in Mississippi and Louisiana with no books to learn from, the hungry child in San Jose.  You and I are the innkeepers with a message:  either “no vacancy in my heart,” or “please come in,” not from guilt or obligation, but from the vision of loving care radiating from the Star of Bethlehem.  All you need do is look up and see this wondrous Star shining the light of God’s compassion onto the manger in your heart, indicating each child in need is where you’ll find the Word made Flesh.  This is where and how you worship God and celebrate Jesus’ birth, hearing the echo of his words when he was fully grown:  anytime you have done this for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me. 


                                                                                                                              Copyright: Ernest W. Cockrell

                                                                                                                                                December 24, 2005


Postscript:  This Christmas Sermon was actually completed as we sang the 2nd verse of “Silent Night.”  Except for candles on the altars and the candelabra, the candles down the center aisle and those surrounding the parameters of the nave held by the choir, clergy and lay people of the liturgy, the church was in total darkness.  As the 2nd verse began, a “Bethlehem star” began to faintly shine as to barely discern it and continued to grow brighter and brighter during that verse.  By the beginning of the final verse of “Silent Night” the star was in full blaze above the cross, its rays stretching across the upper front wall, filling the space above the altar where it remained through the rest of the service.  ewc


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