Christmas Homily 2019

Merry Christmas. It’s a great joy to see so many of you here on this special night.  You can see evidence all around you of how our community has tried to express the importance of this night. We’ve put up greens, made decorations, lit candles. What I have loved about our Christmas preparations is that it has been a flowering of creativity. I have done more arts and crafts projects this year than since I was in grade school! But I think most years of my adult life I have done something creative—made candied nuts or arranged some flowers, something that pulled my brain into a different place than its habitual worries. Its good to get your fingers sticky with some kind of creative project at Christmas or any time of year.

Tonight, the Church celebrates the birth of Jesus, something that happened 2019 years ago which we believe unleashed a flowering of creativity in the world. Actually, in the Gospel reading we have just heard, John lays claim to the influence of Christ from the beginning of creation, saying: Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him. We celebrate the birth of Christ; we celebrate the creation of the universe. Creation is God’s art.

We stand in a very rich place tonight. Look around you and say to yourself: “not one thing in all creation was made without him.” Roof beams, greenery, floor tiles, paper, books, clothes, human beings, whatever is in your handbag, your pockets. Cast your mind outside: hills, grass, trees, clouds, worms, pigs, sheep, cows, chickens, mice, hedgehogs, badgers, deer, pheasants, stones, mud, plants of every kind, sun, moon. Not one thing in all creation was made without him.

Franciscan theologian Bonaventure who lived in the mid-13th Century, said “Creation is the expression of God’s glory.” A generation later another Franciscan theologian, Duns Scotus, said “Yes, yes, that’s true and even more: Christ is the blueprint of all creation!”  Meaning everything is an expression of God’s love as Christ is. Scotus insisted that daily attention to nature is fundamental in the spiritual life. That is extraordinary to think about. Look at any discrete or separate thing, and it can lead you to see Christ. That’s what we celebrate in this feast of the Incarnation: God made flesh, which makes all flesh, all matter, an expression of God. This way of looking requires a conversion, because we can all see the same thing and interpret it in wildly different ways. Ask any detective interviewing bystanders at the scene of a crime—what did you see. You wonder were they all looking at the same thing?

I confess I sometimes don’t see Christ; I see trouble. I see problems, I see environmental disaster. Disaster we are bringing on ourselves. That’s why I speak of conversion. God takes flesh to invite us to see the world very concretely. We are not talking about an intellectual proposition, nor a mystical thing. Rather it is basic solidarity with fleshy stuff—matter–that leads to respect and care and compassion. When I can’t feel those things, I know I am in a spiritual crisis. I believe the world is in a spiritual crisis, and the way to resolve it is not easy, but it begins with a severe curtailment, a radical pruning of the desire to have the last word, to blame others, to listen to our fears instead of our faith. Look: we have everything we need in this room, in this community, in our world for all of us to thrive. We have been gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit to make the world a happy, healthy place for all. But the other lesson of the Incarnation, of Jesus’ birth, is that God demands we help. A tiny baby isn’t going to survive without a mother’s care. The world won’t survive without our care. But if anything can dig beneath our carapace of selfish indifference a child can. A child can awaken us to beauty and creativity. When we see children dead on beaches or put in cages or dying of malnutrition, we can’t escape the powerful feeling at the absence of beauty. Soaked in beauty here, can we agree that what the world needs more if is beauty, creativity, compassion, hope, joy—the Christmas themes.

I wonder is it naïve to talk about beauty and creativity in such exigent times?

Beauty keeps alive the wonder we need to be open to new ideas.

Creativity rejects the old formulations, the old mindset that created the problems.

Can seeing beauty in a plaster Christ child soften the heart to see the beauty in a child refugee?

Creating ways to celebrate and bring people together at this time of year is the creativity that will lead to larger social initiatives. If you can tame Uncle John at Christmas dinner or listen to Cousin Ida’s complaints, perhaps you have the potential to take on the coal industry or Brazilian cattle ranchers.

Beauty and creativity are forms of power. Everything we do for our families and communities can awaken our sense of agency, that we are powerful.  Listening to the weak—old cousin Ida, small island nations, the homeless, whoever the people are we may not want to hear from (#MeToo).

Playing our drum for the new-born King (Rumpa-pum-pum) and the healing and inspiring power of music, and designing smarter technologies, engaging with others in ways that surprise and engage them is how we unleash the power of human potential for healing our planet.

But there is an inescapable truth to the Christmas story that sits very uncomfortably with most of us as we stretch ourselves to buy expensive gifts, produce extra fancy food, indulge in pleasures of different kind:  this “God-initiative” of beauty and creativity was launched from a stable. It didn’t happen in a palace. Poverty, simplicity, a change in the way we live is what will drive our greatest changes. Appearing in a stable as a helpless baby, God has shown us that godly power is non-coercive, it is dependent on others in every way, and that the end result might be crucifixion—at the very least people might laugh at us for our efforts to live differently, our valuing of a simple lifestyle.

Look at a child’s piece of art. Only a monster would scorn or ridicule their efforts. So, it is with God who beholds our efforts. No effort goes unnoticed, no initiative is unimportant. Taken together there are myriad upon myriads of ways to live into the promise of the creativity, the beauty of God becoming a human being, in the normal way, born of a woman. In the expectation-defying context of poverty. Here is the thing: I believe that what God requires of us is to become fully alive right where we are. Be generous with those around you in and outside your family. Care for the earth in humble ways, recycling, composting, re-using things, rejecting plastic. Laugh more. Weep more. Give more. And allow others to take care of you, at least a little bit. Welcome offers of help—we’re all in this together. This solidarity is true beauty and the source of our creativity.

God has made everything through his son Jesus Christ. The reverence, joy and commitment we show to creation we show to Christ. I never worry if environmental activists are squeamish about Christianity, because know it or not, they are honoring Christ. But I am very concerned when Christians don’t care about the environment or care for others or the material world because I believe they have missed the point of Christmas and God dwelling among us. According to those “crusty” old Franciscan theologians I mentioned before, God persuades humans with beauty—that is the carrot in God’s initiative to get us to respond. Life is beautiful. And only humans have the capacity to love in union with God. God took flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory.