A sermon preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018
We gather tonight to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Long proclaimed by Christians to be the fulfillment of ancient Hebrew prophecies of the coming of the heavenly king to rule all creation in harmony.
So, we sing:
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…
Come, and behold him, born the King of angels…(1)
Hark! the herald angels sing glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!(2)
Joy to the world! The Lord is come: Let earth receive her King…
No more let sins and sorrows grow…
He comes to make his blessings flow…(3)
These carols express our hope for salvation, healing and wholeness, for ourselves and the world. But two millennia after Jesus’ birth, all is not joyful and triumphant, all is not peaceful and merciful, for, on earth, sin and sorrow continue to grow.
So, what sense do we make, can we (are we able to) make, dare we make of Christmas in the light, aye, the shadow of our daily, necessary acknowledgement of all in this world that flies in its face? In hopeful reply to this obvious and inescapable question, I bid we meditate on another song.
A song that reflects what Johann Sebastian Bach intended when he chose a melody,(4) familiar to many as the tune for the hymn, O sacred head, sore wounded, as a dominant choral thread for his Christmas Oratorio celebrating Jesus’ birth and his St. Matthew’s Passion commemorating Jesus’ death.
A song that gives voice to Bach’s understanding that Christmas is a story about a birth that foreshadowed a death.
A song, a spiritual that, for me, expresses this deepest, truest sense of Christmas.
Sweet little Jesus boy, born in a manger.
Sweet little holy child, we didn’t know who you were.
Didn’t know you’d come to save us, Lord, to take our sins away.
Our eyes were blind, we couldn’t see.
We didn’t know who you were.
The world treated you mean, Lord.
Treats me mean, too.
But that’s how things are down here:
We don’t know who you are.
Master, you’ve shown us how, ev’n when you were dyin’.
Just seems like we can’t do right, look how we treated you.
But please, forgive us, Lord; we didn’t know ‘twas you.(5)
This spiritual, for me, embraces, embodies the meaning of Christmas. The heavenly king, the ruler of all creation was born and grew up and launched a ministry of salvation, of healing and wholeness, that called for his dying.
Here, then, is a God who knows life as we know it, with all its joy and sorrow. A God who, in sharing our life, proclaims, from the farthest reaches of the cosmos, on our brightest day or bleakest night, we are never alone.
Therefore, this spiritual calls us never to ignore the meanness in the world. Never to ignore hatred and injustice; always being ready to respond with hearts of love and hands of justice. So that Jesus, reflected in the faces of all who suffer, will not be made to be alone to be crucified by us again.
If, in this way, we celebrate Christmas, then and only then we can sing:
Sweet little Jesus boy born long time ago.
Sweet little holy child we do know who you are.
(1) From the hymn, O come, all ye faithful (parts of verse 1) words by John Francis Wade (1711-1786)
(2) From the hymn, Hark! the herald angels sing (parts of verse 1); words by Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
(3) From the hymn, Joy to the world! (parts of verses 1 and 2); words by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
(4) Passion Chorale (1601), Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612)
(5) Words and music (1934) by Robert MacGimsey (1898-1979); altered.
From Adoration of the Shepherds (1609) Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Crucifixion (1927), Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)