So, my goal is to post something every weekday on Sabbath Walks as part of a virtual "Advent Calendar" for 2023. I used to try this on Facebook, but now...this is what I will do. There are reasons, of course. I have no illusions about the rate at which my posts are read. However it is good to move through this time with mindfulness. Part of that comes from writing--at least for me--and putting that writing where somebody might find it. Usually it will be snippets of things. Some of them will be new and some will be what I found searching around. That is how life is, too. We don't experience great profundity all the time. If you think you do, well, I doubt your grasp on reality. There are down times built into life. There are fallow periods where we can't quite get our minds wrapped around what is before us. We are humans. We aren't failing when this happens. We are working as designed.
With that in mind, I am sharing an old mini-sermon that I gave on Christmas Eve in 2016. I have no real memory of giving it, but it sounds like me. Back then we had two services that night. There was an informal one at 5pm, where the readers were children and many of the musicians were too. Then there was a formal 7pm service, where people would get a little more dressed up and the readings were filled with the "thees and thous" of the Tyndale translation.
What follows was probably preached at the 5pm. These days I don't preach on Christmas Eve. I set up all the moving parts and I pray. The night of the 24th--the last moments of Advent--is about the story in the Bible and how it makes us think and feel. It isn't my job to explain. Instead I leave room for each of our hearts to connect to the story, the moment, and the spirit as it may.
The Work of Christmas
Rev Adam Tierney-Eliot
December 24, 2016
So, I was going through an archive of old Christmas sermons in preparation for this evening and I found a script to the pageant we used here at Eliot when I first arrived. Now I realize that some of you probably remember it (and some of you were no doubt in it). For the rest of you, let me just say that it was...different from the way we do it now. After all, back then it began--oddly enough--with this exchange between Mrs. Claus and a reindeer.
“Santa” says Mrs, Claus “You need to get busy. There’s so much to do to get ready delivering presents!”
Then the Reindeer--mostly innocently--says “Is that what Christmas is all about--delivering presents?”
“Not really,” says Mrs. Claus “Santa [she says while turning to her husband] while you are getting up, why don’t you tell us the real story”
Now, these days our pageant tends to go straight to the “real” story. However, we still are able to recognize the tension this pageant exchange reflects. We do, after all, understand the young reindeer's confusion. We see and feel the tension ourselves between the call toward the spiritual birth and rebirth that this time has represented (on the one hand) and the excuse for consumption and acquisition--an engine for the economy (on the other hand). It is this second group of activities that dominate much of our surplus time over Advent.
I certainly know this to be true. Every year I try and fail to avoid the chaos of the malls and shopping centers of route 9. Every year I try to cut back on my purchases, too. In fact, I more or less succeed at the cutting back. However, I still end up feeling like I should have gotten a couple more things for a few folks on my list.
This commercial element of our culture is pervasive. Our understanding of this time is deeply connected to the exchange and display of material goods. So it isn’t all that hard to see how someone like Ebenezer Scrooge could downplay or ignore the religious and ethical obligations of the season.
In Dickens' classic Christmas Carol, Scrooge's nephew, Fred, tried his best to set him straight. At one point he describes the holiday as “The only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women...think of people...as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Still, it isn’t hard to imagine--given all the noise that can surround the sentiment of the season--how that message can be missed. After all, in the song of Mary she sings that “God has scattered the proud...and brought down rulers..and raised up the humble. Has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with nothing”. Yet nothing in our observation of the holiday this year seems to indicate any great victory on that front.
This Advent it has been difficult to accept the idea that our fellow-passengers do in fact take the message of Christmas to heart. The birth of Jesus, like any birthday can be an excuse for a celebration. However, it feels like the meaning of his life, death, and teachings has fallen on many unheeding ears.
Together this Advent we have had our hearts broken by the news from places like Syria. We have journeyed together through a contentious and demoralizing election cycle. We have had our hearts injured again by stories of bigotry and discrimination here in our own towns and in our own neighborhood.
So, Mindless cheerfulness is pretty hard to maintain given the current situation. Like the Grinch there are times we wish to escape to the hills, or like Scrooge maybe even to our counting houses. It is enough to make some of us build walls between ourselves and the love we yearn to share and receive.
But...here is the thing.
Specifically because it is so hard to put on the usual festive veneer, many of us haven’t really tried! Instead we have put our energy elsewhere this December. Sure, maybe our Christmas trees and our lights went up late. Maybe our gift list is still a shambles and there is nothing we can do about it by tomorrow, but we took the time and energy we normally spend on these things and put it somewhere else.
That’s right. We put our energy somewhere else.
Looking out into the troubled world of 2016 we have chosen to find ways to help. We have found ways to speak out into the darkness. We did this for the sake of others. We did it for our own sakes, too. For example, this church took on the Christmas Open Door community meal this week, which is no mean feat in the midst of everything else. We also went caroling at Riverbend Nursing Home.
In addition, many of us have found some healing in the work of Natick Is United. The rainbow “Peace” flag campaign, the marches and vigils, the joint statements and all the rest have drawn our minds away from despair and into action. Then through action we have been drawn back to hope.
Hope, is, after all, what this holiday truly is about. It is about Hope for a light in the dark, a light that is kindled by our fellow beings through the exercise of a broad, dynamic faith
And an all-encompassing love.
This year we are learning to live into the words of the civil rights leader Howard Thurman.
The work of Christmas begins he tells us
to find the lost
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the brothers and sisters,
to make music in the heart
Our lives--and hopefully the lives of others--will be better for this work, so tonight we remember. We remember that the birthday we are celebrating is not our own. We remember that we are called to walk the path of faith. We remember we are called to walk the path of justice.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.