Tonight is a night of contrasts. It’s a night about things being put together that are total opposites, or that don’t really seem to match at all. They’re all over the place.
For example, everyone wants and almost needs tonight to be the same tonight as it is every year—the same old carols we sing in worship, the same old candles we light, the customary family recipes we’ve consumed before we got here. And yet we all also harbor an irrepressible sense that something unexpected is going to happen in the midst of it all, that there will be surprises beneath the tree tomorrow, new toys to play with, new toys to put together.
Tonight is all about contrasts. I’m talking about the fact that it is the dead of winter, we’ve been dreaming about a white Christmas for weeks now (or at least singing along with the radio about it). We’ll drink our Peppermint Lattes and our warm egg nogs, and yet here we are running the air conditioning and I’m wearing shorts under this robe. (OK…I’m kidding about the shorts).
Stark contrasts! You realize there are others, too, once you start thinking about it: like the fact that Christmas is touted over and over as the most wonderful time of the year, yet for many among us it is the loneliest, a time filled with sorrow and painful memories. Some of us claim we wish this night, this feeling, this spirit, could last a little longer, while others just want to get through it and hope it goes quickly.
|The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Daniel Bonnell)|
Tonight, though, all of those people are all in the same room together tonight to hear the same message. And it, too, is a message of contrasts, powerful, glaring contrasts. “The people who walked in darkness,” says the prophet Isaiah, “have seen a great light.” An Emperor takes an orderly census of his far-flung, mighty empire based in his thriving metropolis of Rome, and yet there is hardly room to squeeze in one more baby here on the fringes, in an old royal city that is now little more than a backwater. Shepherds, brown-collar workers ion one of the lowliest trades of the ancient era, quietly biding their night shift on the edge of town, suddenly find themselves surrounded by a huge choir of bright angels. A random field of sheep becomes the epicenter of the announcement that there will be peace on earth. And, of course, there is the greatest contrast of all: that the Lord of all, the Messiah, the King of Kings is nestled in a feedbox. It is a night of contrasts, and I’m not sure we can fully make sense of it. We are gathered here simply to marvel at it, worship it, and, like Mary, ponder them in our hearts.
It makes me ponder a particular contrast that caught my eye just the other day as I set up my sterling silver home communion set just inches away from a Chromebook laptop on a dresser top in the apartment room of one of our homebound members. What an altar to the Lord! Granted, pastors are accustomed to these makeshift worship spaces when we make our visits, but the juxtaposition of these items really made me stop and think. We had just finished scrolling through photos on the Epiphany Facebook page she hadn’t seen before. I wasn’t sure what she’d think of them, but with each click her face would light up as if she were looking through a family photo album. On each photo she found one, two, sometimes three people she recognized.
“There’s Ken Reckenbeil…oh, and there’s Georgianna!...Is that really Taylor Williamson? She’s grown up so!”
“Yeah, she teaches Sunday School now,” I said.
After a few minutes of communing with the saints through digital media, she politely shut the computer down and asked for Communion of the sacramental kind. And seeming more like an angel to me, she then leaned in toward her stereo, which had been playing this whole time in the background, and turned up the volume. “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given…” I think we had reached one of her favorite parts of Handel’s Messiah, and soon the sounds of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and choir started to drown out the noisy dialogue and comings and goings of the people in the hall outside her room. She, the angel, and I, just a shepherd being visited…it occurred to me that beside this laptop and on top of this ordinary dresser is a perfectly suitable place to receive the Lord’s presence.
God apparently loves to work with contrasts. God is at home here, in our humble dwellings and our humble hearts, just has God was this night so long ago, gathering shepherds and angels, kings and mangers in one room. Things that we would never put together, especially in relationship with the divine, God is quite comfortable with.
However, the true message of this evening—the more important news of Christmas—is not that God simply likes contrasts or that God engineers these paradoxes all over the place. God goes one step further, beginning with this birth. God is going to switch places with these opposites. God isn’t just going to partner for a while with the lowly and the common. God is going to use them, infuse them, become them, be them, so that they may become like God.
The message of this night is that a great exchange is going to happen between the one who Created us and those he has created. Even though we are broken, even though we have taken what God has given and squandered it, even though we have misused our own lives and each other’s, God still decides to dwell among us and live alongside us. In Christ Jesus, God decides that humankind, in all its messiness, in all its tendencies to betray each other in all of it its fascination with other gods and other promises is worth saving and redeeming.
And to do so, God exchanges what we are for what God always is. “For to us a child is born,” Isaiah proclaims, “unto us a Son is given.” Not leant. Not just to look at. Not just to project our ideal selves upon, our dreams and hopes for the future. But, rather, given. Exchanged. Because God loves us. And in the end, the contrast of this exchange will humble us completely. For we will give him death. But in return he will give us life.
Maybe one of the best depictions of this Great Exchange, this great combining of contrasts, appears in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which turns 50 this year. The second-longest-running Christmas special of all-time, Charles Schutz’s Peanuts characters’ grappling with the commercialization of Christmas and the holiday’s true meaning broke barriers in 1965 just as it does today. Of course, a lot of attention gets placed on Linus’ famous speech where he boldly recites from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, something unheard of on mainstream TV.
However, the scene that most vividly portrays the Christmas message, the length to which God will go to overcome the contrast between heaven and earth, comes right before the final credits roll. After the pageant ends, of course, Charlie Brown brings his little pathetic Christmas tree outside to decorate it, but stops in his tracks when he notices that Snoopy’s over-the-top, garish doghouse decorations have already claimed first place in a contest. Disgusted and defeated, Charlie Brown skulks away, leaving the tree standing cold in the snow. The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. Then the pageant gang appears and, in a surprise move, takes all the decorations from Snoopy’s house and places them on the small tree. It’s grand and glorious at that point, and Snoopy’s house stands in the background, stripped bare, reminding us somewhat of Calvary.
When Isaiah says that the Son is given to us, he means that we receive him and all that he is—his forgiveness, his mercy, his love—and that we give him our brokenness, our rudeness, our failures. It means God looks at us as the bare, scrawny trees that we are and yet still bestows first prize of heaven upon us, cloaking us with glory, all because of Jesus.
Tonight is all about contrasts, isn’t it, then? Communion with the holy in the surroundings of the ordinary. Shepherds and angels. “The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.” Highest heaven and lowest earth. God is quite at ease here, in our land of scrawny trees. Perhaps, then, we can learn to be so, too: at ease because God is with us. I suppose then we can announce to one and to all, to those who seem like us and those with whom we always seem to contrast, to those who have stirrings of great joy and those who are in great grief, those who get a white Christmas, and those who have to settle for a wet one: “Glory to God in the highest heaven AND on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.