Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
Christmas Eve: December 24th, 2018
(The following sermon is a transcript from live video. To watch the video, please click here.)
I have not always been a fan of Christmas. In fact, for decades I was pretty ambivalent about Christmas. And I realized this is a lot to admit given what I do for a living. It’s a little bit like hearing a doctor say that they love their job except they can’t stand the sight of blood, or a police officer saying, I’m really good at my job except when I hit a crisis. Or a firefighter saying I really love being a firefighter, I just don’t enjoy heights. But in fact, it is true, I’ve not always been a fan of Christmas or the Christmas season. And one reason for this is that the holidays are hard on people. Over the years, I’ve noticed that when things go wrong in a person’s life, it tends to go wrong during the holidays.
If someone is going to have a slip and fall back into addiction, it’s going to happen on the holidays. A family is going to disintegrate over conflict, it will happen during the holidays. If someone is going to get fired, they are going to be fired on the holidays. If someone is going to experience illness or take a fall, it seems to always happen on the holidays. If someone is going to die suddenly and almost unprepared, it will happen during the holidays. The holidays are hard on people. They are more like an ordeal to survive than a time to celebrate. But I have other reasons why for decades I was ambivalent about Christmas.
My dad was a hard worker and he decided that the best way that he could spend Christmas for us was to be working because then he could earn time and a half. So there were many Christmas Days that I have spent without him nearby when he was working and traveling in a far off city. And so, not having my father there, not having our family complete, we always seemed to go to a relative’s house to have Christmas with them, to have their Christmas with them. To watch them open their gifts that we couldn’t afford to give to each other.
And then there was an incident that happened to me when I was about eight or nine years old. My mother and I were visiting some family in Glens Falls, New York and we went to church, and there were these two kind of older, rougher boys who sat right behind us and kind of got into our space. I turned around to see what they were doing and they said, don’t stare and I became afraid and I so turned my head. And the next day, my mother had intended to somehow compensate for the lavish gifts that my cousins got by giving me cash on Christmas. She worked full-time and she probably didn’t have time to shop. And so she asked me to get her pocketbook and she opened it up and we discovered that the boys that had been sitting behind us in church that Christmas Eve had stolen my mother’s wallet and with it all our Christmas money. And there were no gifts that year. There was no money.
And that event in my life, it created a kind of signature of trauma that worked its way through my life for decades. So, for decades I’ve had a bad association with Christmas and I suspect that there are many of you who feel the same way. I suspect there are many of you who have faced difficulty during the Christmas season. I suspect that there are many of you who have experienced the threat of death during the Christmas season. Who have had a slip during the Christmas season. Who have experienced an awful change in the course of your life during the Christmas season. And if you’re like me, you have spent years trying to somehow recover that time. Redeem that time and certainly, I did.
My family did struggle at one point, economically, but for the most part we have been blessed. And there have been times in which we’ve had lavish Christmases. But that time of plenty never could touch that time of want. That time of want always seemed to be a kind of shadow in our lives. And there have been times when I have imagined elaborate workings out of karma on the boys who robbed my mother. I’ve imagined myself at my present size and stature standing behind them and being able to place my hand on their shoulders or maybe do something else. And I’ve imagined that they’ve had cruel fates because of their cruel actions. But that didn’t help either. That signature of trauma still kind of persisted because causing someone else to experience harm, well that just doesn’t solve anything.
And finally, I’ve tried to somehow forget those difficult times, to write those experiences in disappearing ink and watch as the ink evaporates and the memories fade away. And still that does not work either. They still cast a shadow for many years on my experience of Christmas. What has worked for me and what I think is the path to victory over these difficulties is that I have reacquainted myself with the Christmas message. Because the message of Christmas is not nearly so loaded as the observance of the Christmas season. The message of Christmas is a message of liberation. It’s a message of love. It’s a message of life. Liberation in the face of oppression. Love in the face of hate and opposition. And life in the face of death.
Because on Christmas, we celebrate the fact that God so loved the world that He came to us as a child and just as God and Christ was born to Mary, so you and I have the awesome gift of Christ being born in us and Christ living in us so that we might live forever. And that message of Christmas is light and life and liberation and love and there is nothing that can take those things away. And that message of life and light and liberation and love, it gives me strength to face any opposition, I felt. And it helps me to negotiate any difficulties I find myself in. And so, today if you are struggling with any of the things that oppress you, if you are struggling with any kind of illness that will get you down.
If you have your heart broken by a family situation or if you have had your life frustrated by your career, all of these things, these things mean nothing in comparison to the life you have in Jesus Christ. That life, that love, that liberation that Lord gives you the power to heal and to forgive and to live as of death were not. And that is the message of Christmas that is written through all of our scriptures for today. And so, it is that we read in our reading from Isaiah, the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. And if you are experiencing darkness this evening, know that light is shining on you and know that light is even shining from you, for you are God’s beloved in Christ.
And in our psalm for today, we see the exclamation, sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord all the whole earth, a new song. Not an old song, not a repetition, not a tradition, not something we have received. Not an obligation to bear but a new song. A new original creative song coming out of you as God’s original creation. And you and I have received a promise of grace and the opportunity for transformation and this we find in our reading from Titus for the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. So that we might know God as our Savior, Jesus Christ.
And finally, we have in our gospel from Luke an incredible promise delivered by the angels that says to the shepherds, do not be afraid for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the City of David a Savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord. So, in other words, the world is not stuck in cycles of violence and mistrust and polarization and distance and disaster. You and I are living in a time of new birth where God is doing something new in this world and in you and among us through Jesus Christ.
And this has been my way of claiming all of Christmas for myself and for this world and for you and me. When I struggled with Christmas it was because I had come to the conclusion that Christmas was for others. But in fact, knowing these things, knowing the light, the life, the liberation, knowing my Lord, Jesus Christ, that means that Christmas is for me and that Christmas is for you. And Christmas is for us. And this Christmas message is not merely uplift, it means learning to go with the grain of God’s own love for us and Christ. Going with the grain of the reconciliation in time and space that Jesus Christ brings about through his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
And for me that means that the way in which I receive my healing and receive Christmas back into my arms was by remembering that the father I had who worked during Christmas was doing his very best to give me what he could. So that I could have opportunities that he could not dream of. And understanding that my father’s work ethic was his own love language, was a path to my reconciliation with him. And the boys who robbed my mother, I no longer wish them ill. I no longer wish that they somehow could have been stopped.
Because through the grace of God, I’ve been able to imagine the kind of home that they came from that made it a good idea to go into a church, to rob a mother of her wallet. And I imagine the kinds of ways in which they must have struggled in their lives and I found myself wishing them well. That somehow through the course of their lives, they learned something about themselves, about this world, about others, about God that helped them turn their lives around.
And as painful as that moment was, I’m even grateful for it because it allowed me to understand what it means to experience Christmas today. Where are you seeing new birth in your life? Where are you seeing liberation? Where are you seeing the opportunity to express your birthright to joy given to you by Jesus Christ. Where are you seeing the transformation that God is promising you? These are the questions you and I must wrestle with today as we give thanks for a god who has come to us as light and love and life everlasting.