The Work of Christmas

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 | Psalm 147 | Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7 | John 1:1-18

The First Sunday after Christmas doesn’t always fall so close to Christmas Day. Here we are on the Third Day of Christmas, and if your house is anything like mine, there are still a couple of recipes left to make, some cards to send, some movies to watch. It’s hard to maintain the Christmas excitement because it’s been widely manufactured into one day’s experience, to be consumed and done with in 24 hours or less.

Mary and Joseph know what most new parents experience: the birth of Jesus was just the beginning. When I was a doula and childbirth instructor, I would caution the mamas that three days after birth was a day to watch out for because hormones shift. Maybe the milk has come in, maybe not. Maybe the baby is sleeping too much or too little. Maybe we have good support, maybe not. There are many variables at play, but one thing is certain, it’s still a liminal time. The birthing experience itself throws things out of whack, so consuming is the labor of birth. Time is irrelevant. And now this healing of a mother’s body and the caring of the fragile, completely dependent new life is equally consuming work. It’s not only time for healing and nourishing, but it is also, we hope, time for bonding, nurturing, resting (as much as possible), and being fully in the moment. All of this doesn’t happen on its own; we have to make a conscious effort. Being a parent is a lot of work, and those early days are just the beginning.

Our gospel lesson today speaks of another beginning, of Word becoming flesh and living among us. That Word is life itself, light–the kind that enlightens everyone and isn’t overcome by darkness, and glory full of grace and truth. But this Word is not known to everyone. Those who do recognize, know, and believe, are filled with faith, and their lives are transformed.

How are lives transformed? Well, at our baptism, we are given the name Christian. As Paul says to the Galatians, we are adopted as children of God. As God’s children, recipients of the Holy Spirit, we have tremendous power to extend our personal transformation beyond ourselves. We may not all have a conversion story as dramatic as Paul’s. We may not have experienced a life-threatening illness or crippling addiction to overcome but by the grace of God and support of many. We do have–what everyone has–is choice. We all live in a time when the choices we make are intended to serve ourselves better if not best. When we choose to live a life to offer glory to God, to share the light of Christ with others, to participate in the life-giving, liberating, loving will of God, we make a personal shift to consider ourselves one among many among the children of God. Our hearts are broken open to bleed for the world, not in an act of dying but in an act of surrender to something greater than ourselves. We might be afraid to name the “greater thing” as God, and I would challenge you to consider where that fear comes from. Does naming something that exceeds our comprehension take away our sense of control? Is that what we fear? Lack of control? Because that’s valid. Being out of control is scary. Not being able to contain a deadly virus is terrifying. Not being able to heal the sick is heart-wrenching. Watching events unfold for self-serving reasons while billions suffer is sickening in and of itself. The actions of others is out of our control. But what is in our control? Our own choices. Our own actions. How we understand ourselves and how we relate to others . . . and how we relate to that which is greater than. How we relate to God.

As Christians, we name God. We try to understand God through Jesus. We believe that Jesus is the greatest gift. God’s giving of God’s self through Jesus, as through a son–the only way we could try to comprehend how God loves us. Through Jesus comes our salvation, redemption, and adoption. We have to choose whether to recognize that for ourselves, to allow ourselves to be transformed, to let go of our ego enough to let God’s grace and truth shine through our lives. When we do this, our lives are changed.

Being transformed by God’s grace, we, too, can share in God’s work. God’s work–the work that began in the beginning of Creation and which continues to this day and forever more. Here at All Saints’, we are keen to hear the gospel call to care for others, to lift up the lowly, and we act on it, sharing whenever and however we can. The words of Thomas R. Steagald in his commentary on our reading from Galatians gave me pause: “Social renderings of the gospel are incomplete unless founded on or accompanied by personal transformation.” Do we hear the call to care for our neighbors as something we do because it is the code of Christians, a law to follow, or do we share love of neighbors out of the experience of being loved by God? Does it matter, so long as we are acting compassionately? Probably not to the recipient. But in my experience, it matters to me, and it affects my relationship with God. The authenticity of work done in and out of love for God enriches the lives of all.

Just like being a parent requires time and attention, being a Christian isn’t a passive identity. Others may know we are Christians by our love, but that love takes work and requires all of ourselves. We know this because the story of Jesus’ life and death is not compartmentalized: it’s all about living in accord with God’s will–loving God with all heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving neighbors as ourselves. The gift that we’re given each Christmas we celebrate is as joyful and triumphant as it is heartbreaking and demanding. And if we are to receive the gift of Christ, we, too, are wrapped into the work of God to share that light with the world. 

All that we can or might do in our own work pales in comparison to what God has done, is doing, and has yet to do. Our Psalm today counts the ways God reveals God’s majesty, and these are beautiful images of provision and protection, intimacy and blessing, in heaven and on earth. A God who does all this isn’t impressed by human extravagance but is pleased by reverence, by those who heed the statutes given. Those who know humility in the encounter with God are the ones who will bring the transformational change into the world, who will share the goodwill and peace that Jesus Christ embodied.

While these liminal days between Christmas and New Year’s offer many folks time off from work, time to rest and stay home, my son reminded me that I have one of the jobs that doesn’t take time off for Christmas. That’s true, but it’s true of all of us who believe that we never take time off from being Christian. It’s who we are, when we’re working, resting, and playing, 365, 24/7. 

And in case we lose sight of what our work is, Howard Thurmas summed it up well:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

from The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations

That music in the heart is the sweet harmony of finding where our lives meet God’s will, when we accomplish any aspect of this holy work. Now is as good a time as ever to make a plan for what we’ll do next. I know Padre and I are taking time this next week to plan for the year to come and maybe take an extra nap or two. May we all find a few moments to allow room for the Holy Word into our lives, to let God guide us for once, to offer thanks for all that is given to us, and to accept responsibility for what is given to us to do. We have holy work to do, and we have everything we need to do it, if we so choose.

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