A long time ago there was an Anglican priest in England, Father Kelly, known for his holiness and wisdom. One day he received a call from a bishop. The Bishop told him, “I’m not happy with the priests my seminary is producing. They all pass the General Ordination Exams but when they serve in the parishes it is obvious they are missing something. Would you come here, observe the seminary and give me some advice?” So Father Kelly went. He met with the students and the faculty. He sat in on classes and chapel services and walked the halls. After a while he met with the bishop and said this: “When it comes to faith, these young men know the words but they don’t know the music.”
Christmas Eve is all about the music. Not just the music the choir will lead us in – as outstanding as that choir is here at our Cathedral – but the “feel” of this night, the light in the darkness, the deep down sense in our soul that in a troubled world God is here with us, no matter what.
So I am going to ramble on for ten minutes about the significance of tonight’s Gospel. But don’t worry – the really crucial part of this liturgy will be here soon – when we hold candles and sing “Silent Night.”
Let’s look at the significance of the name Jesus was given. Someone who understood the power of a name was Nelson Mandela, the great social activist who spent so many years in prison for his stand against apartheid. For the first thirteen years in prison, he was not allowed to see any member of his family. Finally, they let him see his daughter –a young girl when he was arrested and now an adult. He hugged her and in the midst of many tears she told him he is a grandfather. She brought to him her first child. It is the custom in South Africa that the maternal grandfather names the child. So he did. He named her “Hope.”
Mandela was kept in prison for another fourteen years. During that time he constantly thought of Hope. Hope was not just an idea. For him it was a person. Hope was alive. So long as Hope was alive, Mandela could keep on going. He never gave up and ultimately created a whole new social and political system in South Africa.
Let’s look at the name of the child born this night. In Matthew’s gospel we are told an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and gave him two names for the baby – Jesus and Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us.” In Luke’s Gospel, Mary is told by the angel Gabriel to name him Jesus. No Emmanuel. I’m imagining Joseph and Mary having the baby name discussion parents have and ultimately they chose “Jesus” because that had two angels’ votes and only one for Emmanuel.
The name Jesus means “God saves us” or some theologians say simply “Save.” The outstanding biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann writes “The baby is named Save and Jesus saves us from all that kills and is flat and sad. Joseph names the baby God is with us, and we are not alone. Notice the story does not ask us to do anything. But I believe it invites us to be dazzled. It invites us to ponder that, while our world feels unsaveable, here is the baby named Save. Our world and our lives often feel abandoned, and here is the baby named God with us. We may rest our lives upon this new promise from the angel and we may be safe and we may be whole and made generous because Christmas is coming soon.”
See, our salvation is not just an idea. Salvation is a person. Salvation is alive in this world. Don’t we need to know that now, perhaps more than ever before? I find it fascinating that at Christmas in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, right after the horrific tragedy of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, all the churches still held their Christmas Pageants. Even though some of the children who would have performed in those Pageants had been killed. They needed the Christmas story. They needed to believe that the baby named Save is still among us.
This story has been part of my life for six decades now. This year I noticed something for the first time. An angel visits the shepherds and announces “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” “To you.” Doesn’t that usually mean just the family? “To the Smith family is born…” “To Joseph and Mary is born…”
No, the angel is clear. Jesus is born to you poor shepherds. The one who offers mercy and compassion and hope is born to you. Although I did not notice that until this year, thank God the people who have changed the world for the better noticed it. One example, Rosa Parks. You know the story. On December first, 1955 Rosa was coming home from work in Montgomery Alabama on a public bus. In that time and place they had a law that buses have a section for people of color and a section for whites. If the white section was filled, people of color were expected to give their seat away to the white person. On this bus the white section was full and a white man was standing. The bus driver told Rosa to give up her seat. She refused. She was arrested, and the black community of Montgomery, led by a 27-year-old preacher named Martin Luther King Jr., staged a boycott of the bus system. The civil rights movement began in earnest.
That’s the part of the story we know, but there is a little known and crucial backstory. In the months before December first, Rosa Parks was part of a bible study at her church. As they studied the bible they recognized the dignity of all God’s children. And they understood the non-violent actions for change taken by Jesus of Nazareth. They started talking about a boycott of the bus system.
Could it be that Rosa’s bible study group read the angel’s words “to you is born this day a Savior”? And she heard the music of those words and took them into her soul? What would happen to the lives of you and me, of our troubled society, if we took those words into our souls? Our faith is not an abstraction. There is a person named “Save” and he is alive among us.
Ok, we are getting closer to the candles and singing “Silent Night.” Just one more underappreciated bible fact and one more image.
The angels tell the shepherds to look for a “child wrapped in bands of cloth.” We will hear about cloth again in Luke’s gospel… when Jesus dies. The mission has been a failure. Mercy, compassion and hope have come into this world and the powers of this world killed it. But when the women go to anoint the body of the dead Jesus, he is not there. What is in the tomb? “Peter ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.” God never gives up. In God there is abundant life that never dies. And that is not all. Luke tells us after several meetings with the Risen Jesus, as Jesus leaves he says “you will be clothed with power from on high.” The God who is with and in Jesus is here and with us and in us.
Let’s end by going back to the baby. Have you ever noticed what a baby does when you put your finger in his hand? He holds on very tight and won’t let go. Tonight we see a baby named “Save” who is holding on with all his might to God with one hand. And with the other hand that baby, born to us, is holding on to you and me, to all humanity. And he won’t let go, no matter what. God is with us. God is saving us. Hope is alive in the world, on this night and always. Amen.