December 25, 2019

Christmas Day, Year A
Becky Robbins-Penniman

Christmas Day is truly a day set apart from all the others. Stores and attractions that don’t close on any other day are closed today – not all of them, but way, way more than any other day of the year. Unlike when I was a kid, it’s not because of government regulations, it’s just the thing to do. What is it about this day? In an increasingly secular world, why is Christmas Day a day we still choose to make different? I think Titus nailed it: it’s an act of God’s grace, unmerited, perhaps even un-asked for, and, nowadays, grace un-acknowledged by millions. God isn’t given the credit, but I don’t think God is nearly as interested in getting credit as God uses both memory and hope to stir human hearts and spirits. It all seems to come to a peak this day.

Not just Christian ones, either. It will never make the news, but I, personally received deeply warm greetings and even gifts, specifically, CHRISTMAS greetings and gifts, from my Jewish and Muslim friends this past week. What a precious thing this Spirit of Christmas is when so many other days are filled with shouting politicians and constant wars, with trade disagreements and a constant string of natural disasters. But, today we can look at the bigger story, a story that began so long before us, and it helps frame what happens to us in the individual spans of our years.

I was thinking about this when I got out our Christmas decorations two days ago. My 2 ½ foot tall table tree was pretty bare. I waited so long to finally get the tree decorations out, not because I’m some Advent purist, but because I’m, well, just kinda real busy in the weeks before Christmas. But I wasn’t always a parish priest! Years ago, when our family was young, I began decorating my house the weekend after Thanksgiving. It took 2 days to decorate just the inside of our home: a real tree, big fat colored lights, lighted garlands on the stair banisters, stockings, and candles in all 12 of the windows in our Dutch Colonial house. Then a day outside: lights on the eaves, wreathes, evergreen swags on the fence, red bows on the posts. I took Christmas decorating pretty seriously.

Where did I learn about all this? from my mom. When we were growing up, we moved all over: from New York to California and a dozen states in between, plus Okinawa and Spain. Most of the time Daddy, a fighter pilot, was home for Christmas, but a couple times he was far, far away in a strange land that didn’t know Christmas from the 4 th of July. Wherever we went, though, Mom made sure we had a real tree, with those big multicolored lights, (no elegant tiny white lights for the Robbins family!) paper chain garlands, and popcorn garlands – both handmade; gingerbread, and a modest collection of family ornaments that came out year after year.

My sister, Debbie, and I fought ONE of the ornaments: a long-legged pipe cleaner Santa. Since I was born, it had always been the first ornament on the tree, and from the time she was old enough to stand up for herself – she’s pretty feisty, so I’d say beginning when she was 3 and I was 5 – we fought and hit and screamed over whose turn it was to put the first ornament on until Mom resorted to the “Santa’s watching” card. For a couple years, Mom tried to get us to do it together. Finally, when Debbie was old enough to understand odd and even numbers, Mom declared that I got to put Santa up in the even years, Debbie in the odd. One year one of us – and I honestly don’t remember who did it – one of us snuck in and put the Santa on the tree on the “wrong year.” Then Debbie and I fought about it again. Tradition. Mom was not amused. Pipe-cleaner Santa came down and spent Christmas in the ornament box.

A solid decade or so later, Gus and I were married and the year we were no longer starving students, and we had a home with a real tree. Mom brought the pipe cleaner Santa for me to put on our tree. Here is the pipe cleaner Santa. It’s pretty darned pathetic, isn’t it? Somewhere along the line, a dog chewed the face off, it has faded quite a lot. To think I used to hit my sister – and she, me – over this thing. It seemed so important at the time.

Even while we fought and cheated, Mom just kept Christmas going for the family: the tree, the lights, the garlands, the Spirit of Christmas. Mom was the keeper of the bigger story, the larger truth that no matter where you are, what awful things are going on, being together as a family makes a house a home. The Spirit of Christmas happens because of the story behind it, not because of the stuff under the tree.

Then, one year, after I was a mom myself, I became the keeper of the bigger story for my family. However, by the time I had two kids, I was smart enough not to have a “first ornament” tradition. Each one of us got our own bag of special ornaments, plus the dozens of others that filled the tree. Here’s my bag: it has so many memories that bring that Spirit of Christmas to me. (I reviewed ornaments that remind me of people and animals I’ve loved over the years). Gus and I still have our bags; the kid’s bags eventually went to their homes when they became adults with their own trees.

With age, I’ve come to see how the bigger story my mother kept for our family, that I kept for mine, the one my daughter is now keeping for her growing family, is a reflection of what God has been doing for eons upon eons. As we make homes and families, nations and economic systems, as we bicker and fight, grow older and wearier and wonder if we can keep doing this, we find there’s a story bigger – WAY bigger – than our story, bigger than our personal grievances and anxieties, greater than our individual passions and objectives.

The bigger story is that of love, forgiveness, mercy and most of all, hope – hope there will be real peace, heavenly peace, a peace that is eternal and universal for all of God’s children. The bigger story is that God is much, much greater than human ambitions, and that, in the end, the earth’s salvation comes from God’s eternal wisdom, from an awesome Creator who loves us to death and also loves us into life. God loves us because we’re God’s children, not because we’re worthy, and in spite of our fussing and fighting. God never gives up on us. The big story of how time and time again God has given the gifts of love, forgiveness, and the hope of peace is the true glory of God.

The very specific time, when God’s love came down at Christmas, the Holy Child of Bethlehem was born to a government-displaced peasant family that soon had to flee to another country for their very lives. A specific time when a child was born, when love come down to walk among us full of grace and truth, that child came to heal and welcome, to bless and remind us of how beloved we are even when we are far, far from righteous.

To read the full sermon text, click HERE.

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