Sermon for Christmas Day 2013
The Revd. J. Michael Povey at St. Boniface, Sarasota FL
What are your favourite hymns? I’ll wager that they are the ones you learned as a child.
What are your favourite Christmas carols? “Hark, the herald angels sing?”, “Joy to the World?”, “O come all ye faithful?”, and “Silent Night”, especially “Silent Night”. You’ve been singing them for fifty, sixty or seventy years, and your Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them.
That’s partly because three of them have endings which we can belt out without a hymnal and with abandon. “O come let us adore him”, and “Hark the herald angels sing”, and “and heaven and nature sing”. (I sang these ending lines from the pulpit )
Mind you, one of the repeats in “Joy to the World” is odd: In verse three we sing “Far as the curse is found” three times. (I sang from the pulpit again ) and then said “these are such strange words to be belting out at Christmas!” That’s why we’ll omit that verse today.
Many priests and church musicians have learned that life is scarcely worth living should they omit a tried and true favourite at Christmas.
In one parish I got into great trouble by moving “Silent Night” to the pre-service carol sing, instead of after communion. If I had denied the Virgin Birth the congregation would have said “ho –hum”, but messing with Silent Night was a serious and dangerous error.
It’s all very well I suppose, but it is a bit limiting. There are great and glorious carols and Christmas hymns which we never get to sing because we do not know them.
We do not know them because we never sing them.
I worry a bit because most of our favourites take us to the end of the story of Christ, and ignore the beginning. Jesus is “the new born King”, he is “Christ the Lord” whom we are to adore, and we sing “let earth receive her King”.
Even those songs which focus on Jesus as a baby can get it wrong. We sing “but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes” as if Jesus were the idealistic super baby. I change that word and always sing “but little Lord Jesus LOUD crying he makes”.
For the God who we see in Jesus entered this world as a red and wrinkled baby who peed and pooped, and screamed and cried, and suckled at his mother’s breast.
The God we see in the birth of Jesus is weak, vulnerable and embraceable.
There are a couple of Christmas hymns which allow us to see the frail and very human Jesus.
For example “Break forth O beauteous heavenly light” with words by Johann Rist and utterly gorgeous music by J.S. Bach says this “This child, this little helpless boy, shall be our confidence and joy”.
And the 15th Century hymn by Jean Mauburn which starts with the words “Dost thou in a manger lie?” goes to say “If a Monarch where thy state? Where thy court on thee to wait? Sceptre, crown, and sphere? Here no regal pomp we see, naught but need and penury”
We rarely sing them because we don’t have time and the Christmas season is so short. “Tis a pity I think. For in my hours of weakness, despair and pain I am not much helped by the idea of Jesus as a super-King who can solve all my problems and make everything come out right. That does not happen.
But I am strengthened and encouraged by the presence of a Jesus who has gone through every bit of human weakness from the cradle to the grave and therefore can say “I know, I understand, I have been there and done that”. “Embrace me in my human frailty and I will embrace you”