Christmas Eve/Morning, 2019
Texts: Isaiah 9, Luke 2
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed time is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…
Too often, in 35 years of ordered ministry, I have opened Christmas homilies with W.B. Yeats, but always to distance myself from the alarmist drumbeat of apocalyptic urgency of the media scare of the day. There is always a crisis, a war, a crash. It’s always dark out Christmas Eve, cold out Christmas Day.
We are always a bit like the Hebrew people who heard Isaiah’s first generation of prophecy, at the beginning of exile, badly led, betrayed into the hands of enemies, destined for servitude under new Babylonian empire, replacing the Assyrians, as we tell oblique coded tales of slavery in Egypt.
Once we were terrorized by threats of ‘nuclear winter’ during a Cold War, demonizing the ‘Commies’ and their domino game with client states in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, or Southeast Asia. This century cites ‘9-11’ to carry on Gulf Wars extended to Afghanistan and sanctions on Iran.
My United Church roots echoed a moderate social gospel of John Diefenbaker the Red Tory Baptist and Mike Pearson, child of a Methodist manse. Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Christian Realism’, preached as sober second thought to American imperialism by the pastors who confirmed me, acknowledged and faced terror.
Thank God for the liberation theology of my college training, providing more critical perspective on media scares. Ordained into the neo-con days of Reagan and Mulroney, Khomeini calling USA ‘Great Satan’, I was out west as OPEC demons were exorcized by restraint plus coal fired electricity creating an oil glut.
I arrived in Toronto in time for a Black Monday crash of 1987, staying through a dot-com bubble at the turn of the century, and crash or crisis a decade ago. Back west in Calgary in time for the oil price crisis, I’ve done it again at Trinity, where trust funds averaging 8% return over 20 years found no growth in 2018.
What are you scared of this Christmas? How does the faith equip your trust?
Slavoj Zizek’s 2008 book “Violence” offers a Leninist hermeneutical suspicion of the ‘SOS crises’ of visible subjective violence, too often justifying either military or aid responses, or both. A Slovenian survivor of the ‘collapse of Communism’ end of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s Balkan Wars, he cites 3 levels of violence:
1. Subjective violence, eruptions of open conflict suitable for media frenzy;
2. Systemic violence, necessary to smooth functioning of a political economy which Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu used to call ‘covert violence’;
3. Deeper violence, in the way we name and frame our experience, telling people who they are and what they mean.
By the next Christmas, I was citing Zizek’s next book, “Monstrosity of Christ”, as he explored with theologian John Millbank the church as a home of resistance to those levels of violence. They in turn resonated with the work of Karl Barth in the 20th century to resist the liberal disasters of colonializing European religion.
Isaiah comforted his people facing exile with imagery of what an alternative might be like: joy as at the harvest, a payday, payoff, and bonuses, with people exulting as at plunder, children ripping the wrapping off presents. What if the yoke and bar and rod were broken, giving relief from routine repression?
Vindication in Isaiah’s comfort to the people includes boots and bloody garments being burnt. We might imagine CEO’s in “perp-walks” in chains this time, unlike those who ran the financial crisis a decade ago and got off scot-free while citizens everywhere absorbed the costs of their self-serving risk-taking?
Luke’s shepherds were not afraid of the dark, either. They had less to lose than we have. They are, initially, scared by this ‘squadron of the heavenly army.’ W.H. Auden likens them to people working nights to keep the machinery of our economy going: nurses and cleaners and transit drivers, night shift in any plant. They fear becoming news, ‘human interest’ or catastrophe.
Things perked up for the shepherds when they recognized the angels as allies more than equal to the threat of a competing Roman cohort. Imagine if instead of the ‘powers that be’, however hard they try to tell us they are protecting us from terror through their state monopoly on violence, we had a difference boss, or ruler – childlike but not childish? (I preached that long before Trump.)
Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 launched our nuclear terror, and Northrop Frye, then a young United Church minister who would find later fame as a literary critic scholar, responded in Canadian Forum in Christmas 1946. Frye was a genius, but a failure as a local pastor, and a caricature of a shy academic, “on the spectrum” as we might diagnose him now and reject his ordination.
I closed both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year with Frye, as I have in some earlier years. Since we lacked a memory card for audio recording this year, you’re stuck with the full texts in print, for reflection this season or next:
"Christmas is the tribute man pays to the winter solstice, and perhaps to something in himself of which the winter solstice reminds him. We turn on all our lights, and stuff ourselves, and exchange presents, because our ancestors in the forest, watching the sun grow fainter until it was a cold weak light unable to bring any more life from the earth, chose the shortest day of the year to defy an almost triumphant darkness and declare their loyalty to an almost beaten sun.
We have learned that we do not need to worry about the sun, and that there is no monster big enough to swallow it. We have yet to learn that no atomic bomb will ever destroy the human race, that no Dark Age will (as it never has done) totally overspread the earth, that no matter how often man is knocked down, he will always pick himself up, punch drink and sick and morbidly aware of his open guard, spit out some more teeth, and start slugging again.
At that point there is a division between those for whom Christmas is a religious festival, and for whom the new light coming into the world must be divine as well as human if the struggle is ever to be won, and those for whom the festival is human and natural and points to an ultimate human triumph….
What are you scared of, tonight or this morning? Trust the promise of something good, that’s bigger. Trust the sign of something concrete, even a tiny baby. Find some light and heat there: God knows we need it! The same Northrop Frye also wrote in 1972:
"The present secular Christmas is, in any case, really a New Year festival, with Santa Claus representing the spirit of the Old year and the New one hazily identified with the Christ child. The identification is not pressed, because that would lead to the unwelcome inference that the birth of Christ and the death of Santa Claus are the same event.
Once we accept the identity of God with man, the principle that God works in man only under the limitations of the human situation and that divinity in man is to be associated with suffering and endurance rather than with prosperity – once we accept this, it is all over with the benevolent Providence who showers goodies on his beloved middle class and will get around to the less fortunate parts of mankind somewhat later; who, in the words of the National Anthem (in 1972, still God Save the Queen, not O Canada), will bless us and our symbols, but will confound the politics and frustrate the knavish tricks of everybody else. That God is dead, except, of course, that he never was alive."
I wish you all a living, incarnate, transcendent God this Christmas, however uncomfortable and paradoxical that kind of Christmas may prove to be!
God of grace,
we’ve come in from the cold and the dark,
seeking a bit of warmth, a bit of light,
mindful of all that we have left outside,
and to which we will return.
Still our anxious souls,
and provoke our complacent ones,
with something to take with us
when we go out again.
You know that platitudes won’t cut it,
to help us face the deeper darker stuff,
to inspire us to reach the higher better bits.
And if, by your will,
we caught a glimpse or glimmer just now,
light to our darkness,
then assure us again
of who we are and whose we are,
remind us of your grace and favour to us and others,
your arms outstretched, a table set before us,
your welcome extended indiscriminately,
much wider than our own sympathies.
We do not live by Christmas baking alone –
We give thanks for the many ways you feed us,
In communion sharing – the same for each,
From all, for all…