Luke 2:8-20, Isaiah 9:2,6
The Reverend Tom Herbek
December 18, 2016
This is the time of tidings of great joy for all people, a time for joyous celebrations. And we are the designated celebrators, a great honor. Melinda Shoaf wrote the following:
After New Year’s, I was sitting at the breakfast table in a stupor. My husband asked if I was all right.
”I’m exhausted,” I answered. ”I’m totally exhausted:’
He looked puzzled. “Why do you do this to yourself every year?”
I have to admit that part of what I do around the winter holidays seems almost involuntary, innate. It’s as if I’m driven by the ancient need to mark the darkness of winter with my little bit of light.
My answer to my husband’s question is that I believe one of the most important things I can do while I’m on this planet is honor those I love through celebrations, and the older I get, the more I believe it.
I believe that in this world there is and always has been so much sadness and sorrow, so much uncertainty, that if we didn’t set aside time for merriment, gifts, music, and laughter with family and friends, we might just forget to celebrate altogether. We’d just plod along in life.
I believe in the importance of celebrations. As my family’s Designated Celebrator I may be tired and I may not have done all that I set out to do, but I believe that this year, I celebrated the ones I love, and I hope with all my heart that I celebrated them well.
- This I Believe II
This is the time of year when we pause to celebrate the light of God in us, in the people around us, in our world. This is the time of year when we allow ourselves to hope. Poet Anne Weems comments:
The whole world waits in December darkness
for a glimpse of the Light of God.
Even those who snarl “Humbug!”
and chase away the carolers
have been seen looking toward the skies.
The one who declared he never would forgive
and those who left home
and even wars are halted,
as the whole world looks starward.
In the December darkness
we peer from our windows
watching for an angel with rainbow wings
to announce the Hope of the World.
This is the time of year when we choose to defy the realities of darkness: violence, hatred, prejudice, meanness.
In addition to joy, perhaps what we need to feel this Christmas is also some old fashioned defiance. John Shea puts it this way:
The Christmas revelation can be phrased: no matter how severe the darkness of the outer world is, it cannot overcome the inner and transcendent light. Although we do not always reflect on it, there is an edge to Christmas, an in-your-face attitude. Chesterton put it simply and well: “A religion that defies the world should have a feast that defies the weather.” So I wish you a defiant Christmas.
- Goodness and Light
In the midst of all of the darkness in our world, we defiantly proclaim that this is a time of joy, a time of light, a time of God’s presence. Angels and shepherds, perfect beings and imperfect beings, all experienced joy on that special night – and it was contagious. Sometimes we get caught up in emotion and it can surround us and overwhelm us.
In a wedding I once performed, the groom said his vows first. When he began his vows, his lip was quivering and his eyes were moist. Before we had finished half of his vows, he was so overwhelmed, he could not continue. As I paused for a moment to let him regain his composure, the bride began to cry for joy, and then all the bridesmaids, both sets of parents, the grandparents, one of the readers, and then there were sniffles from the groomsmen. Joy is catching! It is truly contagious!
And it is especially contagious when there is new life, new birth, new possibility involved. I wish I had had my camera one Saturday when I was a hospital chaplain, and went to visit a mother and her baby in the nursery – not to take a picture of the babies, but to take a picture of the people on the other side of the glass. It was a wonderful sight to see – everyone who walked by would peek in through the window and this amazing joy would spread across their faces. No one who looked into that window could help it, whether they were grandparents or strangers, those babies created something they all caught. It was contagious joy.
I like what Desmond Tutu said about joy:
Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.
The three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our joy are our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous.
It is a virtuous cycle. The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but, as the Archbishop poetically phrased it, “to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.” Joy is in fact quite contagious. As is love, compassion, and generosity.
- The Book of Joy
People become designated celebrators, enablers of great joy to all people, in lots of ways at Christmas. Sometimes the joy of Christmas – of God with us – allows us to do things we might not do otherwise.
In his book Uh-oh, Robert Fulgham describes how it can happen, how it happened when the Salvation Army in his town agreed to allow his church to help:
As a parish minister engaged in the social concerns of my community, I found the Army at work whenever human need was greatest. Doing the hard stuff – the work nobody else would do. Shelters for the homeless, food for the hungry, refuge for the battered, company for the aged, and a hand to alcoholics, drug addicts, the jobless, the young. Whenever there was no other place to turn, the end of the road had someone from the Army beside it. The only qualification was need. No test of faith, race, color, sex, or place in life. Just need. As one officer explained to me, “Jesus was one of the homeless, you know.”
Because I was a Unitarian, some Christian groups shunned me and my church. Not the Salvos. “If you want to help us help others, come on, and welcome,” said the Salvation Army colonel when we offered. “We need help sorting out human problems here on earth; God will sort out the rest of the problems later.”
And so for many years our little heathen Unitarian church kept the kettles boiling for the Salvation Army every December. They didn’t quite know what to make of us, especially when we decided to form our own band.
A junior high school teacher of music offered to conduct what we called the Salvation Smarmy Band, and the word went out for volunteers. At least forty people turned up that first Sunday afternoon for rehearsal. About half those present were youngsters just starting out with an instrument. Their moms sent them. A few hotshot high school musicians gave some hope for an actual melody being carried by the band. The most enthusiastic recruits came from the ranks of the middle-aged men who had played in a band all the way through college and loved every minute of it. The good old days were still strong in their minds. Their lips were long gone, but they owned horns and came to play.
And who do you think played the bass drum? Me, that’s who. Of course. If you are patient long enough, some dreams come true and fate will draft you.
To make a long, wonderfully ridiculous story short, the band actually showed up at the shopping center for their gig. The youngsters had found a bunch of World War II-vintage combat helmets to wear – it was an Army band, right? And the older guys wore Mexican Mariachi Band sombreros left over from a pinata party at church. And play? We played! I mean we played! Something powerful and mighty. Forty of us – hooting and honking away at full blast there on the sidewalk. The time of our lives! And people came from all over the shopping mall to see what on earth was going on.
Because my bass drum playing proved a little erratic, a lot of what we did sounded a little bit Brazilian. The “Hark the Herald Angels” mambo was my specialty. In B-flat major, my key.
What with all this din, and with my kid Sam clanging his bell and shouting “HELP, HELP, THE POOR CHILDREN,” we were an unavoidable event. The Herald Angels had nothing on us. We Harked up a storm. And we raised so much money the kettle was filled to overflowing. A kettle record, actually.
The Salvation Army officer wouldn’t show up to empty the kettle until we left. He was a little embarassed, I think. But I saw him sitting out in the parking lot in his truck. Smiling. He was sincere when he said he would take any help he could get. We didn’t play very long, anyhow. The old guys’ lips blew out, and the moms came for the kids who had to get home to bed.
The joy of Christmas might mean we play a bass drum, or it might just mean we sit and smile. People who may not believe exactly what we do or express it exactly the way we might often help us to see the joy of Christmas in surprising ways. Because this joy is contagious.
Especially at this Christmastime, there are people who seem to have a tough time finding the joy of the season. When we begin to be overcome by the spirit of love at Christmas, joy can overwhelm us. For those who feel the joy of Jesus’ birth, there’s a twinkle in their eyes and joy in their hearts.
That joy is contagious, and it can’t be ignored. The joy of Christmas is the joy that comes when we begin to realize that our lives have been changed forever by what happened in a stable in Bethlehem.
We are called to be designated celebrators, perhaps even defiant ones, at that.
Just like the people looking through the glass at the hospital, we can’t help but be infected by this joy when we perceive this birth.
God is no longer out there somewhere, watching over the universe. God is the one who came to us, came to us as a tiny baby. And as we look through the glass at the baby, when we realize this new birth, then the contagious joy swells in our hearts. Not only did God come to us, but God came to us in order to love us.
May that joy be in our hearts on this day and in the days to come, the joy of new beginnings; the joy that someone loves us enough to commit their life to ours; the joy that overwhelms our hearts, our minds, and our souls, and brings tears of joy to our lives.
May the joy of Christmas be caught by all of us this Christmas, through the baby of Bethlehem.
And that is cause for celebration for all of us: Designated Celebrators!