Christmas Homily, December 24/25, 2017

Christmas Homily

December 24/25, 2017

At this season of the year, I follow a few traditions with family and friends; one of them being Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” at ACT Theatre.  Whenever I attend this play and observe this timeless tale unfold, some word, phrase or character will grab my attention; as if seeing this play for the first time.  To me, it’s like reading scripture and in the manner I learned in monastic life.  When you read scripture with the eyes of your heart and learn to wait on the words, bringing your life to the text,   it will lead to revelation and a way of seeing that surprises; an encounter that changes us.  As the poet Dickenson puts it:  In scripture, we find “words that breathe.”  We encounter presence.  And the birth of Christ is all about the gift of presence; the God who wants to get close.

Similarly, I find this to be true with “A Christmas Carol”.  The meaning beneath this tale is fathomless, deep and, as I was made to see this year, timely.

For instance, I noticed as if for the first time how the wild mane of hair on the Ghost of Christmas Present turns gray as his time with Scrooge runs out.  His bacchanalian, gregarious nature grows old and wears thin.   By this change, with words somber and tinged with sadness, Scrooge is warned—and ourselves, too—that nothing in this present life lasts.    Words of scripture come to mind:  “We have here no lasting city.”   And in the gospel of John, we hear:  “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  The word, “dwelt” means, “to pitch one’s tent” in Greek; the language of the gospel.  In other words, this birth reveals God on the move; this tent dweller mystery.  Life with God is meant to be fluid, detached; never static or intent on digging in our heels. 

In this year’s production at ACT, Scrooge was portrayed by a black actor; a first for me.  That grabbed my attention as Scrooge walked on stage.  It was unexpected and left me feeling a bit surprised; with an unfamiliar feel to it. The actor spoke with a flawless English accent and gave an impeccable performance; one of the best in all the years I’ve attended.  His performance won me over, and away from preconceived expectations.

As I allowed the newness of this portrayal to speak, it became timely and relevant, especially in light of the uptick in racial tension in our country and  that has left many of us feeling deeply disturbed; concerned with alt-right tendencies and lack of moral vision in this nation today.

I thought to myself, “A black Scrooge is prophetic and speaks volumes; like scripture.  Even Dicken’s words and their meaning were heightened by a black Scrooge and when placed next to the disarray we face at the present time.   

I  would imagine there were some in the audience who were put off by a black Scrooge.  The sin of racism with its lie runs deep in the American psyche, I’m afraid.  We stand in need of a Redeemer to deliver us from what blinds and separates.   We wander more in darkness than the light these days.

Often, newness threatens us.  This Divine Birth threatens and unsettles when we take its meaning to heart.   God is bringing about something entirely new by this birth; in ways meant to shaken and change us.   It’s why we sentimentalize Christ’s birth: to tame its message with tinsel and nostalgic hues.   Like every birth, Christ’s birth wants to push us beyond what confines and into a newness born of God and   seeing others in a new light; to see as God sees, without prejudice or judgment.

Soon after his election, Pope Francis addressed a mentality that leaves the church and our lives anemic.  And it is this:  “We have always done it this way.”  Such thinking undermines the newness God desires to bring about into our lives; an unexpected, jarring newness.  When we resist the change and newness Christ offers to this fallen, crippled world, then life narrows and faith atrophies.  Christmas is the time to allow this birth with its truth to get under our skin and to change us.

Watching Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” this season left me chastened and stretched by this black Scrooge and as I allowed its moral truth to teach; drawing me more into the light of its message. 

In tandem with this, I recently read an online article in the Jesuit periodical, “America”.  Its title, “What Being One of the First Black Tiny Tim’s Taught Me About the Incarnation” by Eric Styles.     In 1984 and at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, the seven year-old Styles played Tiny Tim in Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol”; a young kid from a working class family from Chicago’s South side.  The first black Tiny Tim.

At the time, his portrayal mirrored the significant changes happening in Chicago.  The Board of Education was implementing a school desegregation plan, and Chicago had just elected its first black Mayor. 

As Eric Styles puts it in the article, “(The play) captured the progress reverberating in my own life and across the city.  That year, eight out of 27 cast members were black—a powerful first for a city as ethnically diverse and, at the time, decidedly segregated as Chicago.”

When “A Christmas Carol” was performed that year there were complaints.   “One woman wrote that ‘She longed to see an English Tiny Tim’; with the word ‘English’ heavily underlined.”

Nevertheless, newness was happening; being brought to birth and into the light on that stage.  “Imaginations were stretched and hearts expanded” by a black Tiny Tim and the timeless meaning of Dicken’s story.  Dicken’s inspiration gave words to the momentous events taking place in Chicago.  It resonated and spoke; like scripture.

Eric Styles comments that Dicken’s tale is “still relevant, still capable of touching hearts, of moving us beyond quaint nostalgia, into the deeper truths of our shared existence.”

The mystery of the Incarnation and birth of Christ has the grace to do just that as well and as we take this mystery to heart, allowing it to move us into what is being revealed by such a birth:  the deeper truth of our shared existence and with the persuasive power to stretch us beyond what limits and blinds us.   As we look at this nation and world of ours, we need the promise and hope of Christ’s birth more than ever.

The way this birth happened was all so unexpected: with Jesus born outside a crowded Inn and among animals, placed in a manger that was little more than a feeding trough.  By it all, something new was taking place as this God-child took on, for the sake of all, the smell of the sheep.   The Word made flesh continues to draw close to us and in ways that often surprise and jar us.   Yet, we lose sight of the Face that continues to be revealed due to preconceived notions that dull the mind.  What Jesus reveals by this birth is that there is a Face glimpsed in every face. 

Year after year, we celebrate this Birth that we might recover what has been lost to us due to our sophistication and adult ways.  This mysterious birth wants to bring us to our knees and so return us to the source:  humbling us to see life and each other in a fresh, new manner, and to find courage to live the glad tidings of this birth despite the violence and racial hatred that exists; the legislated inhumanity and arrogance that threatens to sour hope and deaden faith.  We are made for more, and truly are more.  This is the good news of Christ’s birth.

In his exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” Pope Francis writes:

‘By his coming, Christ brought with him all newness.’ (St. Irenaeus)  With this freshness he is always able to renew our lives and our communities, and even if the Christian message has known periods of darkness and ecclesial weakness, it will never grow old.

By this birth we are meant to be shaken out of our narrow indifference; our eyes opened to see differently; in a new light and as did that Chicago audience in 1984: beyond the color of one’s skin and differences that separate.

Yet, this is not enough and is lacking as I ponder the seamless meaning of the Divine birth; the enlivening presence Christ reveals.  I don’t believe we’re meant to look beyond color or difference, but to see its innate value; in that it reveals something of God’s own unique reality.   We often fall short when it comes to this way of seeing and as we face the plight of minorities in this country; those who live on the periphery and outside the crowded Inn.  To see the mystery of God in the faces of those we tend to overlook and ignore is the challenge this birth wants us to face.  Perhaps the face we ignore is our own.

Whenever I see Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” I exit the theater with the true meaning of this season    inside me; with a desire for change that Scrooge embodies.  For me, Dicken’s tale is the gospel in miniature.  The nature of the season and much of what belief involves is there:  gratitude, joy, generosity, family, friendship and the fleeting nature of human life.  Dicken’s tale was a judgment on the injustices of the industrial revolution and plight of the poor during his time; calling the English people to a change of heart.  It continues as a wake-up call, urging us to become new-born and child-like before it’s too late; as did Scrooge, this image of conversion and deeper life.

Both Scrooge and Christ’s birth reveal how vulnerability leads us to God; to what we ardently desire.  It is the paradoxical grace of both births.  Scrooge, “solitary as an oyster”, recovers his life by becoming more and more vulnerable with each ghostly encounter.  In the birth of Christ, God becomes vulnerable and small; swaddled in infant flesh.  Vulnerability cracks the shell of the ego and opens us to God and the mystery of another; like a child.  Whenever I hold a small baby in my arms and after their baptism, I find myself smiling at the wonder of it all; the innocent goodness in my arms.  I feel my own vulnerability and desire to be held.  Through such vulnerability, I feel close to God; close to the awareness that “We are held, held fast by God” as the writer Annie Dillard puts it in “Holy the Firm”.

Let me end with words by the writer Brennen Manning:

God entered into our world not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory, but in a way of weakness, vulnerability and need.  On a wintry night in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.  (p. 187)

A blessed Christmas to all of you!

Father Tim Clark, Pastor  

Our Lady of the Lake Parish, Seattle

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