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A Christmas Triduum

"The Triduum" typically refers to the last three days of Holy Week, but the word simply means three days. This year the Church offers three beautiful services over a two-day period with the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve happening the same day. I was able to preach an Advent IV sermon in the morning and end the night with a Christmas Eve sermon. The icing on the cake was the chance to preach another sermon on Christmas morning. It was a fun challenge to weave these different sermons together. Merry Christmas!


Fourth Sunday of Advent Luke 1:26-38

Today the Church gives us something it rarely offers: instant gratification.

We not only get one more moment to dwell in this Advent season, longing for what is to come, but by the time we walk out of this chapel, Christmas services will have begun in the Church. If you listen close enough you can hear David Henning warming up the organ pipes with, “O come, all ye faithful.”

 The psalmist would likely say we are given a double portion today. The chance to hear the promise and experience the fulfillment of that promise.

Mary must have felt like she had one foot in the old world and an invitation to step into the new world God was creating when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and said that she was not only favored by God (which must have been shocking news on its own), but that she would also bear the Savior of Israel, the king of the world, and the very Son of God.

God was doing something new, and he was starting with her. Wow.

Mary had been waiting all her young life to hear that an ancestor of David would finally rule over the land once more (she was about to be married into the royal family, you know), but surely, she didn’t think her fiancé was the ancestor the prophets talked about.

The people of God had been waiting much longer than Mary to hear this same news. Generations had come and gone without any word from God. There had not been a prophet in the land for ages, and God’s silence was deafening.

And then suddenly, God speaks again, through a messenger of another sort. Not a prophet, but an angel this time. And it’s not Joseph who will sit on his ancestor’s throne, but a child born of Mary, bestowed by God himself.

The question she asks the angel is a fair one: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” This is a biological question that the angel answers to her satisfaction, but it can also be read a different way. “How can this be? How can I, little ole Mary, be the one God chooses to begin this new era in human history? The world will never be the same once God enters his creation, and it’s starting it all with me.”

I have no doubt Mary knew her Bible, just read her Magnificat and you’ll see she was a biblical scholar in her own right. I wonder if this angelic encounter made her think about Isaiah’s vision in chapter 11 when a kingdom of peace is foretold:

A shoot will spring forth from the stump of Jesse (David’s father, yet another one of her fiancés’ late relatives). The vision continues: The wolf will live with the lamb, the calf and the lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.

But then it ends with: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (v. 9).

Surely, Mary thought this annunciation from the angel Gabriel was the beginning of the end. Soon, the earth would be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. The time had come for this prophecy to be fulfilled.

You could say, she saw the cracks in the dam. On close inspection, she could see water trickling out from different seams in the concrete which indicated this barrier was about to come crashing down.

But unlike earthly dams whose collapse would bring death and destruction by the sheer force and volume of water that pours from it; this great divide between creation and Creator would bring life in all of its abundance, flooding the world with the knowledge of his love.

It’s like in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when Father Christmas appears to the children. Narnia had been under a dark spell for ages so that it was always winter and never Christmas: always the waiting with no hope of the celebration. This promise goes unfulfilled.

But Aslan’s return to Narnia brings about the end of the old ruler, the old world that had enslaved the land, and his appearing ushers in the new reality. Father Christmas’ presence in Narnia confirms that the new kingdom is beginning to arrive. Christmas is on its way!

And the same is true for us today. We have made our journey through Advent, and we will momentarily step into the twelve-day season of Christmastide. What will we have taken away from this season of the now and not yet? This season in which the preparation to celebrate Christ’s first Incarnation points us to the day when he will come again.

Our collect for this Sunday is a good clue. It says, “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”

By the end of this season, we have hopefully become a little more like Mary. Her womb became the home of God for nine long months. She literally did what you and I are called to spiritually do in this season.

Have we invited God to visit us daily and purify our conscience? Have we spent the necessary time cleaning our hearts, our wills, desires, and intentions to be a mansion for the Son of God to dwell?

If not, you’ve got about 30 minutes to do so before Christmas starts.

But another way of looking at it, this is the construction project of a lifetime. The dam of God’s love and goodness has broken and continues to overpour, and in so doing, we can build a mansion in our own heart; a womb for divine love to grow within us.

I’ll close with this story.

There was a young monk who was trying to clean and decorate his small monastery for Christmas before his fellow monks returned from their errands in town. He had been working all morning, using a handmade broom to sweep up all the dirt and dust that had accumulated on the floor, even getting on his hands and knees to scrub the red brick floors.

After a while, it began to really look like Christmas in their modest hermitage. Suddenly, Brother Francis walked through the door and shook off the cold as he made his way to the fire. The old monk looked around the room and said to the young man, “You have been quite busy, Brother Angelo. The Holy Child may well visit our hut. Would that our hearts, too, be well prepared!”

Brother Angelo smiled, glad his work was so appreciated. He then told the old monk how he had been disturbed earlier in the day by three well-known robbers who came begging for food.

Asked what his response was to their request, Brother Angelo said, “I sent them away and scolded them well for their bad ways. I told them God would [condemn] them eternally.”

“You said that and sent them away?” Brother Francis retorted.

“Their hands were red with blood,” the young monk said.

To which Francis replied, “They stretched them out for help and you left them unfilled?”

“They were robbers, Brother Francis.”

“They were brothers, Brother Angelo,” the old man said.

“Brothers? The robbers?” Angelo said as he looked down at his newly cleaned floors.

“They wander in cold and hunger,” Francis continued, “and you make yourself comfortable in the warm house. Oh, Brother Angelo, your heart is not so well prepared for Christmas as this hut is.”

Ashamed and determined to make things right, the young monk wandered the snowy hills in search of the robbers, with a sack of bread and a pitcher of wine in hand. After a few hours in the cold, he finally found them, though they were unhappy to see him, assuming he’d come to scold them once more.  

Brother Angelo explained his error and sought their forgiveness, handing them the bread and wine that would hopefully get them through Christmas. He invited them to visit the monastery whenever they needed anything.

“What about Brother Francis,” they asked, “will he scold us if we come to the monastery?”

Angelo’s face lit up. “He calls you brothers.”

“Brothers!” they exclaimed in one voice. And then they stood in silence for a moment, letting it sink in.

Reaching out his hand, Brother Angelo clasped their rough, stained hands and said, “Farewell, brother robbers.”

As we prepare our homes for the festive celebration that is to come this day, may we also prepare a room—no, a mansion—for the Prince of Peace to come and dwell in our hearts in these waning moments of Advent, and as the light of Christmas begins to dawn.

 

Christmas Eve Luke 2:1-20

The Young Marine Back in the 1950s, there was a young Marine stationed in Atlanta, Georgia, and he was getting ready to head home for Christmas.

His leave, like all military leaves, began at midnight on Christmas Eve, but he knew he could leave when the office closed at 4:30 p.m. He made sure to go by his quarters to pick up the clothes and presents he was taking with him to Florida.

There were no interstate highways back then, so he chose to drive his 1953 Plymouth Coupe down Highway 441, southeast of Atlanta.

As he made his way south, he knew it would be difficult to get gas on Christmas Eve. Time was of the essence. Having made the drive many times before he knew there was a Texaco station in Fargo, Georgia that closed at 10 p.m. The only trouble was Fargo was 250 miles away.

It was a clear, moonlit night, with no traffic on the roads, and he was making great time. When he looked at his watch around 9 o’clock he figured he was 30 or 40 miles from the gas station in Fargo. The trouble was that his gas tank was almost empty. His only hope was to reach the station before his car puttered to a stop.

Twenty miles out and he was still going strong; then ten, then five, but his luck finally ran out. Just three miles north of Fargo he ran out of gas, and decided to try to hitch a ride by standing next to his stranded car.

Fifteen long minutes passed and then he saw headlights in the distance, as it got closer his hopes began to rise. But as he stuck out his thumb, the car vroomed past him, not even tapping on the brakes once.

And so, the stranded Marine started walking the three-mile journey to the Texaco station. A few minutes passed and then he saw another car making its way down the highway, not going nearly as fast as the other one. As it got closer, it slowed down and he could see it was a beat-up, out-of-production, Kaiser.  The driver stopped and rolled down his passenger window. 

He could tell it had been a while since the driver had a good shave or been to a barber. The stranger yelled out the window, “What’s the matter? Need some help?”  The young Marine said yes, and he asked if he could get a ride into town.  The old man said, “Sure, hop in.” 

As he got in the car, the young man noticed two children in the back, and then realized that apparently all the family’s belongings were in the car (and on the top of the car)! It was a mess and it smelled, but he was just grateful to have a ride.

The conversation was minimal, the old man was an out-of-work housepainter who hoped to find a job in Florida.  But as the driver rambled on about his life, the Marine’s mind kept drifting to thoughts of being home with his family and the long drive he had before him.

Thankfully, they got to Fargo just a few minutes before the station closed.  After getting a can of gas the Marine started walking in the direction of his car.  The old man said, “I’ll give you a ride. I’ve got nothing to do. In fact, I’ve got lots of time.” No matter how messy or smelly that car was, it sure beat walking, and so he hopped back in. 

They rode in silence for a while until the young man blurted out, “Why did this have to happen to me?  I just want to get home for Christmas!” 

After a pause, the old man said, “I know why it happened, it’s so I can tell you about Jesus Christ, how he was born this night for you and for me.” The Marine, the skeptic he was, thought to himself, “Oh no! I’ve got a crazy one here.” 

The old man went on and told him it was Jesus who gave him hope and encouragement to keep going in life, and ultimately, who gave him salvation. And like Linus from The Peanuts, the old man looked at him and said, “That’s what Christmas is all about.”

When they reached the Marine’s car he jumped out of the beat-up Kaiser, said thank you, and pulled out a $10 bill to give to his disheveled chauffeur. The old man said he didn’t need it, but the Marine insisted on paying him off, in part, to get him off his conscience.

As he got back in his car and headed south the Marine was relieved to get away from the old man and all his talk about Jesus. He was ready to go home and see his family and open some presents.

But even so, what the old man said lingered in the back of his mind not only for the rest of the car ride home but months and years later.

The Unexpected What I love about Christmas is just how unexpected it all is. There is something about this season where I think God likes to surprise us, and it all starts with the original Christmas story.

If you think about it, absolutely no one would have planned it this way if it was up to them. Hollywood would’ve never produced a movie with a script like this; it’s too outrageous, too far-fetched.

God chose a no-name girl to do what? Bear the Son of God? While engaged? So, no earthly father? How does that work?

The heavenly hosts chose not to reveal these “glad tidings of great joy” with the most pious or powerful in Jerusalem? Not with the high priest, not with King Herod, not even with a large crowd so that news could spread quicker! Instead, Gabriel and his entourage of angels revealed the most shocking news in world history to a handful of shepherds. Really? That seems like bad marketing on God’s part. 

The Christmas story reminds us that God prefers to do the exact opposite of what we would’ve planned.  

Somehow, someway, this was God’s great plan to rescue his creation.  In this little town of Bethlehem, away from the busyness and holiness of Jerusalem, away from the great civilizations and cities that scattered the world, this one birth from a poor Jewish family was, in fact, the crescendo of all human history.

Everything that had gone before was leading up to this moment of the Incarnation where God the Son would take on flesh and blood and enter his own creation. With this act, heaven’s invasion began. God’s rescue operation was underway…AND YET…no one expected it.  

Apparently, this is just how God operates. We think we know his next move, only to realize our guess isn’t even close…but somehow the outcome is better than anything we could have ever imagined.

Humans, so mired in their sin and brokenness, lusting after power and wealth, ruled by their desires, AND YET God didn’t leave us to our own devices. He didn’t press Control-Alt-Delete on his creation.

Rather, he emptied himself of his heavenly rights and privileges and submitted to a human birth; he freely chose to be weak and utterly dependent on others for his survival when he entered the world on that night in Bethlehem.

Right when we think we’ve got it, right when we think we know what God is up to, we hear the divine: “AND YET.”

 With this monumental act, Jesus wasn’t turning the world upside down, but as the writer N.T. Wright says Jesus was turning the world right-side up! We just didn’t know we needed such drastic correction. We had been living in an upside-down world since the Fall that we just assumed the way life is now is how it was always meant to be. 

And Yet for You This Christmas, the phrase I hope you remember is: AND YET. Because there may be something in your life that you are certain will not change for the better (it cannot possibly change for the better). You may have even resigned yourself to that fact.  

It may have to do with a relationship issue, or the lack of meaningful relationships. You may feel trapped in a dead-end career, an addiction that seems insurmountable, or some kind of pain that seems like it will never go away.

But Jesus’ Incarnation forces us to consider that God can and will work mightily in our lives and in this world, yet not as we expect. He will work on his terms and not ours. And those surprises, as frustrating as it is to wait, are worth it.

The Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us is the biggest curveball ever thrown. It was on absolutely no one’s radar…but if you read the Bible long enough, it begins to make sense that God would work this way because he’s always been a God of astounding surprises.

What drives God to go to such lengths for us? Love. You cannot explain it otherwise. The driving force behind all of God’s actions in the Bible that leads ultimately to this Incarnational moment is his unrelenting love for us. That divine “And Yet” is pointed right at us. God did not have to do what he did, AND YET he did…for us…for you.

Maybe you need to be reminded of that tonight. You are loved not because of anything that you bring to the table. Mary wasn’t known for her beauty, Joseph for his intelligence, or the shepherds for their wealth, but when each experienced the love of God breaking into this world—and into their lives—they responded with a form of love called faith.

Conclusion For that young Marine back in the '50s, something in him changed that Christmas Eve. His skepticism about God and the church slowly began to melt away because of what that old man said.

Soon, he started going to church and getting involved. Time passed, he raised a family, had a good career, but he felt God was nudging him to take another leap of faith.

God was calling him to sell the house, quit the job, and go to seminary. The only things God was consistent about were the surprises he put in his path. So, he faithfully went and as God would have it, he became the rector of my childhood church. And that Gospel fire that was kindled in him was shared with all of us in the pews. And honestly, he’s one of the biggest reasons I stand before today.

Fr. Gene Wise passed away earlier this year, but I am struck by how one unexpected interaction along a highway can make all the difference. One moment to be reminded of God’s love can be the catalyst that will lead to lifelong transformation.


That was true for my old priest in the same way it was true for Mary and Joseph and the shepherds that Christmas night. God’s surprising love changes everything.

This Incarnate love could be found in a lowly feeding trough on that first Christmas, he could be found on the side of the road just north of Fargo, Georgia, and by his grace, he can be found in this place tonight.

So come, let us adore him.


 

 Christmas Day Luke 2:1-20

I love the Christmas Day service because it feels like one big exhaling breath after yesterday’s festivities. This is the calm after the storm.

Christmas Eve is wonderful, don’t get me wrong. It’s a gift to welcome so many people into our beautiful church, but this service shares a little bit of what Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds must have felt like some hours after the birth of Jesus.

At some point, the shepherds looked at the Holy Family, then looked at the others, and maybe their sundial watches, and said, “I think we’re gonna go now.”

Not to say the wonder of it all wore off, but at some point, you’ve got to settle into a routine. Mary and Joseph needed to figure out how to care for this baby— Son of God or not—he needed to eat and be changed every so often.

The shepherds went back to their field and likely reflected on what they witnessed, but after a while, they just went about their business.

And so, with the magic of last night waning, and the presents under the tree already torn to shreds, it may be fair to ask: What was it we were waiting for again? And what do we do now?

For this sermon, I want to share with you a letter, then a poem, and I’ll end with one final thought.

So first, the letter. I received this Christmas note from a lovely couple I studied with in Jerusalem years ago. They are some of the most genuine Christians I have ever met, and they now have four beautiful children.

In the background of this letter is a longing for them to understand a medical condition of one of their children that seems to baffle them and their doctors. This uncertainty is heavy on their hearts but has also granted them a profound amount of wisdom. The wife writes:

Our lives this past year seem to be waiting constantly for answers in all areas of our lives. As we write this, most of our questions are still unanswered and so we continue to wait. It is through this time of waiting that I have wrestled with understanding prayer and the silence that seems to be present after intercession.

It is through the Advent season that my heart has come to sense a peace and a satisfaction in the waiting. Christmas has always been, and will most likely continue to be, my most favorite holiday.

Maybe my perspective changed when I became a mother or maybe it was taking a more anthropological look at the people of the Bible. But my view of Christmas has changed and broadened. I used to think that it was simply a joyful time of year to reflect on our savior coming into the world as a baby and, while that is a beautiful and joyful aspect of it, it has been pressed upon me that it cannot stop there.

Being born into this time in history we have the unique privilege to be able to see the story from conception through resurrection and everything in between. We are able to see what the world was like before Jesus, how He changed it with his life, with His death and, ultimately, with His resurrection.

During this time my view of Mary has also changed from a young happy mother bringing a healthy son into the world, to a mother who was told from the beginning that her son's life would be marred with challenges and pain all for the sole purpose of rescuing the world from that same pain.

Mary was waiting. She did not know the time, the place, or the age that Jesus would be when all of this happened, but it was inevitable that a sword would pierce her own heart and that anguish, sorrow, and longing would flow; it breaks me for her and brings reality to the situation.

For many things in life, waiting is the hardest part. I think this is what Elizabeth and Mary felt from the moment of conception…And yet that is what ALL of our lives would be like for eternity if not for the birth of Jesus.

The anticipation of death with nothing to come, waiting on nothing but for our lives to end. But with Jesus we have not only a hope for the future but a reason to be here now. That our waiting is not in vain. That in our waiting he knows and he is in control.

That is the hope that Jesus brings, in the thick of all things hard and challenging, in the midst of the unknowns, in the shadows of despair, in the winds of chaos and confusion, he stands firm; a rock unable to be upturned, a mountain that will not shake.

Jesus came and he is the hope of the world. The descension of the despair rises in the light of the hope that was born 2,000 years ago. Christmas brings hope, so while I cry silent tears knowing of his pain because of me, I can sing at the joy that his birth brings.

This letter reminds me that Christmas offers a waiting that is not in vain. The road that this child must walk is never lost on his parents, never lost on Mary who will be there through the great joys and deepest sorrows of his life. The miracle of his birth prefigures the even greater miracle that will happen at the end of his life. Even the first day of the Incarnation is linked to his future crucifixion and resurrection.

As St. Augustine once wrote, “So that humans might be born of God, God was born of humans.” The Babe of Bethlehem has come for a reason and it is to bring hope—especially to those who feel like they have been forgotten, left behind, or left out. This child is the hope of all the nations.

This brings us to the poem I’d like to share with you. If Christmas reminds us that we have hope because of are not alone; it also reminds us that we are loved. The shepherds were a lonely bunch, a pregnant virgin and her fiancé were likewise pushed to the margins as well. 

But this baby in the manger reminded them that God’s love casts away the doubt and despair we feel during different seasons of our lives. We are God’s beloved, and when all else fails, that should be enough.

And so, here is Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnett:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Both lonely shepherds and lonely kings can be transformed by the love of Christ. The wealth of this divine love is immeasurable, and the keys to the treasury are with the babe of Bethlehem.

I can’t help but believe the shepherds looked back years later at everything that happened that first Christmas and it brought them a sense of “belovedness” that they may have otherwise never experienced. The heavenly hosts came to them and no one else—they were handpicked by God himself to hear the news of Jesus’s birth before anyone else.

On hot days in the field, surrounded by their sheep, they probably whispered to themselves, “Wow, I am loved.”

And so, this Christmas morning may you know that there is hope for this world and hope for you because of the Christ-child. May you know that you are loved, and if you are overcome by pain or despair, look to the Lover of your soul who seats you at an eternal table among shepherds and kings.

 

4th Sunday of Advent. Year B. Romans 16:25-27. Luke 1:26-38. An adaptation by Helene Christaller’s Brother Robber found in Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old (pp.1-7). Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash.

Christmas Eve. Year B. Luke 2:1-20. Story was given by Fr. Gene Wise, which I adapted.  Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash.

Christmas Day. Year B. Luke 2:1-20.  Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.

 

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