Sunday, December 25, 2005

Homily for the Nativity

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Given at St. Alban's, Arlington on 24 Dec 2005
by The Rev'd Timothy Matkin, ssc

They call them the "thin places." For the Celtic Christians of Scotland and Ireland and Britain, who are among our closest spiritual ancestors as Anglicans, there was great significance to natural places of meeting. They were fascinated by shorelines where the sea met the land, by fjords and rivers, even by doorways of their homes which were the meeting places of outside and the inside. These spoke to them as ways that God uses time and space to meet us and give us glimpse his holiness in the here-and-now.

The native Celtic festivals celebrated times when the world we see and the unseen world seemed to be in close proximity, even to overlap. Of course, to believe in such a thing as a "thin place" you must also believe in a reality which is beyond what we can see, touch, taste and smell. Thin places mean little to those who are convinced that nothing is real that cannot be identified and quantified. Thin places elude those with no longing for transcendence, with no mind for events filled with mystery, wonder, and awe. Events like this holy night in which we observe the vigil of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ—the eve of the Christ-mass.

Every Christmas, we long to capture that sense of wonder and awe. It is the one time of the year when I almost feel like a child again. (Dare I say, to feel like tiny Tim again?) And rightly so. Charles Dickens put it this way, "It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty founder was a child himself." The Holy Land has its thin places too. They cover the land. You find them in the towns of Nazareth and Bethany. You see them at the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. You discover them at Cana and Jerusalem.

One of the early thin places mention in the Bible is Bethel. We find the story of Jacob at Bethel in Genesis 28. Jacob was the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. And at this point in Genesis, he is traveling to find a wife. He’s also on the run from Esau, after stealing his blessing. Jacob camped at Bethel for the night, resting his head on a stone. He dreamed that he saw there a stairway reaching up into heaven, with angels going up and down upon it.

Above that was God the Father, speaking to Jacob, confirming to him the promises made to his father and grandfather, and pledging to be with Jacob all the days of his life. Jacob awoke suddenly, and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I didn’t even know it." And the Bible says he was sore afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."

In the morning, Jacob marked the spot with a stack of stones, which he consecrated as an altar and a memorial. The narrator tells us, that is why this city is now called Beth-el—the "House of God." Later, Jacob unknowingly wrestled with God through the night at Peniel. God gave him the new name Israel in honor of his will to keep up the struggle. And Israel would go on to be reconciled to his brother Esau and to have twelve sons, who became the twelve tribes of Israel.

Another thin place is Bethlehem, or Bet-lechem. It means "House of Bread," and the town is called the "city of David" for it was there, in his hometown, that David was anointed by the prophet Samuel as king of Israel. Micah had foretold that, like David, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and that he would rule the throne of his father David for ever and ever. Bethlehem is really a rural village. As it was in David’s time, it is surrounded by flocks of sheep with their shepherds.

It is on this holy night that heaven and earth—the visible and the invisible parts of God’s glorious creation—begin to overlap and intertwine. As simple shepherds gaze up into the dark and starry night sky, it is suddenly filled with the light of heaven. With the brilliance of God’s glory shining all around them, just as Jacob beheld the angelic stairway, these simple shepherds became sore afraid. And the angel of the Lord said, "Be not afraid. I bring good news. This is news of great joy for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. You will find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger."

The quiet countryside once punctuated by the baahs of sheep now come alive with the sound of fluttering angel wings and with the music of all the choirs of heaven, singing "Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and goodwill to men." What was so special about Bethlehem that night? What made it one of the thin places? It was because there, in a simple village, in a shelter for animals, God’s gift to mankind was unwrapped and presented to the world. The Lord called simple shepherds to come to receive the gift on behalf of all humanity. How simple, yet how wondrous and the ways of the Lord!

Is it not true that the best gifts are the ones we really need. For every time it is used, we are reminded of the wisdom and generosity of the one who gave it. The world was not in need of a prophet or teacher or healer. But the world was in desperate need of a Savior. And so the Angel says, "unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." This is God's greatest gift to the world.

It was on this night that God’s plan of redemption was manifest in the flesh. On this holy night, the ark was opened—the ark of a new covenant. On this night, the immaculate womb of the blessed Virgin Mary gave forth a Son. The old ark contained the Word of God written on tablets of stone; the new ark contained the Word of God, who became flesh to dwell among us. The old ark contained the blossomed rod of Aaron, the high priest; the new ark contained our Lord Jesus Christ—our eternal great high priest. The old ark contained a jar of manna—the bread that God provided to feed Israel in the wilderness; the new ark contained the true bread that comes down from heaven (see John 6). On this night, the blessed Mother bore the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, true God from true God. The eternal manna, the true bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world was manifested to us for the first time in Bethlehem ("House of Bread.")

Which reminds me, I made my first communion on Christmas eve 1991 at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, Washington. (Look where that got me.) My own non-denominational church was not offering any Christmas eve or Christmas day services that year. And I wanted to celebrate the festival the right way. I wanted to go to the house of God, the gate of heaven. For me, it was a thin place, it was a holy night, heaven and earth came together. That happens each and every time the Mass is celebrated across the world. The Christian altar is a thin place—it is the gate, or the "meeting-place" of heaven and earth. In celebrating the Eucharist, we go back to Bethlehem and receive heavenly manna at the house of bread. At every Mass, we join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven in their unending hymn of praise to God.

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That night 14 years ago at that big Episcopal cathedral in Seattle, I felt like I was singing with the angels at Bethlehem. And I also knew it was time to receive Jesus as manna. The true bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world is not food symbolizing God; it is, rather, God symbolizing food. I was just beginning to understand that truth. The same Jesus who was born this night in a lowly village, the Son of God incarnate in human flesh and blood, is the same Jesus we offered to us in Holy Communion.

That was a thin place for me 14 years ago. I didn’t know it then, but my life was changed by him who is the author of life itself. This can be a thin place for you tonight. So come—come to Bethlehem, and see him whose birth the angels sing. Come adore on bended knee Christ the Lord, the newborn king.

Let us pray.
Almighty God, you have poured out upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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