homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Christmas Eve, Sunday, December 24, 2017 (4:00 p.m.)
Isaiah 62:6-12; Godly Play Christmas pageant
My wife, my daughter and I had a very old cat named Henry. Henry was a real piece of work, and he died this year on Ash Wednesday.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because you were here one year ago tonight when I last talked about Henry, our overweight, arthritic, cranky, borderline-incontinent old cat, our cat who demanded and annoyed and got in the way, who loved us, and whom we loved back, even when the warm feelings of love were far, far away. Henry sure could keep me warm when I was lying on the couch for a nap. In March, we buried Henry’s body in our garden, and we miss him.
Last year I told you that God came to be with us, embodied and physical. God tasted and touched, laughed and sang. Last year I told you that because of Jesus, I know that God understands how it feels to be human.
Last year I told you that it’s not our good qualities that help people love us. It’s our limitations. We are totally dependent on one another to sustain our lives, and we are totally dependent on God as well.
Tonight I want to challenge an idea that has probably been in your head ever since you first began to hear people tell you about God. It’s in the Nicene Creed, the core statement of the Christian faith. It’s the notion that Jesus “came down from heaven.” Now, it’s not bad theology to say that “Jesus came down from heaven.” To “come down” means to give up power. It means to stoop to our level. In that sense, “coming down” describes exactly what God did in Jesus.
The problem is that “coming down” implies that God is “up there,” in a galaxy far, far away, and that he “came down” because he wasn’t with us before. To put it that way is nonsense. God is here. God has always been here. God will always be here. I read a book recently that suggested we think of God as being not “up,” but “down”—like an iceberg in the ocean of creation. The water line is our level of sensory awareness. Most of the time, God is the part of the iceberg that’s under the water, where we can’t see it. The iceberg is still there, just going unnoticed.
And then there are places where part of the iceberg juts up out of the water, into our consciousness. There was about 30 years in history when that iceberg shot up to its peak height, when Jesus was God walking about on the earth with us, laughing and joking with us, calling and teaching and healing us. Christmas is the celebration of the iceberg coming up out of the water to its highest point.
The iceberg comes up out of the water in other places, too, and even more often, it becomes visible just below the water line. Maybe you’ve seen it. I know I have—not as high into the sky as that time in Palestine 2000 years ago, but I’ve seen it many times. I’m sure I saw the iceberg make an appearance in that wonderful old cat, Henry.
Henry is gone now, back deep below the water line, back into the eternal iceberg. (I know the metaphor kind of falls apart here, so I’ll drop it!) I miss Henry. For months after Henry died, I would come home, open the door, and say out loud, “Henry, you should be here right now.” Sometimes I still come home, open the door, and almost say, “Mrow!” in greeting. But maybe that’s not a mistake.
You know, at Christmas we begin to tell a story: the story of the life of Jesus, God-with-us. We tell the story by reading it out loud in church or at home, and maybe even by putting on costumes and acting it out. It’s a story of a historical figure from ancient times, but it is also our own story. The story is about us waiting for God, us receiving God, us being called and taught and healed by God, and then entering a time of wilderness. Henry died on Ash Wednesday. That’s the first day of Lent, a time of wrestling with death and life and doubt and trust, a time for being honest about where we have failed and where we are uncertain.
Lent leads to Holy Week, the time when the grown man Jesus rode into Jerusalem in triumph. He urged us to trust that God loves and forgives us, no matter what. He said that no matter how much disaster there is in the world, God will be there with us through it. For that matter, God will save us all through the very disasters we fear the most, even tragedy and death. We will come out the other side because that’s the way the universe works. Jesus said these things, and they were too much for the powerful people to accept. So they arranged to have him killed.
And then, then! Jesus showed us that what he’d said all along was true. It was through the very disaster of Jesus’ death that he saved all the rest of us. He could not be removed from creation. He came back above the water line in the season of Easter, just long enough to say, “I’m still here—and you will be, too. I’ll go ahead of you.” He made death safe for us. And then he returned again, the Holy Spirit come to be with the church on Pentecost, to help us keep reminding the world that God is never absent, and that death is the only way to true life. That iceberg keeps showing up, both inside the church and outside the church. The church’s job is to keep pointing beneath the water line, to keep us noticing!
Christmas only begins that story, and we’re going to keep telling it here, so I hope you’ll listen with me. It’s a story I need to hear and to share. How about you? I need it because I miss Henry, but I will always have him with me. I need it because life is precious and short, and today is the day to hug those you love and enjoy them in all their quirky imperfections. That time will end—and, surprise! Resurrection means that time will begin again in a new way.
I have a challenge for you and for your family and friends. This Christmas, tell stories. Tell family stories that everyone has already heard many times. Tell them again. Tell new stories, and tell stories you’ve waited too long to tell. Tell stories of joy, and stories of tragedy. Tell stories to adults, and tell them to children. Tell stories about cats and dogs and people, both the living and the dead.
And as you’re telling your stories, look for that iceberg, that unmistakable sign of the God who created all things, always present among us. Notice and point out the times when you’ve been aware of that iceberg just below the surface. Encourage one another with these words, because the time is at hand—God in Christ is born in you! You are an expression of God’s joy, sharing God’s love with the world. Merry Christmas!