Christmas Lessons and Carols ~ God Goes Small
December 27, 2020
Christmas 1 – Christmas Lessons & Carols (http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=John+1:1-18&vnum=yes&version=nrsv)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
- Justice Schunior
God Goes Small
As a teenager, I once heard a Christmas sermon that changed how I thought about God, and church, and Christianity. Christmas was already a special time for me. My older sister would come home for Christmas break from college and my mom, her, and me spent a hectic few weeks baking cookies, watching movies together, and frantically running through the mall buying last minute gifts racing to finish shopping before racing to the church to make the 4pm service. We’d go back home for a quick dinner before hurrying back to the church for midnight mass. Most likely we’d stay up much of the night wrapping presents, watching movies, and generally hanging out way past everyone’s bedtime. I’ve actually preached at St. Mark’s before about how luscious it was to spend my first paycheck as a teenager on gifts for my mom, who has a Christmas adjacent birthday on the 23rd, but to whom we also made sure to give Christmas presents as well as birthday presents.
The sermon I heard was on one particularly difficult Christmas Eve. My mom was reeling from the recent divorce from my father and it seemed especially hard to keep our spirits up. So when I heard the first sentence of the sermon, I laughed out loud. “Christmas is a time of excess,” pronounced the preacher. I thought he was about to launch into a tirade of too much spending and consumerism that took away from the true meaning of Christmas, the Christ child in the manger. But it was that “too much” that was keeping us afloat that year.
But no, he was talking about the excessive nature of God’s love; the excessive number of angels; the excessive gift of God’s own son; the excessive number of alleluias. Secular Christmas strives, and often fails, to echo that holy excessiveness. But when we make too many cookies, give too many gifts, sing too many carols, stay up too late, take too much joy in each other, we are in fact living out the spirit of Christmas as it was meant to be.
Excessive Christmas has been my touchstone for my Christmas theology. The Incarnation was too much, so we celebrate with too much.
But in this Christmas of 2020, excessive and too much just don’t seem to be the right words. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of excess. There’s been excessive death and immiseration ; there’s excessive loneliness and mental illness. We declared this year, as a society, that excessive suffering is what’s required by the death cult of capitalist individualism. The future looms large – a future in which our inability to address the central issues of this pandemic make it less likely that we will address even bigger problems. That environmental disaster will lead to even more excessive amounts of human misery – dying oceans, massive refugee populations, violence, racial injustice and all on scales we’ve never seen before. It’s the wrong kind of excessive.
And what we’ve been able to do in the face of all this horrible excess seems small. The internet is just not a replacement for physical presence. Gathering in a zoom room is like gathering around a campfire – it’s not that it can’t be pleasurable or even necessary; it’s just that it doesn’t seem like a long term solution to life threatening cold and hunger. The sacrifices we’ve been asked to make so that more people can be safe and see another Christmas seem small: wear a mask; don’t travel. But these small actions bear so much weight when our government doesn’t take on the big actions that might make these small miseries disappear faster.
But in some ways, God went small on the first Christmas. I know that I talked about the big ways God did up Christmas. But so much was small. First of all, there’s that small baby. We read in scripture that God went big in the past with a flood, and fire, and a sea that parted, enslaved people freed, and food for an entire people that fell from the sky. There were also kings and really noisy prophets. But this time, God went small. A baby; a poor family on the move; a barnyard. And what God says is that this small story is a part of the big story. This baby is a part of what God has been up to from the beginning – a creation that was made good, that was made for good things.
God took the time to keep making an effort with humanity. God saw that starting with small things sometimes led to bigger things. Perhaps you think that’s easy for God. But I think of those shepherds, or Joseph, or the Wise Men. None of them would probably live to even see Jesus as an adult or learn his teachings or see where his movement led, but they bowed down before something small because that’s how hope works. It’s not about evidence or outcomes, it’s about a way of life. A discipline. Anyone who has ever embarked on a discipline knows that you start small – the running shoes by the door, the alarm that wakes you for prayer, the one AA meeting you’ll go to just to mark it off your list.
Activist Mariam Kaba talks frequently about hope as a discipline. It’s about taking the long view and also the small view. She’s working to address big issues – youth incarceration, but working small, by, among other things, advocating for Bresha Taylor, a girl who is jailed for killing her abuser father. The small thing we do today may have big outcomes in the future. I like to imagine that God is hopeful for us as a discipline. And I’ve seen a lot of small, hopeful things this year. New Yorker writer, Jia Tolentino puts it more bluntly. She said in an interview this summer that she didn’t feel like she had the right to consider giving up hope: “To do so would mean abandoning or failing to recognize the work that’s being done—the strikes that are being organized, the doctors and nurses who are keeping people alive and fighting to get their patients out of prison, the millions of people who have had to risk their lives and go to work in the pandemic regardless of whether they have hope or not.” Jia gave birth to her first child this year, knowing that there isn’t a lot of evidence that her child will grow up in a kinder, more just world.
I feel the same way. When I participated in protests this summer and saw young people putting their bodies in the streets to advocate for a more just America, when I saw lines of people voting, when I watched St. Mark’s children and youth twirling and making animal noises they thought might have been made in the stable at the birth of Jesus, and telling the story of God’s love for us, I just don’t have the option of giving up hope. Being disciplined hopefuls does not mean we don’t acknowledge excessive challenges and failures, but it does mean having faith in the power of smallness. Be courageous, friends, in our small Christmas this year because our hope, our faith can be big.