A shorter sermon for this Sunday. MP
Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, Sunday, 17 December, 2017
Truly there is nothing quite so wonderful and so real in the life of the church as a Christmas pageant. Those children shuffling about in bathrobes and towels, pretending to be shepherds and angels and Joseph and Mary - we know them, they are our children, our grandchildren, and we watch them with pride and, perhaps, a little suspense as we hope nothing goes wrong. (And goodness, so much can go wrong! Some time I’ll tell you about my disastrous idea of giving the wise men a bag of chocolate coins to be the gold).
We are warmed by the innocence of this children, and some of us, perhaps, feel saddened at memories of children we know, now grown, who once played shepherd and Mary and angel and who are now missing from the life of the church. Or maybe we are saddened by the passage of time, by our own lost innocence, or uncertainty about whether the message of this little play can compete with what Christmas has become out there in the world.
So for me, at least, this mix of innocence and lost innocence is why I feel a mix of emotions when watching a children’s Christmas pageant. its the same jumble of feelings I get from listening (and I do, many times each Christmas) to the famous jazz soundtrack to the Charlie Brown Christmas, composed way back in 1965 by Vince Guaraldi. The untrained children’s voices singing “Christmas Time is Here”, or“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are full of simplicity and innocence, while the slow minor chords of the jazz piano add a layer of sadness and speak of lost innocence.
This year I got to wondering, why do we as church ask our children to act out the Christmas story for us? What is it about this particular story that makes us turn it into a children’s event. Perhaps it is the raw bones of the story, wondrous and simple, which seem to come out of children’s literature - a barn, animals, a magical star, a family with mommy, daddy and baby, mysterious visitors and kings no less! You couldn’t do better than that for a bedtime story, really.
But at the same time there is real substance and power in this story. Gabriel setting aside the fear and shame of Mary at her pregnancy, the angels telling the shepherds not to be afraid of God, the startling and awe-inspiring fact of just who it is lying in that manger - all this is the essence of our theology, the heart of our church’s message. St John in his gospel puts this message into abstract terms - “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), but the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke put it in real, concrete terms that any of us can understand. Somehow, that’s the living God in that manger, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made Flesh with little fingers and toes and we aren’t alone and we don’t have to be afraid of anything.
That’s a story so simple that children can tell it. It’s a story with God at its very centre, a story with so much power that perhaps only children can really tell it. Perhaps this is true of all the church’s proclamation. The American writer Annie Dillard once wrote that the liturgy of the church is like children playing with a chemistry set, trying to make TNT. Her point was that we scarcely imagine the power of the one whose name we invoke in our worship. Every Sunday we are like children, trying in our eucharist to imagine the heavenly feast, playing in our fellowship at the communion of the saints who are before the heavenly throne. These children who have just told the Christmas story are us, Sunday by Sunday, and how true and honest our worship would our worship be if we approached it with the wonder and innocence of children?
These stories that we tell, Sunday by Sunday, Christmas after Christmas, are not make believe or children’s stories, though same out there might think so. Like children trying on their parents clothes and makeup, we know that we are imitating something real, that we are on the edge of a reality that we aspire to grow into. In the meantime, the church’s role in this dark and preoccupied world is like Linus at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas, stepping into the spotlight, and in his lisping, child’s voice telling the nativity story in the words of St. Luke’s gospel, a story that begins with shepherds abiding in the field, and the angel of the Lord telling them to fear not, for a saviour is born to them. Those shepherds are us, our friends and neighbours, preoccupied, afraid, and called to salvation by a story so wonderful that perhaps only a child can truly tell it.