Thursday, December 25, 2014

Malala's Magnificat | A Sermon for Christmas Eve

preached at All Saints Church in Pasadena at the 5:30 p.m. service Christmas Eve 2014

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among all people.”

So there we have it. The familiar words that conclude the Christmas Story in Luke’s gospel echo in our ears once again on this Christmas Eve as we gather surrounded by light and beauty and music and community to celebrate the mystery of Christmas. We welcome again the promise of new life in the birth of this Christmas baby. We wonder again at the power of a love great enough to triumph over death and we claim a Christmas Truth greater than any of the traditions it inspires: the mystical longing of the creature for the creator – the finite for the infinite -- the human for the divine.

One of those traditions it inspires is the lighting of the Advent wreath – candle by candle through the Sundays of Advent – until tonight when it glows with all its candles fully ablaze. When my boys were little, lighting the candles on the Advent wreath on the dining room table was a really big deal. I'd like to think it was because they had grasped the significance of the Advent season as a time of spiritual preparation for the coming of our Lord. However, I suspect it was because if the Advent Wreath was there, the tree and presents couldn't be far behind! 

Yes, we love our Advent wreath. And yet, like any beloved tradition, we can run into trouble when the symbol becomes more important than what it symbolizes. An Advent wreath case in point was an energetic exchange on a Facebook group called “Episcopalians on Facebook” in response to a question from someone who identified as “a new Episcopalian” about what color the candles should be on the Advent Wreath.

Three hundred and eighty six comments later – and no, I did not read them all – it became clear that there was GREAT division amongst the ranks between the three purple and one pink people and the three blue and one pink people. And don’t even ask about the reaction to the “what about four red candles – that looks more Christmassy” lone wolf – who was well and truly hounded out of the conversation as an Advent Heretic. 

Suffice to say it was not an exercise in social media Christian charity. 

And finally one voice of clarity weighed in with this brief comment: “Silly me. I thought the point was the light from the candles ... not the color of the candles.” 

Yes, the point of candles we light IS the light. The Advent candles are points of light in the darkness which surrounds us – and we light them – week by week – in anticipation of our hearts being filled again with this Christmas promise: 

"What has come into being in Jesus was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

And this year, it seemed to me, was a particularly dark Advent. 

Night after night we lit the candles on the Advent wreath on our dining room table with the "breaking news" of the day echoing in our ears and in our hearts: the Ferguson Grand Jury decision; Eric Garner's poignant cry of "I can't breathe;" the Torture Report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee; the anniversary of the Newtown tragedy with its reminder of the ongoing scourge of gun violence in our nation. 

And all the while my email inbox and Facebook page were bombarded by pleas to "Keep Christ in Christmas" – followed by helpful hints on smacking down friends or neighbors who offend the Christmas Code by saying "Happy Holidays." 

Like I said, it was a particularly dark Advent.

Maybe that’s why the candles seemed to burn a tiny bit brighter … not only the actual candles we lit here at All Saints Church or the ones my wife Lori and I lit at home on our dining room table … but the virtual candles that were lit in the messages of hope, peace, joy and love that emerged from that darkness during the weeks of Advent preparation for this O Holy Night. 

And maybe what helped me recognize them was that – like a whole boatload of other people – I’ve been trying to take on the discipline of mindfulness – of being in the moment. Of being not just “present and accounted for,” but “present and aware of.”

Now this is easier said than done in an age of multi-tasking, multi-platform, multi-connectivity – and it is most definitely not my own person “default mode.” So it did indeed qualify as a discipline. 

But during Advent I tried to spend each week being mindful of where I saw the lights of hope, of peace, of joy and of love shining in the darkness. And here are some of the lights I saw … starting with Hope. 

“Advent is the season when Christians are called to live with more hope than the world thinks is reasonable” – wrote Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Tonight is the night that we glimpse the incarnation of that hope – more hope than the world thinks is reasonable – represented for us as Christians in the baby in the manger. 

“Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion” – said the Dalai Lama. Tonight is the night we hear again the angels proclaim God’s desire for peace on earth and goodwill to ALL – not just some – people. And we experience again the unique manifestation of compassion: the sudden, amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace from a God who loved us enough to become one of us in order to show us how to love one another. 

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement: [to] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” On the third Sunday of Advent, Ed Bacon challenged us to “choose joy” – and these words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel – which were making the rounds on Facebook as a meme – captured my imagination as the “how to” part of Ed’s “choose joy” challenge. Tonight is the night when we stand – once again – at the manger and our hearts sing “Joy to the World” in radical amazement.

Hope, Peace and Joy. And that brings us to the fourth candle – Love. 

These are the words Malala Yousafzai spoke earlier this month when she became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize: 

Dear brothers and sisters,
 the so-called world of adults may understand it,
but we children don't.
Why is it that countries which we call "strong"
 are so powerful in creating wars
but so weak in bringing peace?
 Why is it that giving guns is so easy
 but giving books is so hard?
 Why is it that making tanks is so easy,
 building schools is so difficult?

And in her words -- the words of a young, Muslim school girl targeted for violence by extremists of her own faith for daring to both aspire to and speak out for the education of women – I heard the echo of these words attributed to another young girl – a Jewish girl who extolled the greatness of God in these timeless words we call "The Magnificat:"

He has shown strength with his arm;
 he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
 and lifted up the lowly;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
 and sent the rich away empty.

For the God Mary extolled in her Magnificat – the God who gave her the courage to say "yes" to the extraordinary call to be the bearer of the Christ Child in the 1st century – is the same God who inspires Malala with the courage to be an agent of change for love, justice and compassion in the 21st. 

To lift up the lowly. To challenge the proud and the powerful. To fill those hungry for education with good things. This is the God who upsets the applecart of the establishment and turns the tables on the powerful. This is the God who entrusts the incarnation of the Good News of God's inclusive love to an unwed mother in an occupied territory. This is the God who uses the voice of a Pakistani school girl to send a message-heard-round-the-world challenging the status quo and giving hope to the hopeless. Making God’s love tangible in powerful and unexpected ways. 

This is Malala’s Magnificat: a light shining in the darkness in a life lived in alignment with God’s love, justice and compassion. 

It has been a particularly dark Advent -- and so I give particular thanks on this Christmas Eve for the gift of mindfulness. 

For awareness of the hope, peace, joy and love – lit like Advent candles in the darkness of 21st century breaking news: in the words of a Presiding Bishop, a Tibetan Buddhist, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim schoolgirl. I give thanks for the diversity of those voices and for the reminder that What is coming into being in Jesus this Holy Night is life; life that is the light of all people. No matter what tribe, gender, faith, tradition -- or what color you think the Advent wreath candles should be. 

And so on this “O Holy Night” may we resist the Christmas temptation that is greater than all the Eggnog and Christmas Cookies in Christendom. And that is the temptation to “put Christ into Christmas” only to leave him there: to receive with joy the gift of the Word made flesh on this Christmas Eve and fail to live as the Body of Christ the other 364 days of the year.

My brothers and sisters, as we celebrate tonight the wonder of the amazing gift of our brother Jesus born of our sister Mary – with all of its beloved trappings and traditions – may we also be given the grace to keep the hope of Christmas alive in the year ahead. May we receive the gift of "Malala's Magnificat" and the light she is kindling in the world. It is a light that transcends gender, tribe and religion – calling us each to find in our own lives and in our own contexts the courage to scatter the proud, to lift up the lowly and -- all the while – to magnify the Lord. 

And as we claim both the gift and the challenge of living lives of radical amazement, may we be given the energy and imagination to hold onto more hope than the world thinks is reasonable as we go out into this “O Holy Night” as bearers of the lights of hope, of peace, of joy and most all of love.

Merry Christmas! Amen.

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