The Presiding Bishop’s Christmas Sermon, Christmas Day (I) – 1996
December 25, 1996
It seems like only yesterday that our kids were babies. I will never forget my shock at how small they were — it didn’t seem possible that a person could be that little and still be all right! I was nervous about holding them at first. I was afraid I would do something wrong and the baby would break! People had to talk us through it until I got the hang of it. It wasn’t until I had to baptize a very, very premature baby in the hospital that I realized that our kids were big — that little tiny human being, lying in a carefully-watched incubator, his arms smaller than my finger, his whole body easily able to fit in a man’s hand. I was awestruck by his tiny perfection. Such fragility. So tiny. But fighting to live. Everything in him working away at the new business of being alive.
To see a little baby is to see what the shepherds saw, what the three kings saw, what Mary and Joseph saw. Just a little human being: weak, fragile. Never again could people dismiss the weak and the fragile as unimportant. God’s own self chose this form in which to come among us: a decisive choice of the weak as the vessels of God’s love for the whole of creation. God chose weakness.
I have a friend who is a priest in a church in a poor neighborhood. Life is hard there, and the congregation is poor. Lots of things in the building don’t work. They must do without many things other churches take for granted. There is no money for a full-time secretary, so volunteers have to help run the place.
Several of the volunteers come from a neighborhood drop-in center for the mentally ill homeless. Some of them battle substance abuse. Some of them have other illnesses. One of them, though, tugs at my friend’s heart in a special way. He came to the center from a long period of incarceration. The crime for which he had been imprisoned was a violent one. He himself says that his sentence was fair. Shut away from society for many years, he came face to face with his own weakness and sin and turned his life around. He began to work closely with the prison chaplain. He began to feel valued, for the first time in many years. Maybe for the first time ever. The chaplain saw that he was intelligent, and talked to him about his future just as if he had one. And the man began to believe that he did have one, did have a future. He signed up for a college course that was offered at the prison. He did well. He took another course. And another. And he earned a college degree. All as an inmate.
Finally, he had served his sentence and was released. He had nowhere to go and nothing to do. He was referred to the drop-in center. He eats his meals there. At night, he goes to a church shelter and sleeps on a cot. He spends his days at the public library, reading. And at the church, volunteering. He reconciles the petty cash. He reads the lesson in the service. He answers the phone. He helps run the food pantry. He does whatever is needed. He is my friend’s right hand.
He sends out resumes for jobs he finds listed in the paper. He is honest, in his cover letters, about where he got his education and why. My friend helps him with the letters. They are good letters. But no prospective employer calls him for an interview. He is not stupid. He knows that nobody ever will.
He tells my friend that he works very hard not to be bitter. “People are afraid of criminal records,” he says. “I know it is not personal.” Over and over again, though, he is not given the chance to show the world that he has grown from his own experience, that he has learned life’s lessons the hard way. Over and over again, the world tells him that there is no forgiveness.
I heard about this man, who faces a hard world every day, who knows of his own hardness, and repents of it, who knows the need for forgiveness, who knows what it is to be in chains. I think of his determination not to be discouraged, and I think of what that must cost him, day after day after day. I can see why my friend is moved by his condition: it is certainly not innocence we see in his story, but we do see longing for forgiveness, longing to join the human family as a valued member. Longing to live.
And I think of the little babies: our own babies, the tiny premature baby, the baby Jesus. Of their innocence, yes, but also of that very same longing: longing to live, trying hard to live, fighting every minute just to stay alive.
Christ came as a baby. He comes as a former inmate, longing for job and a home and a family. He comes as a divorced-away man or woman, a broken-hearted child, a lonely stranger, an old man in a nursing home. God chose our brokenness in which to appear because it is in our brokenness that we need God. Longing for the fullness of life. Weak and broken, but trying to live.
What did I feel when I saw my own little babies? And what did I feel when I touched that tiny, tiny baby. And what do I feel when I hear about the man trying so hard to live a good life after being in prison? All of them are weak. All of them are at the bottom of the chain of power, as the world knows power. But what I feel in their presence is awe. And we see that the world’s understanding of power is upside down. Power is not the naked ability to coerce. It is the God-given ability to live. It comes from our loving. In power that works through our weakness, God is with us. All of us — those whom we know to be weak and those whom we think are strong.
It seems that most people did not see the power in the baby Jesus. Or in Jesus when he grew up — most people didn’t see the power of God in him. Most people saw only the weakness. Most people didn’t care much one way or another when he was executed as a common criminal. Most people thought they knew what power was.
But for those of us in whom the spirit of Christ lives, teaching us daily, changing the way we see the world — the categories of power and weakness are forever changed. Seeing the victory of Christ through the embrace of the cross, our own weakness is transformed. Weak, we are strong in Christ. Dying, we live. We live, yet it is not we who live. Christ lives in us. May the love of Christ coming to you in the infant Jesus fill your heart. AMEN.
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