Christmas Eve 2016, St. John’s Cathedral
I held 8-week old baby Stone Marshall throughout this homily. I began by speaking with the Dad about his little firstborn son. The first paragraph captures our conversation:
Before we are parents, our lives are pretty free, right? I mean we could kind of do what we wanted with our time, energy and money. If we wanted to go out for dinner, we could. If we wanted to read a book, we could. If we wanted to travel, we just decided to go. Then comes the baby, and my goodness, does s/he have power over our lives. Not only over our lives, but over our hearts! Baby’s needs dictate our activity 24/7. But a peculiar thing happens to us: the baby’s helplessness and vulnerability have an unusual power to open hearts, hearts that discover a limitless supply of love and joy to pour into this little bundle of life …
Imagine we have four persons present here: a dictator, an Olympic athlete at the peak of his career, a rock star scoring at the top of the charts, and a newborn baby. What do all four have in common? Power – all four have power of some kind.Which of these ultimately has the most power to open hearts? The baby! The baby ultimately wields the greatest power. The athlete could lose his power, the dictator can kill others, and the rock star can fizzle out. But the baby has a different kind of power. It can touch hearts in a way that a dictator, an athlete, or a rock star cannot. Its innocent presence, without physical strength or words, can transform a room and a heart in a way that guns, muscle, and charisma cannot. (I’m guessing several of you are paying more attention to little Stone right now than to my homily … Stone has more power than I do)
Friends of mine became parents to tiny Julia. Their joy was covered with the shroud of death when the doctors told them their little daughter might only live for a few hours. Julia beat the odds and lived for 23 days. At Julia’s funeral her father shared on his daughter’s short life: “No one has ever had so much power than our little Julia. She drew love from us in ways we never thought we were capable of giving. She touched hearts we never thought could be touched. She called us to love in ways far beyond our expectations.” It was the saddest funeral I ever attended; I can still see the little white casket at the front of the church. But little Julia continues to give me life today, 19 years later, as I recall her witness and her power.
The powerlessness of a baby opens our hearts wide, touching us at a deep moral place. Around a baby, we watch our language and try not to have bitter arguments; we try to be better, more loving persons. Metaphorically, a baby has the power to cast out evil. It can cast out demons of self-absorption and selfishness in us.
The Gospels describe Jesus’ power and authority in exactly this way. In Greek, the original language of the Gospels, we find three words for power or authority. We easily recognize the first two: energy and physical strength. There is a power in energy, in physical health and muscle, just as there is a power in being dynamic, in dynamite, in having the power to generate energy; but when the Gospels speak of Jesus as “having great power” and as having a power beyond that of other religious figures, they do not use the words energetic or dynamic. They use a third word, exousia, which is best translated as vulnerability. Jesus’ real power was rooted in a certain vulnerability, like the powerlessness of a newborn child that powerfully opens and softens human hearts.
This is the kind of power God wants to use to win our hearts. So is it any wonder that God, in his wisdom and great love for us, comes to us in a newborn baby yearning to invade our hearts just like little babies do?
If you’re anything like me, you love to watch old Christmas movies. One all-time favourite is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Even when having watched this film several times, I noticed something this year that I haven’t noticed before.
Charlie Brown is best known for his never-ending depressed mood. Linus is most associated with his ever-present security blanket. Throughout the movie we hear Sally, Snoopy and others cry out insistently: “Linus, drop that blanket!” Linus’ security blanket remains a major source of ridicule. But Linus, otherwise pretty mature and thoughtful, simply refuses to give it up. Until … Linus shares “what Christmas is all about.” When Linus utters the words, “fear not” he drops … his security blanket. Other attempts to separate him from his blanket had failed. Baby Jesus succeeds … At the end of the movie, we see Linus’ blanket wrapped around the Christmas tree. Linus is set free from his fears…
For way too many people the world of 2016 is a very scary place. And most of us find ourselves grasping onto some type of security blanket, whatever that may be. The terrible blows life can deliver us can make it very difficult to “fear not.”
But in the midst of fear and insecurity, Linus dropped his blanket when he realized the truth about the Christmas story. This much-beloved inspiring movie classic issues an invitation to seek true peace and true security in the one place it has always been and can still be found: In the birth of the Babe in Bethlehem.
The birth of Jesus still has real “power” to calm our fears. The birth of Jesus still has real “power” to free us from habits we are unable (or unwilling) to break ourselves. The birth of Jesus still has real “power” to make the world a safe place, despite all the violence, abuse and terror attacks.
And so we come together on this Holy Night because we believe that Jesus Christ, the unique son of God, whose birth we celebrate, is the face of God on earth. In Jesus we see most fully divine love and justice, divine mercy and compassion, to which we are all called.
He grew as we grow through all the stages of life. He lived as we live, prey to the pressures of evil yet choosing the good and the beautiful, choosing the grace and the mercy of God. In Jesus, God knit himself intimately into our lives. In the vulnerable power of Jesus, we can be saved from our sin and learn from him never to stray from the mind of God.
Through Christ we can become new people, called beyond the consequences of our brokenness and lifted to the fullness of life. By living God’s love, grace and mercy to the full Jesus opened the way to our salvation. He showed us the Way, lived it for us, opened it for us, suffered for it and died because of it. Jesus modeled how to hold fast to God’s love even in the face of betrayal and death.
Because of the baby whose birth we celebrate tonight we too can live with a new heart, a new mind, and new strength despite all the suffering and death that ambushes our lives every day. Let this vulnerable baby Jesus draw from our hearts all the love and joy and grace and mercy we can muster. God knows how badly our world needs this.
Let me end with a poem by Madeleine l’Engle, the well-known writer of children’s books.
The Risk of Birth (Christmas, 1973)
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of doom;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn–
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And yet by a comet the sky is torn–
Love still takes … the risk … of birth.
Special thanks baby Stone Marshall who slept in my arms the whole time, and to Rolheiser’s column on exousia.
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