Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
I begin this morning with a confession: my car is not exactly the neatest thing in the world. Napkins and plastic bags and water bottles have this way of simply accumulating without my ever intending them to, and the fact that I occasionally eat in the car on my way from one commitment to another means that my Subaru plays host to a small village of apple cores and crumbs. Anything that is trash, that I no longer have any need or use for, gets buried somewhere deep in the reservoir that is my car. In addition to the distinguished debris I have already mentioned, this December my car’s collection of goodies includes a few Christmas cards, a half-eaten chocolate treat, several old service leaflets, a collection of unread books and yes, even a handful of Starbucks cups. But most interesting of all, way back in the abysses of my trunk, there exists one particularly peculiar specimen: my winter overcoat.
You see, though we had our winter solstice observance here at the church just four days ago, and though we sing the hymn “In the bleak midwinter” in this very service, it does not seem like winter at all outside. Yesterday’s high was a downright boiling 69 degrees Fahrenheit and today, the Weather Channel informs me, we will reach a balmy 60 degrees. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas perhaps in Hawaii, or Beverly Hills.
No, this is not New England Christmas weather at all—and meteorologists say that temperatures this month have been a whopping 15 to 20 degrees above average, making this the warmest December the Northeast has ever had. This weather is creepy and terrifying when you consider the reality of climate change that is behind it, and the warm temperatures we’ve experienced the past few weeks speak to the responsibility we all have to respect and care for our fragile environment.
But nonetheless I choose to see something good in the weather we are experiencing right now—and I don’t just mean the fact that it’s still warm enough to run outside or the fact that I don’t have to get my winter coat dry cleaned yet. The 60-something temperatures are beneficial things, I think, because they cause us to look at Christmas through a new lens and help us realize something about Christmas we might otherwise forget.
In our popular cultural consciousness, Christmas is kind of the last hurrah before the dreary hibernation of winter really begins. Sure, Christmas is technically in winter, and it is often awfully cold. Sometimes there is even snow on the ground. But before Christmas, winter is a cheery, friendly phenomenon that promises conviviality and poinsettias and hot chocolate and cookies and presents. After Christmas, all of that cheer goes away, leaving only freezing temperatures, long, dark nights and piles and piles of snow. Christmas is the last bit of fun we get to have before the torture begins.
In 60-degree weather, however, that’s not exactly the case. We know that temperatures don’t drop 30 degrees overnight; that we aren’t condemned to the prison of ice, wind and snow right away. So when it’s no longer a certain gateway into the dark loneliness of winter, what then is Christmas?
A whole collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century English poets were fascinated by what they saw as the paradox of Christmas. Here in what is usually the darkest, deadest, coldest part of the year, they pointed out, we celebrate something that brought so much hope and promise to so many. Over and over, these poets routinely portrayed Christmas as a puzzling pocket of warmth and growth at the forefront of an otherwise dismal and dreary season. “Welcome all wonders in one sight!” Richard Crashaw declared, “eternity shut in a span; summer in winter; day in night; Heaven in earth, and God in man.” Christopher Smart saw “nature’s decorations glisten far above their usual trim” and “whiter blossoms burst untimely on the blest mosaic thorn.” And Robert Herrick, in the poem the choir sang so beautifully last night, told the “dark and dull night [to] fly hence away and give the honour to this day, that sees December turn to May.” Herrick imagined the King coming who “with his sunshine and his showers turns all the patient ground to flowers.” The “chilling winter’s morn,” Herrick noted, “smile[s] like a field beset with corn” and “smell[s] like a meadow newly shorn.” For all of these poets, the birth of Christ was more like summer than like winter; it was associated with warmth, with light, and with life. “He is born,” Herrick wrote, “whose quickening birth gives life and lustre, public mirth, to heaven and the under-earth.”
Such seasonal characterizations may hearken back to Christmas’ potential origins in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, but they also have deeply scriptural resonances. After all, at the center of the Christmas story is a birth. Christmas could not happen without a young woman consenting to have a new creature grow inside her until it burst forth from her womb. Christmas is all about growth, about change, about new life, about a beginning, and this morning’s Gospel lesson places the Word at the beginning of everything. The Word, the part of God that became the child Jesus, was “in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” In other words, then, whenever and wherever there is a beginning, Jesus is there. John goes on to depict another beginning in which the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. He speaks of light shining in the darkness and not being overcome, of that light coming into the world and of those who received that light being born again and becoming children of God. The entrance of Jesus into the world, John tells us, is a kind of spring or summer. It’s a rapid increase in light and life, culminating in radiant, brilliant glory.
So, as you leave from church this morning to join your family for Christmas dinner and open up your final presents, as in the next few days you pack up your decorations and ornaments and throw the tree out on the curb, don’t surrender to the dreariness of January and February; don’t bunker down for the lonely winter that may be coming, if the temperatures ever drop. Rather, prepare yourself for the new life that is just beginning to emerge, that is just starting to grow in you. The long season of waiting for Christmas may be over with its festive treats and ugly sweaters and snowflakes on store windows; we may not sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” again until another year. But today’s celebration of Christmas isn’t the end of the presence of God taking shape among us; it’s the beginning. Be, therefore, merry and of good cheer, for God is here.