Thursday, December 25, 2008

Home for Christmas

Christmas Day – Year B (BCP)
Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
Thursday, December 25, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

I know we all have our favorite Christmas hymns and Christmas carols. And I’m sure some of those evoke a strong emotional response. For me, it is not officially Christmas until I hear “O Come All Ye Faithful” sung as the processional hymn at the Christmas Eve midnight mass. That song, particularly at that time, nearly always brings a tear or two to my eyes. Other hymns that really stir my emotions are “What Child Is This,” “O Holy Night,” and “Silent Night.” Part of it is the haunting, solemn melodies. And part of it is certainly the image that these songs conjure up – a scared young woman, far from home for the first time, nine months pregnant, forced to give birth to her child, the One who would be the savior of the world, in a strange town, under the most dismal of conditions. Put it all together and my emotions can hardly be contained.

But it’s not just the Christmas songs with proper religious themes that get me going emotionally. There is the occasional secular Christmas song, lacking any religious theme, lacking any semblance of a message about what this day and this season are truly about, that will churn my emotions. One that nearly always gets me is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Thinking about that song, I can’t help but hear in my mind Bing Crosby singing those words:

I'll be home for Christmas;
You can count on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree.

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the love-light gleams.
I'll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.

Now I can do without the snow part. And this song certainly doesn’t give any indication of what this most holy of days is all about. But it still rips at my emotions, and even in its lack of Christmas imagery, other than snow, mistletoe, presents, and a tree, at least for me, it carries tremendous meaning as to what this day, this season, is all about – home.

Perhaps it’s the knowledge that “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was first written and sung in 1943, in the midst of World War II. At the time of its premier, it touched the hearts and minds of soldiers away from home and of their friends and families, indeed, of all civilians, here in the States. It expressed in a simple melody the fervent wishes of so many – to be home with loved ones for this holiday. While that was not to be a reality for most, at least it could be a pleasant, nurturing dream.

Or perhaps it’s the fact that it expresses my reality. While most of my adult life I have lived within an hour or two of my family home in Riverside, and can easily get there whenever I want to or need to, the one time of the year that I truly yearn to be home in Riverside, is Christmas. I long to see all the decorations my mother has put out. I want to spend time with those I love. I can hardly wait for the wonderful Christmas feast, unlike any other family dinner of the year. I suppose “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” took on a deeper meaning for me during my three years in seminary in Chicago. During those years, going home for Christmas took on a greater significance while at the same time requiring greater effort – either three days of driving or a five hour plane flight. And invariably, from the time I left my apartment in Chicago until I arrived in Riverside, Bing Crosby serenaded me, reminding me of what I was doing, of what it meant to be going home.

For many, Christmas is a time of returning home. Or, if they are not able to go home, because of insufficient time to do so, because of insufficient money to be able to make the trip, because the home of memory, of bygone times, no longer exists, it is a time of wishing they could be home. “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.”

This year, as I read and reflect on the Gospel lesson, I cannot help but hear shades of Bing Crosby creeping into the message. For in a way, this Gospel is about home, about being away from home, about coming home, about providing a home.

For Mary and Joseph, this is a time for leaving home. We are told that for them, home is Nazareth. They are required, by a decree from the emperor, to travel to a different home, to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, a home that is not at all home, at least not for them, to be registered in the census.

Despite having to be away from their home, Mary and Joseph, out of necessity, for the sake of the child that is about to be born, make a home where there is no home. We are told that while they are in Bethlehem, “the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child.” Because the town was crowded with others coming to register for the census, there was not room for them to stay in proper guest accommodations. The only place where they could find shelter was in a manger – in the smelly, dirty stable in which the animals made their home. In such a place, Mary and Joseph were forced to make the first home their newborn son would have.

In this way, Jesus is born into a new home – a home not his own, the home made for him by his parents in that manger in Bethlehem. But we are told, or rather, the shepherds are told, that this is no ordinary child. For “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” This is the child that has been foretold by the prophets – the Messiah, the hope of the world, the savior of all humanity. This child, the great king who would bring salvation to all, is not born in a palace. He is not even born in a proper home. Yet, by virtue of who he is and who he is to become, has nonetheless come home to the world – to the world and to the people it would be his responsibility to save.

And by virtue of who he is, this king, this Messiah, this child called Jesus is not just born into a physical place that is a manger in Bethlehem, an outpost in Judea, a province of the Roman Empire. He is also born into a home that has no physical location. Jesus is born into the home that is provided in the hearts of those who hear the glorious announcement of the birth of their Messiah. But the shepherds who received this most spectacular of birth announcements delivered by an angel, accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host, were not the only ones to receive the message. On this day, we, too, receive the announcement of this spectacular birth, In receiving this announcement, Jesus is not just born into a makeshift home in a manger in Bethlehem. In receiving this announcement, of hearing the words of the angel and the heavenly host, Jesus is also born into the home that we make for him in our hearts and our lives.

In this way, Jesus is born into a new home – a temporary home that is provided by his parents in that manger in Bethlehem, and a permanent home, that is provided in the hearts and lives of all those who receive him as their Savior, as their Messiah. But Jesus is not the only one who receives a new home as a result of that first Christmas. We, too, by witnessing his birth, by receiving our Lord, by embracing the tender child who is the key to salvation, not just ours but the entire world’s; we, too, come home to a new life in Jesus Christ.

For us, no matter where our physical homes may be, no matter whether we are able to actually be their at this time of year or only long to be there, to be home if only in our dreams, we can take comfort in the assurance that each and every one of us is indeed home for Christmas, here and now, in the life of the One born this day, Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Merry Christmas!

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