The readings appointed for Christmas (Eve) in the the Episcopal Church are:
I am absolutely thrilled this year, because I get to read that passage from Isaiah at our “midnight mass,” and it is one of my all time favorites, ever ever ever. Of course, I do tend to get earwormed by my favorite chorus from Handel‘s Messiah, but that’s okay – it’s CHRISTMAS! 🙂 I’m also excited, because this psalm has one of my favorite passages in the bible – then shall the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord. Good stuff, good stuff.
I noticed when I read through these lections that one word sang out for me, as happens most weeks when I sit down to write this reflection. This word, though, wasn’t a happy fuzzy bunny word; it doesn’t feel all warm and snuggly like we expect Christmas to feel. We have our visions of the whole family sitting together in our pew in church, peaceful and loving, all dressed beautifully and smiling at each other as we hold our candles and sing Silent Night. The baby! The rapt mother Mary! The cute little lambykins! It’s all so sweet and warm and comforting.
You know, like undergoing childbirth. With no painkillers. With no nurse to whisk away soiled and bloodied sheets and pads. In a stable. With noisy, smelly animals. With no ice chips or mom to hold your hand. And then the place fills up with noisy, smelly shepherds who want to gawk at you, while you try to rest and catch your breath and feel some relief from the pain, but the baby is crying, and you have never nursed before, and you are only a girl, and why did you ever say yes to that angel anyway?
Yeah. Sweet and warm and comforting. Like that.
So anyway, the word that sang out for me from these readings today was zeal. It shows up at the very end of the reading from Isaiah – the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this – and at the end of the reading from Titus, too – [Jesus will] purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deads. And while the word zeal doesn’t appear in the psalm or the gospel story, the concept certainly does.
The thing about zeal is, it’s not a word that seems particularly attractive to us. We might want to be loyal, but not necessarily zealous. We see passion and excitement as good, but zeal might go just a little too far for comfort. Zeal is a little bit edgy, maybe even dangerous. The people we might describe with the word zeal are not usually people we admire or want to emulate. Think for a moment about someone who strikes you as zealous. I’ll bet you find that person a bit frightening. I know that the people who come to my mind from that word frighten me somewhat; they certainly make me uncomfortable and a bit squirmy.
Well, guess what. God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. God’s job is not to point a magic wand into your life and say, Poof! Now you have every comfort! In fact, God has sent prophets throughout time to disrupt us from our comfort, to make us squirm, to shake us up. In America, we live in a land of great comfort. There are still women all over the world giving birth much as Mary did, two thousand years ago. And I – I don’t know whether I would have made it through either childbirth without a nice epidural, in a big sterile hospital, where there were lots of people to help me be more comfortable.
So Christmas? It’s not about comfort. The message – we finally have our savior after generations of waiting – this is an occasion for joy. But Jesus taught a lot of really hard stuff. And the comfort he gave? It wasn’t for us, here in the land of abundance. It is for the poor, the lame, the blind, the sick. It is for the women who give birth like Mary did, in the year 2007. It is for the children in Africa who have lost their parents to AIDS. It is for those who count a day as a good one when they have had anything to eat that day.
The problem for me is, I don’t see these people. I will confess to being mostly blind to the things that don’t cross in front of my eyes – and even to a great number of the things that do cross in front of my eyes, if they don’t bop me upside the head, too. What can I do for an orphaned child in Africa, or for a desperately poor man in India, or for a pregnant woman in Cambodia with no access to a hospital? It feels so hopeless to me – the problems are too big, too far away – and I feel helpless.
The last statement in the letter to Titus says that Jesus came to redeem us from iniquity. Iniquity. Not equal-ness. And not just being redeemed from that not-equal-ness, but from all not-equal-ness. Jesus came to bring comfort to the orphan, to the hungry, to the suffering. And he came to purify his people – that’s us – so that our zeal for good deeds could bring this about. Jesus will establish his kingdom and bring peace to the nations, to shine light in the darkness, to throw down oppressors – through the zeal of the Lord.
These two statements mirror each other. From Isaiah, it is God’s zeal that brings about this kingdom. And from Titus, it is the zeal that Jesus stirs up inside us that will bring about comfort and peace. It is no mistake that the Third Sunday of Advent is known as “stir up” Sunday, with its collect that begins Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us. It is actually a little bit scary to pray this prayer, just as it can be frightening to come into contact with someone who possesses zeal. Because the truth is, when God stirs up God’s power in us, things change. We change. Maybe we change the world around us as a result. When we are stirred up about something, when we are feeling God’s great might, we may, in fact, be described as zealous.
We may do things like sing gloria in excelsis while out in the fields. We may do things like follow a star to a stable to look at a newly born, squalling infant with his exhausted and frightened parents. We may lose our happy snuggly bunny warmth and comfort. We may advocate for the poor, for the sick, for the imprisoned. We may make people uncomfortable. We may even make people upset or angry, in our zeal for good deeds.
So this Christmas, may God bless you and all those you love. May God bless even those you disagree with, those you dislike, those you are angry with, those you have trouble forgiving. May God bless those you do not know, those you do not see, those you do not hear. May God stir us up and bless us all with zeal, with squirms, with discomfort. And as the Franciscan Blessing says,
May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really CAN make a difference in this world, so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.