"Re-humanization: At the right time": A Christmas sermon given by Bishop Gates

Following is the text of the sermon given by Bishop Alan M. Gates on Christmas Eve 2023 at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston.  The cathedral church's livestream recording of the service is available here.

A wedding planner compiled a list of songs that couples should not select for their reception. Among the tunes felt unsuitable for your nuptial celebration are “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” sung by the Police; “Song For the Dumped” by Ben Fields; and “Yesterday All My Troubles Seemed So Far Away” by the Beatles. Do not have these songs on your wedding night, says the advisor. This is not a good time.

We could arrange our lives quite completely by calculating what not to do at any given moment: The monsoon season is not a good time to visit India. 2023 is not a good time to buy a house in Boston. December is not a good time to go on a diet.

The problem is, sometimes our definition of “not a good time” is just too broad. When we avoid or postpone a thing because we imagine it is not a good time, we sometimes miss precisely the thing that would open a path to grace.

Take for instance (since it is Christmas) the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to see the young woman whom once he loved.  Scrooge and Belle had not married because they were too young and too poor, because Scrooge wanted to make his fortune first. It was not a good time. But in waiting for the ostensible right time, they closed the door on love. Sometimes “not a good time” is precisely the right time after all.

“Christmas is Cancelled in Bethlehem!” the headlines have been screaming for the past month. In the village of Jesus’ birth, civic leaders have cancelled the parades, the bazaars, the public tree lightings, the marching bands and fireworks. Church leaders throughout the region have also suspended many seasonal traditions.  It is not a good time, they say. 
Meanwhile, some local Christian leaders suggest that, while bypassing typical trappings, observance of Christmas has never been more important. At Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, pastor Munther Isaac created a creche, photos of which you have perhaps seen. In place of the traditional manger, the infant Jesus lies in a pile of broken stone and rubble. It reflects scenes of bombed out destruction in Gaza, where more than 20,000 people are reported to have died, including at least 8,000 children.

Pastor Isaacs says, “God is under the rubble in Gaza. He is with the frightened and the refugees. He is in the operating room. … He walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.” [i]  The pastor says that certain features of a typical Christmas--Santa, tree, gifts, carols--are secondary to features of the Nativity story in the Scriptures: Caesar, census, massacre and refugee flight to Egypt. Those parts of the story are all too real. Not a good time for Christmas? On the contrary, says the pastor. It is just the right time to recall the meaning of Emmanuel--God with us.

In recent days hopes for a ceasefire have been repeatedly dashed. To the loved ones of 1,200 victims of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7; to the loved ones of 20,000 victims of Israel’s bombardment in Gaza; to all those who live in fear and deprivation on either side of the border, the question of who is more to blame is secondary to the yearning for peace. Our own diplomats say it is “not a good time” for a ceasefire. After a letter from Palestinian Christian leaders to the White House pleading for peace was met two weeks ago with a U.S. veto in the United Nations Security Council, a Palestinian Christian cried out in bewilderment: “They celebrate Christmas in their land, and wage war in ours.” [ii] We are implicated, and if silent we are indicted. Not a good time for a ceasefire? For those who proclaim Jesus as the Prince of Peace, it is just the right time for a ceasefire.

Queen Rania of Jordan wrote a moving opinion piece this week:

No matter what side you support, you can still demand a ceasefire, the release of hostages and detainees, and unrestricted access to aid. Some will brush this off as a bleeding-heart plea…. It is an indictment of the times that a call for a return to sanity could be dismissed as sentimentality. We also hear many talking about peace the day after as though to absolve themselves of the responsibility to act now. A ceasefire is just the beginning. We must also embark on the difficult process of re-humanization--recognizing the humanity of others and acting on that universal kinship. [iii]

Two thousand years ago, Christ was born. It was not a good time.

It was not a good time for the birth of a Savior. Those among the Jewish faithful who wanted a powerful deliverer would rather have had him come, say, 160 years earlier, during the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian overlords. That would have been a good time. Or maybe 60 years later, when the holy city of Jerusalem would be sacked by the Romans. Others would have liked the Messiah to arrive at a proper moment to receive the royal Son of God. Why didn’t he come in the glory days of Solomon and the Temple? Why would he come now? The Christ should have been announced at a time when the Jewish people were either more ready or more needy. This was not a good time.

It was not a good time for the pregnant Mary either. Not yet married to her intended, and required by government edict to make a long trip ending in No Vacancy signs. It is hard to imagine that Mary could have avoided thinking to herself: This is not a good time.

And yet, says the Christmas Gospel: While they were there, the time was fulfilled for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. [Luke 2:6]  The time that was ‘not good’ was precisely the time. Not because it was convenient or reasonable. Not because anyone was prepared or waiting or deserving. No. God came because God loved the people. Came to a forgotten town, to inconsequential shepherds, to a carpenter at the end of his rope, to a maiden who was done in. “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be,” as the song says. Lovely, indeed. The wrong place, in the wrong time, transformed by Love into the loveliest place yet to be imagined.

In our day, in our world, it is not a good time. Thomas Merton, writing 50 years ago, could have written 50 hours ago:

We are numbered in billions, and massed together, marshaled, marched here and there, taxed, drilled, armed, worked to the point of insensibility, dazed by information, drugged by entertainment, … nauseated with the human race and with ourselves…And out of this unutterable void come the armies, the missiles, the weapons, the bombs….  Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. [iv]

It is, as Queen Rania so beautifully put it, the time for “re-humanization.” That is precisely what we need. In the face of dehumanization--in the Holy Land, in Ukraine, in Sudan; in our own political landscape and rhetoric; in every act of antisemitism, Islamophobia; in every act of racism, misogyny, transphobia, and every manifestation of dehumanization--it is time for re-humanization. 
Is that not what Jesus’ birth was for? Humankind had struggled--as we always do--to make God’s love real and not an abstraction, to define our faithfulness by how we live and not by what doctrine we purport to claim. And so God made divine love human. That’s what happened this night: the humanization of Love. So many names this holiday has: Christmas; The Feast of the Nativity; The Feast of the Incarnation. Let’s add another: The Feast of Re-humanization.

Not just in our broken world, but in our own lives--yours and mine. There are so many ways in which we are manifestly inadequate or unprepared to harbor the rebirth of divine love. Remember that it was just such alienation which our Lord was born to heal.

As 2,000 years ago, so also now: the time which is “not a good time” is precisely the time. Such is our hope. Such is the Christian promise.  

In our weakness, in our loneliness, in our sadness, in our helplessness, precisely because it is not a good time, it is the right time. May Christ be born to us this night. May Christ be born to you.

[i] “Bethlehem Cancels Christmas, But Local Pastors Still Expect a Holy Night,” reporter Sophia Lee, Christianity Today online, 12/20/2023  https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2023/december/bethlehem-cancel-christmas-christian-pastors-church-nativit.html

[ii] As quoted at a Massachusetts Council of Churches panel on the situation of Christians in the Holy Land, 12/12/2023, at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox seminary in Brighton, MA.

[iii] Queen Rania Al Abdullah, “Opinion: Christmas is canceled in the land of Jesus’ birth,” The Washington Post online, 12/21/2023  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/12/21/queen-rania-christmas-canceled-holy-land-gaza/

[iv] Thomas Merton, from Raids on the Unspeakable (1966), as reprinted in Watch for the Light (New York: Orbis Press, 2001), pp. 275-278.