Christmas Midnight Mass, December 24, 2010, St. Christopher's Episcopal Church , Rev. Paul Moore
There are two icons of Christmas in my home. They inhabit opposite sides of the same room. On one side is a 6-foot artificial Christmas tree. For convenience' sake it is pre-lit, and if I had my druthers, now that the kids are out of the house, it would come pre-decorated. There are delightful legends of how the Christmas Tree began being used as a symbol of this day that come from northern Europe, but they are not in my head when I set it up. I set it up because across the street my neighbor has his tree up, and the neighbors to each side. I don't want to feel out of place. There are no illusions of symbols of life in the midst of the death of winter, no, the tree is where we put the presents. It has become, as I am sure it has for you, a cultural icon of our society's manner of celebrating this holiday. We call it crass materialism.
On the other side of the room is a stretch of display about 6 feet long. It begins low, and builds up to the highest part in two sweeping paths. At the bottom is the town, with all the townspeople in it, along with dogs, chickens and ducks. At the top is a large crèche, larger than the whole town itself. All the people in the town and along the path are headed toward the crèche. Tonight the Baby Jesus will appear in the manger, and the wise men will begin a 12-day journey up the path. It is not an American cultural icon, it is an Ecuadorian one. Existing as it does, outside its context, it is in a sense stripped of its cultural baggage. We do not put presents under it. We use the same figurines year after year. It is a statement of faith, nothing more and nothing less, using material things. I would like to think of this as holy materialism.
Ivan Illich has rightly noted that as Christian Americans we are not materialistic, And Christmas is not a celebration of crass materialism. If that were so we would not throw away the precious material things that we acquired last year, we would carefully and reverently take them out of storage and display them once again. No, Christmas as the world celebrates it is anti-materialist. The ads for the last three months on TV have been asking us to acquire. What we do with last year's acquisitions is immaterial, most of us take them (as we did this year) to the Good Will. (And herein is the proof. We make a multimillion dollar industry of disposing of our acquisitions in a way that lets someone else acquire them, and we call it "Good Will.") We do not worship material things, we worship the act of acquiring. It is not materialism, but consumerism. We quickly dispose of and acquire everything in life: houses and cars, jobs and careers, husbands and wives, children and cousins.
But what we celebrate this night is not consumeristic, it is materialistic. Jesus was not born so He could go to Wal-Mart and buy strawberries in November and apples in April. We've almost forgotten that strawberries bear in the Spring and apples in the Fall. To buy strawberries in November and apples in April they are imported from Chile and Argentina. Many locals don't buy these nutritious food items because the prices we are willing to pay put them out of their reach.
And Jesus was not born so that He could come back and be born again, only this time bigger and better, at 25% off, or with 30% more in the package, or even so He could come back green and earth-friendly. He was born because God looked at His creation at the beginning of time and said, "It is good." And it is good—not entirely good, it got messed up, but God believes it is worth trying to redeem rather than recycle, and so Jesus is born. Jesus is born so that the stuff of our earthly lives can become holy, that the material in which we are all cast in this existence can be in relationship with God.
What does that mean? It means that the presents under your tree are worth more than their depreciation value. I knew a woman who said that the forks in her kitchen "lived in THAT drawer," –funky and strange, but strangely, theologically accurate. If God can make bread and wine into the food of our spiritual pilgrimage from earth to heaven, then all material things have the potential of communicating Him to us.
It means that the people around your tree are more valuable than the things under it. We look at a babe in a manger and we see the perfect icon or image of God. We look in one another's faces and we see that same visage, painted in different colors and shapes, to be sure, but there, nonetheless. If our relationship with this human being, this babe in a manger is holy, then all relationships have the capacity of reflecting God to us.
It means the world around you is worth doing something about. If God has so valued the material creation that He became part of it to redeem it, and if your materiality is holy before God, then that part of the material creation that you inhabit is caught up in your holiness. The way you handle your materiality and your material world speaks about how you feel and think about God. If creation has the capacity of reflecting God to you, it also has the capacity to reflect your heart back to God.
It has been said that what is important about the economic recession is not how we can get out of it, but how it will change us. Equally, this Christmas season is important, not for what we can get out of it, but for how it will change us. Can we begin to value the material world in which we share and which we have received as a holy gift? And can we begin to treat the world like the sacrament of God that it is because of this babe this night?