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Article | December 24, 2023

Sermon – A Door into Another World at Christmas

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the Sermon on YouTube.

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Lk. 2)

“We stand with one hand on the door looking into another world, / That is this world.” The farmer poet Wendell Berry (1934-) wrote these words about Christmas in a poem called “Remembering that It Happened Once.”[1] Here’s the whole poem.

“Remembering that it happened once, / We cannot turn away the thought, / As we go out, cold, to our barns / Toward the long night’s end, that we / Ourselves are living in the world / It happened in when it first happened, / That we ourselves, opening a stall / (A latch thrown open countless times / Before), might find them breathing there, /”

“Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw, / The mother kneeling over Him, / The husband standing in belief / He scarcely can believe, in light / That lights them from no source we see, / An April morning’s light, the air / Around them joyful as a choir. / We stand with one hand on the door, / Looking into another world / That is this world, the pale daylight / Coming just as before, our chores / To do, the cattle all awake, / Our own white frozen breath hanging / In front of us; and we are here / As we have never been before, / Sighted as not before, our place / Holy, although we knew it not.”[2]

On Christmas Eve we stand between worlds. And for a moment, if we pay attention, we see our place as holy. We do not always experience our life this way. We inhabit a confusing world full of terror and distraction. These days wars in the Middle East, Ukraine and Africa cast a long shadow over the human family. Every year we become even more aware that our indifference is endangering the planet itself.

Other forms of sadness threaten to overcome us. Perhaps you have been lying awake at night because you have a child who is in serious trouble. Or perhaps, you have suddenly found yourself alone in the world to face the storms of life without someone to lean on. Or perhaps some kind of addiction holds you in its grip, or you are looking back to brighter years that you know are gone forever and will never come back.[3]

To the shepherds, to all of us tonight the angel announces a sign. A young woman is having a baby called Emmanuel which means God with us. This is the message: we are not alone or abandoned. The sign shows that joy is at the heart of being alive. Because of this baby, the world is being turned upside down. Violence is not at the center of reality, love is.[4]

Seeing the world like this may sound easy, but there is a catch. In order to experience this joy we have to be satisfied with living in a mystery. This does not mean that we have to believe what is unbelievable, that we have to give up critical thinking, or that we are not allowed to have doubts. It’s just that the infinite will not fit into our finite minds. And so our existence is made strange by the kind of creatures we are. We long for the infinite but can never really control or comprehend it.

In the way that a mother gives birth to her child, we become who we are by giving ourselves away. For me this is what makes being a parent such a transcendent experience. Taking care of our children, walking in the oak woodlands, reading stories at sunset after a warm bath, all this made joy an even more central part of my life. Joy is that experience of being called into existence as a kind of creature who is different than God and yet who has a share in the mystery of God. We are made for this delight.[5]

Our friend and Dean Emeritus Alan Jones used to remind us that in Christianity the, “things of God can be handled and held.” In fact, “[T]he things of God can be kissed and caressed.” He talks about how strange it is that Christ enters into history in order to offer us the gift of peace. And that for this reason the true Christ can never assume the shape of violence. The baby and her child are a sign of three great truths. First, the world is a gift. Second the nature of the gift is communion (for all people and the world). Third, this true communion celebrates diversity and difference. Let me say only a little more about each of these.[6]

1. The Gift. Ninety-nine years ago this week the astronomer Edwin Hubble announced the discovery of the first galaxy outside our own Milky Way. By 2019 we believed that there were 200 billion galaxies. Now after the New Horizon space probe we think there are 2 trillion galaxies.[7] This is the world we inhabit. This is the generosity of God.

One of my favorite Christmas moments happened years ago, after everyone went home from the midnight service. I turned off the lights and closed up my old church. In the cold, alone on that holy night with the stars, with trillions of worlds stretching across the heavens, I felt God with me, overwhelmed by the miracle that we exist. All of this beauty, everything that is good, is a gift from God.[8]

And this is the peculiarity and the scandal of our faith. It is not chiefly about big ideas or philosophical principles but a God who is particular. At Christmas we celebrate and take delight in the God who can be touched, who can be held as a baby.[9]

At the Christmas pageant this morning we asked children what they wanted to pray for. A boy said, “For the fighting to stop.” Loud applause followed. A girl announced that she wanted her neutered cat to have kittens. Another prayed that a particular candidate would not be elected as president (also to enthusiastic applause). But the most beautiful thing of all was Sinclair our baby Jesus sitting on her father’s lap giving us such joy.

2. Communion. I’ve been reading Jill Lepore’s book These Truths, a one volume history of America. American history always fascinated me but there is so much that I missed.[10] She writes about the Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved Americans and what it felt like for them. “In South Carolina the proclamation was read out to the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, a regiment of former slaves. At its final lines, the soldiers began to sing, quietly at first, and then louder: My country ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing!”

She goes on, “American slavery had lasted for centuries. It had stolen the lives of millions and crushed the lives of millions more… It had poisoned a people and a nation. It had turned hearts to stone… The American odyssey had barely begun. From cabins and fields they left. Freed men and women didn’t always head north.”

“They often went south or west, traveling hundreds of miles by foot, on horseback, by stage and by train, searching. They were husbands in search of wives, wives in search of children, mothers and fathers looking for children, children looking for parents, chasing word and rumors about where their loved ones had been sold, sale after sale, across the country. Some of their wanderings lasted years. They sought their own union, a union of their beloved.” This year at Christmas as I’m imagining the joy of those reunions, I’m reminded how we are made for communion.

3. Diversity. Finally let me say a short word about diversity. The two largest religious denominations in America do not permit women to be ordained as leaders of churches. This week Pope Francis gave permission for Roman Catholic priests to give same sex couples blessings in private. He said that these should not in any way look like marriage ceremonies.[11] In our church we have women, trans, gay and lesbian people serving at every level of ordained ministry. We believe that God is present when same sex couples get married here in church. I have experienced such a deep sense of joy at their ordinations and weddings. I wish every person could see it.

We are all different from each other. But this is not a problem. We should not feel threatened by this. We are not competing. There is not one of us that has gotten it all right. Our diversity is part of God’s gift to us. We are one human family.

What happens when we do not receive the world, communion with each other and diversity as a gift? The theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546) says that we become incurvatus se, that is curved in on ourself. We refuse to be fully alive. We are cut off from each other and the very sources of what should be our greatest happiness. We become distanced from our true self. This is a kind of hell that we all experience in varying degrees. In this condition we become walled off from joy.

But tonight is holy. It is time to make peace with the mystery and come back home. For many years the famous religion scholar Huston Smith was a member of my grandfather’s congregation in Massachusetts. He said that churches waiting for Christmas are like a child with her face pressed against the window on a cold winter night. Then she runs through the household saying, “Daddy’s home. Daddy’s home.”

Tonight we share this joy in our Christmas carols and in stories whose meaning can never be exhausted. The world is not made of atoms but of stories. Our stories are imperfect ways of expressing an unsayable encounter with the infinite God. Tonight we are here as we never have been before. There is joy at the very heart of being alive. As a mother gives birth to her child let us become who we are by giving our self away.

Because in these 2 trillion galaxies, the things of God can be kissed and caressed. The world is a gift. The nature of that gift is communion. True communion celebrates diversity and difference. We stand with one hand on the door looking into another world…”

[1] I’ve been thinking so much about my friend Alan Jones as he stands at the door between worlds. I’ve been trying to imagine what he would say if he could speak clearly about what this experience is like for him.

[2] Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (NY: Counterpoint, 2014).

[3] This paragraph comes from a sermon preached by Rev. Theodore Parker Ferris at Trinity Church in Boston on Christmas Day 1960.

[4] “In a confusing world, in a confusing world, it’s no wonder the cry often goes up. Give us a sign, give us a sign, show us what’s what. And the prophet Isaiah says, look, a young woman is having a baby. Emmanuel. God is with us. And the message is, we are not hated or abandoned. The sign a young woman is having a baby tells us that joy is the true mark of being alive. And because of this baby, the world has been turned around. Violence is not at the center of reality, but there’s a catch. To experience this joy of being loved, you have to be content to live within a mystery. I don’t mean by that you have to give up critical thinking or never having doubts. It’s just that the infinite will not fit into finite minds. So this journey of advent reminds us just how very strange Christianity is.”

Alan Jones, “Imagine it’s December 1941.”

[5] “We become who we are by giving ourselves away as a mother gives birth to her baby. So we need a revolution in our thinking so that joy, joy wants more, can be the driving energy of our lives. The joy of being human is to be called into existence as a being other than God. And yet one who shares in the mystery of God. And when we look at Mary and her baby, God’s graciousness is breathtaking. The sheer giftedness of everything. And you won’t see yourself, the world and others are right unless your first reaction is delight. I still have a picture in my mind one Christmas Eve, uh, during the day here when we had a uh, a little baby playing the part of the baby Jesus in the bishop’s pageant. And three elderly women lent over the uh, baby carriage and just were looking at the baby saying, yes, yes, yes. I thought, oh, I’d like people to do that to me.” Ibid.

[6] “And this is the scandal of Christianity. The things of God can be handled and held. The things of God can be kissed and caressed. It is very, very strange. And the strangeness deepens Christ offers in himself a peace that enters history always as a gift that can be received only as a gift the true Christ. The true Christ can never, never assume the shape of violence. The young woman and her baby are a sign of three great truths. The first is then that the world is a gift. And God’s gift to us as a people, as a planet is communion. And thirdly, true communion is the celebration of diversity and difference. So we’re not celebrating generic humanity but human beings in their glorious particularity of Susan and George and Fred and Barbara.” Ibid.


[8] Gratitude lies at the heart of our most memorable encounters with the Holy.

[9] My brother Andrew’s wife Courtney is pregnant with their second child now. I find myself thinking about that little niece all the time. She brings me such joy. When she’s around I want to play with her all the time. When I was about five years old I knew that at one time I had been a cute little boy and remembered all the fuss that teenaged girls would make over me. As I got older, I was aware that the world was less interested in me. When I became even older I realized just how precious a baby can be.

[10] Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (NY: W.W. Norton, 2018) 299-300.

[11] Jason Horowitz, “Pope Francis Allows Priests to Bless Same-Sex Couples, The New York Times, 19 December 2023.

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