Spiritual Practices for Preaching
The Joy -- and Ambiguity -- of Christmas
On the first Sunday of Christmas, December 26, the mood quickly shifts. The preacher is given three alternatives: the lectionary reading (focusing on Matthew 2:13-23, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, their return home after years in exile, and the massacre of infants); the Epiphany Sunday reading (Matthew 2:1-12, the visit of the Magi); or a hybrid in the spirit of Palm/Passion Sunday (reading Matthew 2:1-12 at the beginning, followed by Christmas carols and then abruptly turning mid-service to the more violent Matthew 2:13-23 reading). In any case, the celebration is brief. Even the visit of the Magi foreshadows a threat to Jesus and his parents. The Magi are warned in a dream to go home by "another road." The preacher can focus on a variety of theologically transformative topics on this Sunday:
- the global nature of revelation that reaches beyond our faith tradition to embrace the whole earth -- the Magi were most likely followers of Zoroaster, the prophet of light and darkness; today, their children would most likely be followers of Islam or Zoroastrianism.
- the theme of going home by another road, lifting up the reality that God inspires us in dreams and encounters to take a different path in life than we expected, and that God is present in the paths that we have not chosen -- grief, loss, unemployment, serious illness -- providing guidance and care.
- the reality of suffering and oppression then and now and the question: "how do we celebrate the birth of Christ in a world characterized by oppression and violence?"
- the presence of God in the lives of strangers and immigrants, like the Holy Family. Jesus and his parents became "guests" in a strange land, relying on the compassion of others. This passage cries out for a response to our own nation's immigrants and undocumented workers. Does the Christmas story embrace them today? Are today's immigrants holy families, deserving our hospitality?
On the Second Sunday of Christmas, January 2, the preacher may choose to focus on Christ as God's Creative Wisdom (John 1:1-18, expanding on the lectionary's John 1:10-18 reading) or the visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). In both cases, the scope of revelation is global. John 1:1-18 places Christ at the center of the cosmic adventure: the reality made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth reflects God's vision and action in the creation itself. The world is founded on God's wisdom and creativity, and God's ongoing creative works always aim at wholeness and salvation. John's God is defined in the Incarnation, "the word made flesh," in every moment of life as well as in Jesus of Nazareth. The light shines in everyone. Though John realistically notes that we often turn from the light, our unfaithfulness is met with divine love. The darkness cannot overcome God's light.
The story of the visit of the Magi embraces universalism, revelation, and threat. God seeks to bless all peoples in the birth of Jesus. Jesus' impact reaches beyond the Jewish tradition to embrace the whole earth. There are no God-free zones; all peoples are invited to walk in God's light. The Magi, guided by a star, are also guided by a dream. God gives them a message of warning through a dream and they go home by another road. God reveals Godself in many ways: in stillness, in dreams, in synchronous encounters, and in hunches and intuitions. The preacher can invite congregants to ponder where they have been touched by God, and invite them to awaken to God's ongoing presence in their lives. Those who seek divine guidance open themselves to ever increasing gifts of insight and revelation.
The dream, however, contains a warning. Christ is born in an ambiguous world, a world of angelic messengers, faithful foreigners, and violent rulers. This is our world today, as we seek to hold in contrast God's wonderful world with the threats we experience economically and in terms of national security. Through it all, the mood of Christmas reminds us that we must open our hearts, minds, and eyes to a guiding star that gives hope and wisdom for our times.
Christmas is a rich time for the preacher. Like the period from Palm Sunday to Easter, the preacher can focus on the many ways we can be faithful and the many challenges to our faith. The mood is celebrative, like Easter. The Christmas celebration can be lived out courageously and hopefully by those who have been touched by grief, fear, death, and anxiety, for God is with us.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.