Sermon Christmas Eve: A Canadian Christmas Rev. Betsy Hogan
Are there words that you treasure and ponder in your heart?
I love this image of Mary on Christmas Eve, exhausted and relieved, welcoming the Shepherds and hearing their message about her newborn son… and treasuring all their words and pondering them in her heart.
I imagine it as a perfect crystal moment for her. It evokes for me the same beauty as that line in Ann-Marie Macdonald’s amazing book Fall On Your Knees, when the character Frances Piper takes a moment and stores it up with one or two others for later.
I imagine Mary taking this moment, treasuring the words of the shepherds, pondering them in her heart, and storing that moment up with one or two others… for later.
Because there are moments and there are words… that last. That are perfect in their beauty or transcendant in their grace or even just timeless in their wisdom – and they work their way so deeply into our consciousness that we find ourselves, regularly, pondering them in our hearts.
I have many, and I hope you do too. But there’s one that even though it resonates for me ridiculously and amazingly often in this old world we live in, I find it especially resonates for me when I’m “pondering in my heart” the whole notion of Christmas.
Even though, on the surface at least, it had nothing to do with Christmas when it happened. Because it actually arose in the context of my trying to understand the notion of gender identification. What it means to feel inside – quite apart from outside -- a sense of rightness with a particular gender or both or neither.
And I was trying to figure it out in a desire to be grace-filled and affirming and helpful and useful to the world in general in a good sort of ministering way… but I just really wasn’t getting it. It just wasn’t finding any firm location in my mind, it just kept being beyond me somehow, this real understanding of what it means to feel like this gender or feel like that gender… or not --
When a very wise woman of this congregation said to me, Betsy, you don’t have to understand it. You just have to make space for it.
And let me tell you, talk about “fall on your knees”… Choirs of angels burst into song. Because there it was – this amazing piece of wisdom and I suspect it’ll be in my top ten forever and ever amen. We don’t have to understand it, we just have to make space for it.
And it’s just as good a way to think about the whole notion of Christmas --- the mystery of incarnation, God born into the world, all the goodness of Godness embodied in a newborn infant. Christmas as … what if God were one of us? All that goodness of Godness, here, in our midst. Just a stranger on the bus.
Or wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger because there’s no room in an inn. It defies intellectual apprehension. It absolutely does. But we don’t have to understand the incarnation -- the mystery and gift of Christmas. We just have to make space for it.
For the notion that there’s more, beyond us – but at the same time so deeply invested in us that it’s here.
One of the things that for me, when I was a child, that helped me make space for that mystery, in a way that transcended understanding, was a Christmas Carol that I still remember the first time that I ever heard it as a small child.
Because it was magic. Twas in the Moon of Wintertime. I thought it was absolute magic. And honestly I still do, even though I understand fully AND I make space for all the manifestly good reasons why it’s deeply problematic.
Because for me, as a small child, Twas in the Moon of Wintertime was a revelation. Of this astonishing notion that the Christmas story could LIVE apart from sandy deserts and shepherds and sheep and whatever bewelled foreign entities riding camels were mysteriously called Magi.
That it could translate itself as if by act of incarnation OUT of Bethlehem and into… anywhere. Into the real life and real context of… anywhere.
Even here. Even into Canada, even into the forest, and the cold, and the unrelenting winter darkness, with wolves and hunters and birchtrees and snow.
It was a revelation. And was it originally created as an instrument of deeply problematic and deliberately suppressive evangelism on the part of Jean de Brébeuf? Oh yes it was, it absolutely was.
And I know that because of that, Twas in the Moon of Wintertime is a carol that’s deeply problematic for many, and troublesome for many more
And I get that. Because its provenance and its misrepresentation of not Huron but more properly Wendat traditions are patently hard to ignore. Because if Brébeuf and his brethren had merely wished to share the good news with the indigenous nations they met, that would have been one thing.
But their conflation of evangelism with “civilizing” and the catastrophic tragedies the Wendat suffered because of their mission – nevermind their casual inaccuracies with Wendat language and traditions -- these are quite another. It’s not a carol with an unnuanced history, to put it mildly, and that does matter and warrants critique.
But at the same time, solely in and of itself, what Jean de Brébeuf did with that carol ‘Twas In the Moon of Wintertime -- it was radical in the seventeenth century. And it’s still radical now when it’s being reclaimed by peoples around the world on their own behalf -- in the twenty-first century.
Because what he did is he claimed the Christmas story as something that lives OUTSIDE of its Bethlehem particularity. As a story that transcends its original context because it’s itself a story about transcendence.
And that’s glorious. Is it glorious when it’s done TO a people in their context, as Brébeuf did it TO the Wendat Nation because he imagined their own faithfulness was not good enough? No it is not. But in and of itself, as an expression, a manifestation, of the mystery of God’s incarnation and the gift of God into the whole world, it really is glorious.
Because it’s actually the power of God transcending the particularity of one infant in a Middle Eastern manger surrounded by shepherds and mysterious magi… with all the Godness of God crashing into everywhere with ANY manifestation of light and humility and warmth and embrace that everywhere can provide.
Because if the Christmas story is a story that lives wherever people need light in the depth of night? Wherever fears weary spirits and weigh down hopefulness? If the Christmas story is a story that lives wherever people feel isolated? Beset fore and aft by what seems like an impenetrable forest of obstacles to peace and goodness?
Then it’s also a story that can live specifically here. And that’s what Jean de Brébeuf lifted up. A Christmas story that lives where in the dead of winter, people are cold. And shelter matters, however it’s mustered up. And staying warm is necessary. It’s a Christmas story that lives where pine trees make sense and camels don’t. Where long frigid nights sharpen the starlight. And we lay down tracks in the snow, and we’ve felt that midnight stillness.
Jean de Brébeuf’s carol speaks to us of Christmas here. Where early winter mornings are quiet because all the birds have fled. His carol hallows, makes holy, lodges of birchbark and blankets of rabbit skin. Brave hunters are accorded the majesty of wise kings from the east: their gifts of beaver pelts as rich and evocative as gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
So there’s a lifting up in this carol of this place – as different from Bethlehem as it possibly could be – as just as surely where Jesus is born. Where God has broken in.
And I love that. It’s not unnuanced, this Canadian carol -- its provenance IS problematic. In fact, that might be the most Canadian thing about it: welcome to Canada, our provenance is problematic. It WAS a making-the-Christmas-story live that was done TO people, and that matters.
But it still made the Christmas story live hundreds of years ago in a quite a radical way, that’s still in many ways radical now, as peoples around the globe are doing it for themselves. Claiming for themselves the richness of this story embedded in their own places and cultures and contexts. Making it transcend merely Bethlehem because it’s itself a story of transcendence.
Because when God-with-us is everywhere, that means God-with-us is here.
Where we know what it means to be cold, so it’s not okay that people are sleeping outside tonight. Where the nights are long and the urge to hibernate is huge, and it’s so easy to fall into isolation, to fall into sadness.
God-with-us is here. In the little tree that we weren’t going to put up, because why, but then we did, and it’s beautiful. Or the grocery bagger newly arrived from somewhere, who wants to know what cranberries are and why is everyone buying them and how do Canadians eat them, so he can give it a go. Or the neighbour who’s got a whole job and a life and family to worry about, but he’ll still knock on the door and ask if you need anything after a storm.
God-with-us is here. It defies intellectual apprehension. It absolutely does. There isn’t a way to “explain” the story of the Nativity – of God born into the world -- that doesn’t swiftly devolve into “and then there were angels”.
But we don’t have to understand the incarnation -- the mystery and gift of Christmas. We’re just invited to make space for it.
For the notion that the more, the Godness, beyond us – is also with us and within us.
We’re just invited to make space for the notion that what we can see is also more than what we can see. God-with-us breaking in and making Godself at home. Like a stranger on a bus. Or a moment to treasure and ponder in our hearts and store up with one or two others for later. For unto us a child is born: the light shines and it cannot be extinguished.