Christmas Eve, Tuesday 24 December, 2019
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
In the name of God; Father , Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Welcome to all on this glorious evening, the night when Christians across the world join for the yearly celebration of the birth of Jesus, the coming of the savior, the advent of the Word who put on flesh to deliver humanity from sin.
Just a second ago, I recited a fairly famous poem for the Nativity, written by the 19th Century Anglican poet, Christina Rossetti. I’ve been thinking about it a lot this past season, and I’ll be referring back to it often as I speak. If you’d like to follow along, you can find it in the blue hymnal at number 84. It is, to say the least, a remarkable piece: stunning in its earnestness and simplicity. Like so much great poetry, the simplicity of its composition belies a great depth of truth. Here at this parish, that text has filled our halls as the choir perfected a musical setting of the text, a commission that was borne out of deep and profound grief.
And yet, that first line, “Love came down at Christmas,” is a reminder that true joy descends to us in God’s love. Even as we celebrate Christmas as Christ’s birthday, it is also a day when the Church reflects on the Incarnation; the mystery of God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. I’ll save you the theology lesson (please admire my restraint) but notice how Rosetti so briefly and artfully described the profound mystery of the Word made flesh. She wrote: Love all Lovely, Love Divine. The fullness of God’s love, which is as Scripture says, is God’s very own being, came to be among us in Mary’s child. It’s an understatement to say that this a pretty big deal. God and His heavenly hosts certainly thought so, and the star appeared over Christ’s manger and the angels announced the Christ’s birth to the shepherds. As a sidenote, I’m always amazed that the Wise and the Kings of the earth were left to interpret the sign of the star, but the lowly shepherds were addresses by the Angels of Heaven. In any case, Heaven and Earth moved in such a way to guide people to Jesus; as Rosetti wrote: “star and Angel gave the sign.
But even though the Nativity of Jesus was among history’s greatest events, I suspect that Christ’s manger remained relatively quiet for a time, aside from the usual activity of crying newborns and cooing new parents. There were probably more farm animals than we are currently used to, but perhaps even more curious was the presence of those who came to regard the Christ child. The shepherds and three men who came from afar made pilgrimage to Bethlehem and there began the habit that we, even all these years later, continue to observe. Rosetti draws us into the same company as the shepherds and wise men in the first line of the second stanza: “Worship we the Godhead.” When our hearts are so moved to recognize the incredible gift of the Incarnation, the presence of God with us, Emmanuel in the flesh, I suspect there is no other reaction than to worship a God that would be so good and loving as to be among us so intimately. I mean, we are creatures so given to giving things worth; which is at base what worship means. We have a way of doing it kind of wrongly at times, though. Myself, I’m afraid I have been drawn by the cult of Skywalker. But even in my beloved Star Wars, we can see people attaching far more worth than is really possible or necessary. The amount of angst that follows any new release of Star Wars, just for example, shows how easy it is for humans to give their hearts and worth to something outside of themselves. Also Baby Yoda is awesome. But as Rosetti’s poem reminds us, our hearts are meant to align with the hearts of the Shepherds as she wrote “Worship we our Jesus.”
It’s after that third line that Rosetti does something a little interesting in the structure of her poem. The second stanza reminds Christ’s followers that Christ is an object of worship, but uses a precious verse to transition to the final stanza. It’s phrased somewhat archaically for modern ears, but that’s kind of what makes it stand out. Rosetti asks us: “But wherewith for sacred sign?” I take this to mean, “but how will people know?” and perhaps even, “Love came down at Christmas, but so what?” Rosetti’s third verse reminds the reader that love did not stay in the manger; and cannot remain a once a year phenomenon (as good a start as it is, of course). “Love,” she writes, “will be our token.” Recalling that a token is simply a sign or representation of another thing, usually an abstract thing, it follows that we would want a way to signify the love of Christ. Rosetti’s point is clear then. We might lack stars and angels as signs, but love should always make the point. Scripture indicates that love is a function of God’s good universe working as it should for once, reflecting back at Him that which is Him. But given humanity’s consistent pattern of ignoring and repudiating love, that final stanza of Rosetti’s poem reminds us that Christ comes to us so that Love be can and ought to be yours and love can and ought be mine. And this love is more than just a fancy or curious affect of bio-chemistry. This love to God and all people is a love that heals us, strips us of our burdens, and draws us together so that we can stay present with those who weep and morn even as we laugh and enjoy one another in the same breath. If love does indeed, as the poem concludes stand as a plea, and a gift, and a sign, it is a plea for this broken world to draw closer to its Creator and Redeemer, it is a gift to help it do so, and therefore act as a signpost to that very same love that came down in Christmas. It is the love of Jesus Christ, born this day in Bethlehem of Galilee.
Thus, Merry Christmas, again. I pray that you are blessed this season by the presence of Christ, whos love has truly descended to us. I pray that you would find space in your hearts to worship him whose Godhead dwealt among us so sweetly. I pray that His great love would be translated in our lives that all the world would know how marvelous a gift He really is.
Hodie Christus Natus Est! Today Christ is Born! Come let us adore him. Amen.
The Very Rev. David Bumsted
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
1603 E Winter Park Rd.
Orlando, FL 32803