Christmas Eve 2003, by Forrest Church
I counted them up this afternoon. The math wasn't difficult, but the result still surprises me. This is my twenty-sixth All Souls Christmas Eve homily. One advantage of a long pastorate- a disadvantage as well- is that over time its rhythms become familiar. Having preached so many Christmas Eve sermons, I know exactly what is expected of me tonight and so do you– a brief, poetic interlude to cleanse your mental palette between musical courses. This interlude should be tonal, even if the music isn't. It must allude to tradition, without getting bogged down there. It should be personal in theme without being totally irrelevant to history's unfolding plot. And it must make you feel good, both about yourself and about me. In short, the perfect Christmas Eve homily says relatively little as succinctly and poetically as possible.
Precisely why, on my twenty-sixth go at this, I'm tempted to try something altogether different, I can't really say. But with our world on Orange Alert again, swaddling clothes and magi simply don't cut it for me. I need something more bracing– and you may too– something like an angel to shake us out of our unholy self-absorption. Not the homogenized Hallmark angel with a filigreed golden trumpet, but a terrifying messenger of God, transfiguring the heavens with a blinding light, driving us under our pews, blowing away our pretensions, leaving us quaking in abject wonder at the miracle and portent of it all.
Right now, our national guardians say, the danger of a terrorist attack is high; why then shouldn't the danger of an angel attack be just as high, a healing blast of heart-lifting, ego-smashing, power-bending, lifesaving truth? It's in the script you know. It's in tonight's script.
Just a little while ago we heard again about the shepherds. Try putting yourself in their shoes. Do you really imagine that the shepherds were tickled pink when the night sky exploded above them in a blast of divine proclamation? Of course they weren't. They were scared to death. They hit the dirt. They wept. "Spare me!" they prayed. They could barely breathe, their terror was so great. With the night sky brightening from black to blinding phosphorescence, how could they help but quake? Which is precisely why the angel's first words were, "Fear not." "It's all right," Gabriel declared. "You can come out from under your pews now. I won't hurt you." So we peak out just a little, still trembling... only to hear a celestial chorus boom out the Christmas message, reminding us of why we actually are here tonight: "Glory to God in the highest," the heavenly host proclaims. "Peace on earth. Good will to all people."
Myth doesn't depend on fact for its validation. It depends on truth. This story may not be factual, but it speaks deep truth. Salvation and peace are so inextricably interwoven that the one cannot appear on earth without the other.
Here at All Souls we spend little time pouring over Biblical texts for their deeper meaning. For better and for worse, this particular church is Bible Optional. The book of nature we read for its revelations, it and the book of our hearts. But if our hearts dare open on Christmas Eve, they may open so wide that we have to stop and take notice. A host, an army, of angels crowds the heavens singing "Glory to God in the highest. Peace on earth good will to all people."
Not "to some people." Not "to my people." That's not what the scriptures say. Or do they? The truth is, one ancient scriptural tradition reads precisely that way. In that tradition, going back to the second century of the Common Era, this same passage reads, "Peace on earth to people of good will." You will likely find this tradition reflected in your Bible at home. For instance, the well-respected Revised Standard Version of the Bible reads, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased." That is to say, "Peace on earth for those who happen to be on God's side"– the oldest formula I know for holy war.
So this electrical storm of angels portends one of two very different things, either an eternal proclamation of the divine imperative for peace or yet another cause for orange alert. From almost the very beginning, both meanings are carried side by side within the Christian tradition. Peace and good will to all people or peace only to those with whom God is pleased.
The tradition this church follows is the former one, known throughout history as Universalist. It exists in every faith, the universal teaching of neighborly love, love to enemies, love to strangers, indeed love to everyone: black and white; straight and gay; Muslim, Jew and Christian; sheep and goats; us and them. The other tradition declares that God's chosen people will be saved, all the rest of earth's children be damned. That is Jihad. And the Crusades. It is fundamentalism, too often become a doctrine of brotherly hate and never failing to justify war in the name of peace– war against the infidel, peace in final triumph for God's soldiers. It is the single reason that religion is by far the greatest force for evil throughout the world tonight.
We have a choice. We can pray to be protected from our enemies. Or we can begin to open our hearts to them as the only way they will ever dare to open their hearts to us. Beginning in today's Bethlehem– Peace on Earth to all people. Refusing to stand passively by as narrow, divisive creeds destroy the only hope this world will ever have. We have a choice. Either we succumb to the curse of religion or we rise instead to its higher call.
By my reading of the Bible– on this night long ago a divine messenger short-circuited all the usual switches, electrifying our hearts with the only dream worth having– peace on earth. In that same spirit, tonight we can do nothing better than put ourselves on high alert for a new angel attack. Attacking our nativism and chauvinism and provincialism. Attacking our fears. Attacking our pride. Calling us too to answer to the higher angels of our nature. Calling us to proclaim and live by the universal gospel.
That then is this, my twenty-sixth Christmas message. To take Christmas seriously requires nothing less than a complete change of heart. This year, let's try to take it seriously. Peace in our homes– for everyone we greet there. Peace in our neighborhood– for all our neighbors. Peace as a true national platform. Peace as the centerpiece of a living religion that saves. After all, we too can do our part to save the world– one heart, one neighbor, one magnificent, unforgettable dream at a time. Not only is it our duty, it is our promise.
Amen. Merry Christmas. And may God bless us all.
Rev. Forrest Church, acclaimed author of more than two dozen books and longtime minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, died on September 24, 2009, at the age of 61 following a three-year battle with esophageal cancer.
Church is described by UUA President Peter Morales as "a brilliant and articulate thinker, a champion of democratic values, and a compelling advocate for liberal religion. More importantly, [Forrest Church was] a kind, thoughtful, and loving spirit."
Church spent his final years reflecting on the importance of living each day with love and gratitude. He writes in Love and Death that "[the] goal is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for... The one thing that can't be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go."