Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1- 20 “Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.” Preparing for Christmas this year presented a bit of a logistics challenge, as Christmas Day of course falls on a Saturday, namely today. And tomorrow is already the First Sunday after Christmas, meaning another celebration of Holy Eucharist to plan for. I was corresponding the other day with a parishioner about this, and the additional work it entails, when she suggested that, in my case, I simply skip preaching today and instead just recite a poem. “You like poetry,” she wrote. “Everyone will understand.” I was touched by her thoughtfulness but more than a bit skeptical about the idea, to be honest with you. Anyway, what poem would I recite, I wondered to myself. The first thing that came to mind was the charming A Visit from Saint Nicholas, attributed to nineteenth-century American Episcopalian and seminary professor, Clement Clark Moore... 'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse... While even a church mouse might be expected to squeak out an Alleluia or two on Christmas morning, the poem, or bit of doggerel if you ask me, did not seem to capture the genuine spirit of Christmas, as far as I was concerned; all due respect to Professor Moore. Then, the death of the well-known American author Joan Didion this past week reminded me of arguably her most famous essay and book, titled Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a line actually taken from The Second Coming, a dystopian poem by Irish author, William Butler Yeats, written almost exactly a hundred years ago in the midst of the great Influenza Pandemic at the end of World War I. Again, the poem perhaps captures the essence of our age as it did that of Yeats, but to me it did not seem to capture the essence of the Nativity and Incarnation of our Lord, no matter what Yeats may have thought about either.
So, I was drawing a blank, or experiencing writer’s block, when it occurred to me that in a sense the story of our Lord’s birth as given to us this morning in the Gospel of Luke is itself poetry; not written in verse or rhyme, to be sure, but nevertheless capturing in the intensity and spareness of its language the “beauty of holiness,” mentioned in our passage this morning from Psalm 96, in which we are advised to “Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.” Good advice, I thought, and a sentiment which occurs more than once in Scripture. And it seemed to me to capture perfectly what we are about this morning as we gather in this beautiful church to worship the Lord; as we gather in celebration of the “beauty of holiness” found by shepherds ages ago, “lying in a manger,” not in the desolate stable of legend, by the way, but rather in a crowded family or common room shared, as was the custom in those days, by close family members and relatives, friends, an occasional stranger or two and, perhaps most important of all, the prized domestic animals. Hence, the convenient manger or feeding trough, requisitioned as a makeshift cradle. Neither holiness nor beauty know squalor from riches after all; nor dignity from humility. Holiness knows only the hand and will of God at work in our world and in our lives. And what the hand of God has wrought among us and for us is forever beautiful and a wonder to behold and celebrate. The shepherds knew this almost instinctively, as they headed to Bethlehem -- surely not slouching -- to “see this thing that has taken place,” this sign of beauty and holiness; this sign of God’s love. Christ is born in the midst of God’s creatures; in the midst of the world with all its messiness. He is born amid the hubbub of life, surrounded by the people of his time and the implements and elements of everyday domestic life during a time of considerable turmoil. Yet his birth, like the birth of every child, is infinitely beautiful and in some deeper sense inexplicable, except for its holiness. For in the birth of this child, God shares his life with us. God is at least with us. God has become Emmanuel. Luke’s spare and matter-of-fact account of the birth of a child, of the Christ, does what every great poem does, from the Psalms to Yeats and beyond. It brings together heaven and earth; the divine and the human; the Word and reality. Luke’s words and prose-poetry remind us that the language of worship, indeed all human language, is itself a sign of God’s enduring presence among us. Each word of encouragement, each word of beauty and holiness, each word of love is Christmas again, no matter the season.
Each child’s first cooing and babbling is the primordial alleluia of all humankind. The child’s first word, be it mama, dada, hi or bye, becomes ultimately the expression of the Word of God dwelling among us, his people, whether years ago in Bethlehem, in maternity wards across the world, or here this morning as we gather in worship. It is this profound truth “which the Lord has made known to us,” as he made it known to shepherds in their fields. This, my friends, is the beauty of holiness. This is divine poetry. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs