An Earthy Christmas Sermon

On Christmas morning I had the pleasure of bringing the message at Spokane Friends Church, which is a place that nourished me deeply when I had big, confused questions about God and spirituality and the world.

I was honored to be asked to speak on Christmas morning and was surprised at how difficult a Christmas sermon is to write. What I came up with is deeply influenced by the earthiness of my new home (pictured below), by the love of Winter Solstice that I received from my grandmother, and by the Quaker dedication to Light that informs my understanding of God. It’s an earthy sermon focused on birth and the season of Christmas. I hope you find it nourishing and useful.

I copied the text of the sermon below. But first, here’s the benediction I offered (which sadly isn’t in the recording). It’s a blessing written by Brother David Steindalrast, OSB:

May you grow still enough to hear

   the small noises earth makes in preparing for the long sleep of winter,

      so that you yourself may grow calm and grounded deep within.

May you grow still enough to hear

   the trickling of water seeping into the ground,

      so that your soul may be softened and healed,

         guided in its flow.

May you grow still enough to hear

   the splintering of starlight in the winter sky

      and the roar at earth’s fiery core.

May you grow still enough to hear

   the stir of a single snowflake in the air

      so that your inner silence may turn into hushed expectation.

Peace….. the angel announced.

But peace is as much task as gift.

Only if we become calm as earth,

   fluid as water,

      and blazing as fire

will we be able to rise to the task of peacemaking,

and the air will stir with the rush of wings of angels arriving to help us.

This is why I wish you that great inner stillness

which alone allows us to speak, even today,

   without irony of “peace on earth”

   and, without despair, to work for it.


To claim a moment as sacred:

Christmas is the story of a baby coming into the world. Howard Thurman, in his book “The Mood of Christmas” has a theological discussion on who this baby was in relation to God. And then he says:

“But the important thing, is that to the mother of Jesus he was a baby boy who grew hungry, who had to be fed, bathed, nurtured, who had to be given tender loving care, one who pulled at her heartstrings and who became so much a part of her sense of worth and meaning that she was sure, in a sense, that this was the first baby in the world. And perhaps every mother feels, particularly about her first baby, that this is the first—this is the original baby—and this can be understood.”

I had the pleasure of being present at the births of my sister’s two children. So I understand something about the event of birth. It’s a wild experience. It can be loud—and quiet. It’s wet and bloody. It smells like earth and it’s deeply part of the experience of being a creature. Watching as new life arrives in the world gives one the sense of miracle. Of survival. Of hope.

Mary celebrated the news of her pregnancy by praising God and singing of an end to injustice. In the Gospel of Luke we hear her song:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. … God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1.46-47 and 1.51b-53)

The moment of birth gives us the sense that justice will prevail. It has to. We want our children to be safe.

So Christmas is a moment of birth. A moment that reminds us of our creatureliness. A moment that begs for an end to injustice. And the story of Jesus’ birth is a moment that reminds us that God is with us. That God also begs for an end to injustice.

Christmas is also, we must admit, an ordinary part of our year. It’s wrapped up in the busyness we now call “the holidays.” We decorate our homes with lights. We bring trees inside. We feast and indulge. We give and receive heaps and heaps of gifts.

Why do we do these things? How do they connect to a story about birth? I think they do. And I think they don’t. Or more accurately, I think they both connect to a season. Such a connection can be hard to recognize because often the conveniences of our modern life disconnect us from this season, which disconnects us from the event and the traditions that surround it.

Here’s what I mean. It’s December. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is hardly out. The ground around us is mostly frozen. And yet, we can go to any grocery store and find asparagus and strawberries. With the flip of a switch our homes are filled with light and heat. And for most of us, nothing about our schedule has changed. We go to work at the same time in December as we do in May or August. We are mostly able to avoid the reality of winter, which wasn’t always the case.

For example, In her book on the season of Advent, Gayle Boss writes about early agricultural peoples feasting after the harvest. She says:

“No matter how glad the party, they couldn’t keep from glancing at the sky. Their growing season was over because the sun had retreated too far south to keep the crops alive. Each day throughout the fall they watched the light dwindle, felt the warmth weaken. It made them anxious, edgy. Their fires were no substitute for the sun. When they had eaten up the crop they were feasting on, how would another crop grow? Throughout December, as the sun sank and sank to its lowest point on their horizon, they felt the shadow of primal fear — fear for survival — crouching over them. They were feasting, and they were fearful, both. Yes, last year the sun had returned to their sky. But what if, this year, it didn’t? Despite their collective memory, people wedded, bodily, to the earth couldn’t help asking the question. Their bodies, in the present tense, asked the question.”

Most of us in the modern world no longer realize our bodies are asking the question of whether or not the sun will return. But, of course, they are. For we are creatures and without the sun, there is no life for us. We may be able to find fresh strawberries, but when we eat them, we can taste the fact that they do not belong to this season. We are in the darkest days of the year. So, rightly, we bring trees inside, we cover our homes in light. We feast and we offer gifts. And even though we don’t know the exact date of Jesus’ birth we choose to celebrate it along with the winter solstice, which marks the moment when the days slowly become longer. When the sun starts returning to us. We celebrate Christmas, the story of a birth that reminds us that God is with us, that reminds us that God begs for an end to injustice, as a reminder that the darkness will fade. That the Light will return.

We are offered an invitation at Christmas. We are offered a moment to pause. To contemplate the darkness that surrounds us and to pray for the coming of God’s Light. Christmas offers us an invitation to interrupt the ordinariness of our lives and to claim a moment as sacred.

Howard Thurman writes:

“There must always be provisions for the ample moment when an event takes on the character of the Sacramental, however such an event may be named in the calendar. The true significance of the event is to be found in the quality of celebration which it inspires in the heart.”

This idea feels very Quakerly to me. Sacraments are only meaningful in so far as they inspire us inwardly. So what does this particular event of birth—something that happens everyday—inspire in our hearts? What happens when we pause and ground our attention in our bodies, which are standing in the darkness of December? What happens when we pause and remember our faith that the Light will return? What happens as we contemplate the birth of Jesus? Who do we become as we contemplate the promise of this birth that God is with us? 

Can we muster the courage to pay attention to this moment. And to walk away from it changed?

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