Jazz, justice, holy fools and the birth of Jesus 2014 style...

NOTE: Tomorrow night is Christmas Eve 2014. How did that happen? This year - and this Advent - has raced by me in ways I am still trying to grasp. It has been a holy year, a hard year and a year of healing and hope. There is a deep sorrow within me this Christmas. My father is no longer with us. And for the first time in 37 years, I will not have the pleasure of sharing Christmas Eve with one of my daughters. As her family matures, it is time for other duties. There is also a new, sweet joy, however, as we will have the chance to spend a quiet and loving time with our other daughter and her husband on Christmas day feasting and returning thanks. That is a blessing too deep for words: to everything there is a season, yes? 

What follows are my worship notes for Christmas Eve 2014. As my friend and colleague, Carlton Maaia II, and I wrestled with a contemplative, late night, jazz Eucharist for the 11 pm feast, we were haunted and challenged by the escalating fear and violence of these days. He has written brilliant jazz charts for a number of traditional Christmas carols - from "Of the Father's Love Begotten" and "Lullay, Lully" to "Lift Up Your Heads Ye Gates," "Away in the Manger," and "Joy to the World" - and we'll play then in a quartet tomorrow. It will be a time of quiet introspection saturated with silence, song and stories. It is our small contribution to the redemption of our culture. If you want to be with others in the quiet candle light, join us.

The ancient Christmas story is remarkably contemporary – and startlingly relevant to modern people – if we are paying attention.  It can easily be sentimentalized, of course, stripped of its challenging invitation to become allies of God’s grace, justice and peace so that what once was a call to counter-cultural compassion now becomes a maudlin fable retold to excuse our obsession with shopping. You see, if all we want from Christmas Eve is a bit of comfort and joy, that’s possible:  we can sing all the old songs and hear the old stories just like they do on the holiday TV specials and be satisfied with the notion that all is well with the world.

But Christ wasn’t born because everything was well with the world:  God chose to enter time and space in history because sin is real, violence is all too natural and fear and shame cause people like you and me to do horrible things to ourselves and one another.

·   Left to our own inclinations and moral standards we can convince ourselves that slaughtering 145 innocent children in a Pakistani military school makes sense.

·   We can demonize petty criminals who don’t look like us so completely that we can’t even hear them gasp “I can’t breathe” as they lay in our streets.

·   We can rationalize our way into ambushing police officers in NYC, raping one another as a necessary consequence of war, murdering sisters and brothers in the name of the Lord and excusing torture as enhanced interrogation because we know in our hearts that we’re on the side of everything that is holy, just and merciful – and they are not.

So let’s be clear, beloved, Christ wasn’t born because all is well with the world: There is gloom and terror, plunder and addiction, fear and trembling everywhere we look.  What’s more, we have become a people grown weary with waiting for signs of your kingdom. Small wonder more and more of our youth are filling their veins with junk: there is an aching emptiness in our culture that cannot be filled with faster computers, bigger TVs or self-centered sex.

But to grasp a healing alternative we have to pay careful attention to the old, old story – giving ourselves both the silence and space to consider it fully – for within the old words are some important truths about why the Christ Child came to us in his unique way and why it matters today:

·   For starters, the old story tells us that Jesus was born into a refugee family: they were an unmarried, homeless Palestinian Jewish couple caught up in the oppressive whims of an imperial army occupying a foreign nation.  Just that reality alone tells me that God’s love is not bound by any of our pietistic or limited notions of conventional morality: God’s grace is SO much bigger.

·   But God’s truth cuts deeper still as the Christmas story ripens.  It tells us that the will of the Lord is never limited by ethnicity, class or religion, is always present when people suffer fear and injustice and is most regularly experienced throughout the world as freedom and forgiveness.

Let me say that again: the way God is experienced throughout the world most often takes place through freedom and forgiveness.  Theologically Janis Joplin and Kris Kristofferson got it wrong back in the day:  freedom is NOT just another word for nothing left to lose – it is the name of the Lord wherever people struggle against injustice, pain, hunger and degradation.  The same goes for forgiveness – it is the inward experience of social justice – when our hearts have been released from shame and fear the prison doors are blown wide open so that all that is captive within can be set free.

·   John Philip Newell, one time warden at the Iona Community in Scotland, paraphrased this sacred truth in his reworking of the Sermon on the Mount wherein Jesus promises:  blessed are the forgiving because they are free.

·   The Christmas story tells us that Jesus was born not to balance the books of commerce in some weird festival of conspicuous consumption; rather he came to bring freedom to our suffering and forgiveness to our souls. 

That’s why Christ was born into a cattle stall in Palestine: to show us that God is committed to coming to us even in those places we least expect the Lord. In our sin -- in our politics – in the ways we love one another. And just so that we don’t miss this truth, God comes as a helpless child – a defenseless holy fool – the Prince of Peace hidden as the least and most vulnerable among us.  No wonder the prophetic poet of Israel, Isaiah, told us that God’s way is not our way:  God’s way brings forgiveness and grace to our souls and then asks us to give away these gifts to others so that the miracle is multiplied.  

In compassion and kindness, in freedom and forgiveness the presence of the Lord is revealed to the world – and now this blessing is to be made flesh in us. That’s another paradox in the story that is sometimes obscured at Christmas: without people like you and me sharing the presence of the Lord in the world – without allies of God crying out against the darkness, embracing the heartbroken in solidarity and trust and making freedom and forgiveness flesh – all we will know is the cruelty of those like King Herod causing Rachel to weep yet again over the death of her children.

·   The gospel of Matthew tells us that after Jesus was born, the governor of Palestine appointed by Rome, a toadie we know as King Herod, realized that the Three Kings weren’t going to return to him and rat out the Holy Family. In his fury he ordered the slaughter of all the male children of Palestine under the age of two.

·   That ancient text sounds all too much like our own headlines:  “A voice is heard in Ramah, or Gaza, or Pakistan, or Staten Island or West Africa or North Adams, weeping and great mourning, Rachel crying for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The old story is startlingly contemporary…

So we gather tonight in the darkness, not just for the sake of tradition, not just to remember what happened in Bethlehem then, but to embrace one another now and stand with all who are afraid or ashamed. Tonight our voices are raised in songs of solidarity with all who gasp: I can’t breathe. Tonight we stand with the Holy Family who found a measure of hope when heaven touched earth, when the innkeeper acted in kindness and found a place for Mary to give birth to the Prince of Peace, when freedom and forgiveness became flesh for all eyes to see.

Now it could be that you’ve never heard this part of the Christmas story before.  It takes some time as well as some silence and contemplation to come to terms with such an upside-down story. That’s why we’ve constructed this celebration with jazz – the creative marriage of tradition and innovation – a musical tradition that shows us how to both honor what is old even while making it new. At this moment in time, we sensed that all of us needed the space to let our souls be saturated with sacred silence, song and storytelling. So please understand that we’re going to take all the time we need to get this right – and you can, too.

Tonight is the feast of the Christ Child’s birth – the challenge and promise of living into God’s freedom and forgiveness – so come, let us adore him…

As Rachel mourned the children King Herod said must die
Good people stood there silent, and no one questioned why
Why children had to suffer to save a king his throne
Why people stood by watching and let them die alone.

In every town and city the Herods of our day
Ignore the needs of children, so they can have their way
Good people still stand silent, few dare to pay the price
And mothers still are weeping at each new sacrifice.

Above their cries on anguish, a child's voice can be heard
the stable child of Mary, God's living, loving Word
Your children thirst and hunger, now tell us, tell us why
You let the Herods triumph and sentence us to die?

Forgive us, Holy Jesus, we did not see you there
Among the countless children committed to our care
Stir us to break our silence to give your love a voice
Till every weeping mother has reason to rejoice

(Words: Mary Nelson Keithahan; Music: John D. Horman, 1997)


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