Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God, now and forever. Amen.
What do you consider sacred? What ho you hold in awe, in reverence?
We sing of tonight as a “Silent night,” a “holy night,” and we began our prayers by invoking the brightness of this “holy night.” So is this night sacred? Why?
Google tells us that sacred means “something that is dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity.” Strangely then, the sense of reverence that the sacred evokes depends upon a prior sense of our own limitation: we are not God, only God is God, so our capacity for awe of the divine first requires a certain humility in ourselves.
Yet not everything we call sacred is related directly to the divine. We hold many things to be sacred: desert landscapes, oaths of office, vows we make in marriage, duty to county, the bonds of friendship, the four sacred mountains.
In fact, the ancient Greeks regarded reverence, and a sense of the sacred, as the foundation of human society. We are bound to one another as a community, only when we look at one another with a sacred regard that draws us out of our own self-preoccupation and into relationship with one another.
So reverence might be said to be at the root of all the virtues. Generosity, honesty, politeness, civility—all these are motivated by being able to recognize the sacred in something or someone other than our own self—in having a sense of responsibility, and accountability, to the Other.
There was a story in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago about two survivors of Auschwitz, who having been lovers in the death camp, were then separated for 72 years until just this month. Despite being a Jew, Helen was lucky enough to have been pressed into office work; and although David initially was given the job of collecting the corpses of prisoners who committed suicide—when his captors discovered he was a talented singer, they had him entertain them with song instead. Somehow, Helen and David noticed one another, fell in love, and courted under the protective eye of other inmates, promising to meet again after the war if they both survived.
But fate had it otherwise: the lovers were separated in the final days of the war, and didn’t meet again this month. By then they had both married someone else, and it was their children who brought them together once again in New York. For two hours they shared with one another the stories of their lives. “My God,” she said, “I never thought we would see each other again.” And then he finally had to ask a question that had been on his mind since last he saw her 72 years ago: “Did you have something to do with the fact that I managed to survive in Auschwitz all that time?” In response, she quietly held up her hand to display five fingers: “I saved you five times,” she said. She had risked herself, for him. “I knew she would do that,” was all he could say.
Is that story sacred? Is there something in that tale of a love found and held over so many years of separation that speaks to us of the holy? Are there stories in our own lives of self-sacrifice and commitment that are similarly sacred?
And so we come back to this night. It too is a love story: a love story of a God who created us to live in a joyful relationship of self-giving and receiving, only to see that reciprocity thwarted by our own wandering away. But that God, our lover, would not give up, and so came looking for us, and finally found us in a stable in Bethlehem.
This night is sacred because much like the reunion between Helen and David, God is tonight reunited with us as one of us, and in that reunion we discover the true depth of how seriously God takes this world, and our humanity within it. In fact, God takes humanity so seriously, to become part of it, and to endow it as sacred.
Athanasius, a fourth century monk who tried to make sense of all this, wrote that in Jesus, “God became human, in order that humanity might become divine.” Tonight is made sacred, then, by the way of life it calls us into. And if we have such a destiny, then the true lesson of Christmas is that life matters—every part of it—because in Jesus life has been made sacred. How we treat one another, matters. What we say to one another, matters. What we post, text and tweet, matters. Honesty, matters. Compassion, matters. Generosity, matters. Faithfulness, matters. Self-sacrifice, matters. Community, matters. The earth, matters. As the spiritual writer Madeleine L’Engle put it, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation [the Word made flesh].”
The real miracle of this night, in other words, is not that God takes on human form, but that through Jesus we take on the sacredness of the holy. In him, God holds up a mirror to us and says, “Look, this is who you are: a being created in my own image, created to live as love, created to live in peace, created to live not for yourself but for one another.” So to be here tonight, as you are, is to receive God’s loving encouragement that you treat yourself, and everyone else, as truly sacred—nothing less than the image and likeness of God you are created to be.
Life, and how you live it, matters. Thanks be to God! Amen.