2nd Sunday after Christmas
Does anyone here love history? Well, I sure do. When I was a boy my grandfather drove me all over Virginia and Maryland, to visit Revolutionary War and Civil War battle sites. I got my first musket and three-cornered hat (I’m sure that I looked magnificent in it at 10 years old) in Williamsburg with my grandfather. Though he was a truly terrifying driver but he, too, loved history. I feel, in our world, that we are not nearly as interested in history as we once were.
Mark Michael, an Episcopal priest whose blog I follow, said that “a recent survey indicated that only 24% of Americans over 18 visited a historic site or museum in the past year. The census at the Park Service’s five most popular Civil War battlefields is down 70% from 1970. Colonial Williamsburg loses $148,000 a day” from decreased tourism, and this was before COVID. Now, history may not be everyone’s thing but knowing our past, knowing our “history,” sometimes helps us to hold onto important truths, not repeat past mistakes, and give ourselves a measure as to where we have been and where we are going or should be going, based on that history.
Matthew, the Evangelist, is very interested in how Christ fits into the overall history of Jewish Messianic prophesy, settlement, and the national imagination. He begins his Gospel with a genealogy that painstakingly connects Jesus to David, then to Abraham…Matthew sees it as an imperative that he tie Jesus to the prophetic words of God to the father of the Jewish people, Abraham, that through him he would bring blessings to Israel and to the whole world. Matthew will continually tie Jesus to Old Testament prophetic wisdom because, for the Evangelist to the Hebrews (Matthew), understanding Jesus as simply A Messiah was not enough; He, Matthew contends, Jesus, is THE Messiah promised in history. The prophesy of the Messiah is retold in the story of the three wisemen, or kings, as the one whom the prophets foretold would be born in Bethlehem…this is why Herod becomes upset and ultimately, sends his armies to kill the male children under two in and around Bethlehem, probably a year or more after Jesus’ birth.
We must understand the roots of our story, explore the history of who we are as God’s people, if we are going to better understand who God in Christ has called us to be.
Interestingly, Isaiah says, in Chapter 43, vv. 18-19: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” We must, even as we understand history, see God through fresh eyes, which means making the way we see worship as a new thing and/or understand that Christ’s love is dynamic, wondrous, mysterious and compelling. We don’t worship the history of our liturgy, the Bible, or a certain way of doing things; rather, we give glory, energy, purpose, and hope toward the One who saves us and changes the way we see the world.
And, in the end, history helps us to move forward, to see the glimmering future of our lives with God, the possibilities of them, when we embrace the grace, mercy, and love of God that was brought fully to life, animated, by the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These wonderful words of the Psalmist ring particularly true today, in the final days of Christmastide: “Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way. Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.” The Pilgrim’s way has been, in the past, to Jerusalem and, much later, to other holy sites like Compostela, Rome, or Canterbury. Now, our pilgrim’s journey is to directly to God, following the pilgrim path of our Lord Jesus which leads through mystery and oftentimes pain. We have many folks in our parish currently who are dealing with difficult diagnoses and the reality of a illness. In the reality of our faith we understand, past tense, God has been faithful and keeps His promises and present tense, Christ is with us, no matter what is happening to us, and that God in Christ goes before us, too, to shelter us, and make a place for us.
We watched a sweet little movie set in 1890 England in a small fictional town called Gladbury. Local legend has it that on Christmas night, a single candle, called the Christmas candle, is blessed by an angel and a bona fide miracle happens. The town’s new clergyman does not believe in miracles and, instead of celebrating with the town, he tries to move them away from trust in earthly miracles but in the possibilities of God. He means well, and he gets the town working together and doing many wonderful things and they begin to see each other as the miracle. We find out, late in the film, that the minister lost his wife and young daughter to tuberculosis, and his prayers did nothing to save them; hence, his cynicism around miracles. It is only when he sees the true presence of Christ and a miracle of his own that he is transformed again, can love again, and is capable of being a light to those around him.
We can hold too tightly to the past. The past and tradition often serve us very well. But we must also trust in the present and future grace and promise of God, looking forward, as a pilgrim, to the path still left untraveled, and the grace and presence of God promised in Christ to sustain us along the way. We have faced much because of COVID and many are dealing with truly scary and difficult times. We make it through, stronger we pray, understanding that God keeps His promises and God will shelter us as we walk the pilgrim’s way. Christ is born to travel with us along this earthly path and, in His mercy, He will not leave or forsake us.