Today we celebrate the first Sunday in the Octave of Christmas. Many of us see it as an anticlimax, a time of letdown after the Big Day, when we gather all the family and share all the gifts and eat all the food. Far too often, this is a day when "Sabbath" basically means that we are resting up to prepare for the upcoming New Year blowout. But when we mark our new year from the First Sunday of Advent, Holy Scripture offers us a different vantage point.
Sunday, after all, is always an Easter feast, a remembrance of the Resurrection. So we are called today to put Christmas and Easter together for the first time this year. This enables us to see the birth of Our Lord and Savior in the wider light of his whole life story, as one who was born, who lived, suffered, died, and lives still. We celebrate him as Immanuel, "God With Us," the one who came and walked among us to teach us how to live in this world. This, in turn, forces us to take another look at this world of ours, seeing it as the world into which Our Lord himself was born. Jewish society of his time was a society that differed in many ways from our own -- and yet, the world is ever the same. It is a world full of sickness and sin that needs the transforming Jesus. It is a world that cries out for his salvation. It is a world that is reaching for the hope and promise that we ourselves have received by faith in Christ. And because of that same faith, we have much to offer to the world today, in the name of the God who first loved that world into life.
As "Christmas Christians," we experience the blessedness of life given to us by the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. As "Easter Christians," we celebrate the eternity of life given to us by the victory of Jesus, the Lamb of God. On this day, we stand together and bear proud witness to the power of God to touch and heal and transform. We don't deny the darkness of sin that overshadows this world; instead, we place our total confidence in the Light of Christ to overcome the darkness and to lead us again and again into the possibility of new life.
On this day, we celebrate the God of the prophet Isaiah, a God whose spirit led him to bring good news, to bring light into darkness, freedom from bondage, healing from sickness, gladness in sorrow, and alleviation from suffering. The Psalmist knew this God, too. His was a Lord who heals those who are hurting, lifts up the lowly, provides for our needs, rebuilds what has been broken, and establishes peace. All the scriptures assigned for today point us to the appropriate response to this loving and powerful God. John the Evangelist reminds us that we have received grace upon grace from God's fullness. This richness of life leads us in a twofold direction, as we sing our praises and strive for Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, to become known in the world. The abundance of God's love overflows in us and impels us to make the Divine Presence known, through our own efforts to bring righteousness, peace, and justice into the world in which we live.
On this Christmas-Easter morning, we remember that this is not an easy proposition and never has been. The culture of violence that is celebrated in wider society is steeped in human sin but is often hidden in the language of "holiness." The Bible itself is a testament to the amazing ability of the People of God to hide behind God while doing ungodly things. From time immemorial, people whom God has chosen have used holy writings in unholy ways, not to bring people to God but to set as a bar against the gateway to faith.
Paul's letter to the Galatian church speaks of a people of belief being kept under restraint, kept under the watch of a custodian until they could be trusted with the faith. They could not come to the true Faith on their own. Instead, they received it by means of a Law that kept them captive. It is so easy for us to make the glib claim that all this was thousands of years ago and no longer has relevance now that Jesus has come. But we would do well to look again, because the situation is reminiscent of another one much closer to us in time and space.
In our own nation's history, Africans, Native Americans, Irish, Chinese, and various other ethnic groups have all experienced what it was like to come to our shores and be treated, by Christians of their own faith traditions, as lesser creatures. These people were considered congenitally unfit, forced to worship in galleries or basements or separate ethnic "chapels." Their very existence was considered a deviation from some inflexible standard, against which they would always be measured and found at a disadvantage. Colonial Christians even referred to the system of African slavery as the "Gospel Order." Christian legislators created public statutes that forbade slaves to come to the Lord without a watchman present. Even at worship they were kept under the careful watch of an overseer, who made sure that they were taught their proper place in the Kingdom of God, as people whose Christian birthright was not perfect freedom but perpetual servitude. In sermons based on the "law" of slavery, they were taught that even in heaven there would be a panel that kept them separate from the true people of God.
But when freedom came, these people of faith could experience much more of the Christian life that the Apostle Paul described in Scripture. In the fullness of God's time, they could come to worship without the overseer and experience the fullness of membership in the household of faith among people whose ancestry was the same as their own. They could celebrate the richness of new life in God's creation in their very selves -- not as slaves but as sons of daughters of God, as full inheritors of the riches of Christian faith. Like the biblical people of the Exodus, they had made their way through the darkness of bondage. They followed the light of Christ into the fullness of a freedom that no human could give them and no law could diminish.
From this place of emancipation and excitement, they were called, just as we are today, to proclaim the righteousness of God and to celebrate the gift of life. In the words of the gospel hymnist, we "lift our hands in total praise," and worship the God who loved us into life, whose Son leads us through life, and whose Spirit sustains us throughout our faith journey.
Just like Our Savior, who brought us grace and truth into this world, we make God known in this world through our witness to God's love. As sisters and brothers in Christ and sons and daughters of the One Most High, we stand on the strength of God's love and reach out to embrace those God sends to us -- and all those to whom God sends us. We offer our peace to those whom we meet. We strive to learn from those we consider different from us, instead of imposing our views and challenging them to prove themselves to us. We recognize in those "less fortunate than we" people who can teach us a great deal about the Providence of God. We go to "poor countries" not in the posture of superiority but in the humility that enables us to recognize the rich success of the Christian mission there. We learn from their example how to do a better job of evangelizing right here at home. And we grow in trust that enables us to share our gifts and talents with one another, not out of our wealth but out of a poverty that recognizes the Giver of everything we have.
Whenever we open ourselves to the Spirit's leading in this way, God works in us to "renew the face of the earth." We witness to the eternal newness of life in Christ and the healing power of the community of faith. Our lived testimony draws others to us, as we strive together to "walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us." The love of God Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth empowers us to offer to our world a different way of life. So as we come to the Table of Grace, let us praise the God who continues to provide us with strength and courage and renewed life. Let us walk in the Light of God as we seek new opportunities to give and serve in Christ's name. Let us dare to believe that peace, righteousness, kindness, decency, and wholeness can make a difference in this world. And let all the People of God say, AMEN.