Colossians 3:12-17New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
The weather this week has not been exactly conducive to gazing at the night sky...but one of my very favorite moments of the past few days was as I was leaving my house on Christmas Eve to head to Centenary for the evening service. I was running late and was still in the “harried and hassled” mode of Christmas Eve. As I was leaving the house, I happened to glance up at the sky...and I could see, through the cloud cover, the moon. My breath caught in my throat and I stared at the night sky...and it brought my impatience and hectic pace to an abrupt stop. I let go of the to-do list and took a full minute to stare into the sky and just be.
It reminded me of my favorite Christmas carol - "O Holy Night." This well-known carol was composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 to the French poem "Minuit, chrétiens" (Midnight, Christians) by a wine merchant and poet, Placide Cappeau. In Roquemaure, the church organ was recently renovated. To celebrate the event, the parish priest asked Cappeau, to write a Christmas poem. Cappeau did it, although being a professed anticlerical and atheist. Soon after, Adam wrote the music. On Christmas Eve, at Midnight Mass, in an obscure French village...a choir celebrated Jesus' birth with O Holy Night.
Most didn’t think much of the song when it was written. Not because the song itself was without merit but because they didn’t much appreciate its author. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was a poet commissioned by a French Bishop. He was considered by many to be less-than-worthy of such a task. Some considered him profane – others thought of him as a trouble maker at best. He was indeed a social radical; known for his opposition to things like injustice, inequality, and oppression. He tended to be out spoken.
Adams, the one who wrote the music to the song, was just as unqualified … he was, after all, a Jew! When the Church Leaders in France learned these facts, they officially banned the song as “unfit for church services.” But it was too late! O Holy Night had already become one of the most beloved Christmas songs in France --- and no matter what the Church Leaders decreed --- the French people kept singing it. You see, even though the composers may not have believed what they wrote, they had produced a masterpiece that was true to the Gospel message.
In spite of the criticism of some, the song struck a nerve with the masses. It spoke to them. From the first verse:O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.Long lay the world in sin and error pining.Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn ….
Here we see the birth of Christ from a Heavenly viewpoint … a birth that awakened the whole world … a birth that brought a new and glorious morn to everyone on earth.
The Nativity story teaches us to reflect not only on the birth of Jesus, but its universal message of peace and goodwill. The story begins with a census. All citizens, by order of Caesar Augustus, went to be registered in their place of family origin. Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the census. Jesus was born in a cave stable set aside for shepherds’ flocks in time of storm. In a place of abandonment, Jesus was laid in a manger on this particular night, since there was no room for them at the inn. The story goes on to reveal that on this night, shepherds guarded their sheep in the fields and angels appeared to announce the birth of the new born king. Later on, perhaps weeks after, wise men appeared bearing gifts fit for a king. Finally, the young family fled into Egypt because King Herod sought the child to kill him after being informed of the birth.
At the heart of this story, as it unfolds in the cave stable, is the birth of a higher expression of love that had not been expressed up unto that point in time. That love brought to fulfillment in Jesus manifested itself as selfless love.
Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart gives an interesting perspective to O Holy Night, (I read from the chapter in his book titled simply “Kinship”): “I grew up in an old large house. My five sisters and two brothers and I were told never to go to the attic. This is all we needed to hear. Before long, we were selling tickets to the attic. On one of our forays there, navigating the uncertain planks that kept you from falling through the ceiling below (I guess that explains my mom's prohibition), we found a box of old record albums. One thick, red-clay recording was labeled “O Holy Night – Kathleen Conway” (Conway was my mother's maiden name). We hurried downstairs, placed the record on our toy phonograph and encircled the speakers, lying on our stomachs, fists propping up our attentive heads. A glorious, though timeworn and scratchy voice came through the speakers. Our mom, it turns out, before she decided to have eight kids, was an opera singer. We could barely fathom that the voice that hollered at us to come to dinner belonged to this magic emerging from our toy phonograph. We played the grooves off of this record. Consequently, a line from the song found itself permanently etched in my brain – a mantra of sorts: “long lay the world in sin and error pining - 'til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” Sure, it is a song about Jesus and Christmas, but how is it not the job description of human beings seeking kinship? It's about appearing,” remembering that we belong to one another, and letting souls feel their worth.
The scripture from Colossians that I read a few minutes ago speaks to this goal – Paul was writing to the church at Colossae from prison and he was concerned about reports that he had heard of them following false teachers. He wanted to bring them back to the basics. From The Message, verses 12-14 “So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.”
Compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. The basics – treat all humans with compassion and kindness. Be humble. Be strong but not boastful. Forgive quickly – and completely. But above all – Love. Let the souls feel their worth...because in this world, it is easy for people to feel devalued. To feel unworthy. To feel unloved and forgotten. To not be sure if God loves them. To not be sure if God loves us.
In his book, Father Greg tells about a homie named Bandit who came to Homeboy Industries after a lot of time “being at home in all things illegal.” He finally decided he was “tired of being tired” and left his old ways behind. The job developers located an entry level job – unskilled and low-paying, a first job. Fast forward 15 years and G got a phone call from Bandit, “G, ya gotta bless my daughter.” “Is she okay?” Father Greg asked. “Is she sick or in the hospital?” No, Bandit told him...Carolina was headed to college. The first in his family...and he was hoping that G could offer a send-off benediction. Bandit, his wife and three kids all arrive and the young Carolina is encircled and blessed. Not a dry eye in the office. In his own words, “I'm not entirely sure why we're all crying, except, I suppose for the fact that Bandit and his wife don't know anybody who has gone to college – except, I guess, me. Certainly no one in either one of their families. So we end the prayer and we laugh at how mushy we all just got. Wiping our tears, I turn to Carolina and ask, “So, what are you going to study at Humbolt?” She says, without missing a beat, “Forensic psychology.” Bandit chimes in, “Yeah, she wants to study the criminal mind.” after a few beats he says, “Yeah, I'm gonna be her first subject!” They walk out to the car together and as everyone piles in, Pastor G says to Bandit, “Can I tell you something, dog?” “I give you credit for the man you've chosen to become. I'm proud of you.” and Bandit answered, I'm proud of myself. All my life, people called me a lowlife, a bueno para nada. I guess I showed them.” I guess he did. And the soul feels its worth.
The message of Christmas remains as before, peace, love, and goodwill to all. This message of peace and love is timely for all ages and seasons. Without peace, there cannot be goodwill or love. Likewise, without love, there cannot be abiding peace. That love mentioned in the Bible is defined as loving your neighbor as well as yourself. Without this kind of compassionate love, there can be no harmony or peace that passes all understanding.
The poet Hafez wrote of this kinship in his poem With That Moon Language:“Admit something:Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me”Of course you do not do this out loud;Otherwise, someone would call the cops.Still though, think about this,This great pull in us to connect.Why not become the oneWho lives with a full moon in each eyeThat is always sayingWith that sweet moon languageWhat every other eye in this worldIs dying toHear.
We are tasked with being that one – who, like Jesus, sees in every human they encounter...a child of God. A person who is worthy of love. One clothed in God's goodness. And we have the opportunity to show them their worth. Help them to come to know the truth about themselves and like what they find there.
The second stanza of O Holy Night:Led by the light of faith serenely beaming,With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.O’er the world a star is sweetly gleaming,Now come the wise men from out of the Orient land.The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger;In all our trials born to be our friend …
A miracle of miracles. He was born to be our friend. He came down to Earth fully human. To connect to us on a whole new level. Christmas (the incarnation) is all about God disclosing to humankind what he is really like. The incarnation shows us what God is and what God’s priorities are … that is central to the Good News of Jesus Christ. John 1:14 says The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. Hebrews 1:3 says: The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…
He chose willingly to come to Earth in such a humble way. Fully divine and yet fully human. The scripture from Luke that told of his pre-teen escapade in Jerusalem is one example of what a delicate balance it was – the divine vs. the human. God becoming flesh meant Jesus entered this debate as soon as he could (age 12 was often considered the age of adulthood in these cultures) and would redefine the interpretation of the Bible for his first disciples and generations of disciples to come. While Luke does not tell us the specifics of his questions and answers here, we get a good clue from his sermon at Nazareth: God is now bringing good news of deliverance especially to the poor, the enemy and the marginalized. And much like the poet who gave us O Holy Night, “He was considered by many to be less-than-worthy of such a task. Some considered him profane – others thought of him as a trouble maker at best. He was indeed a social radical; known for his opposition to things like injustice, inequality, and oppression. He tended to be out spoken.” I think that God is a big fan of irony.
The third verse begins:
Truly He taught us to love one another,His law is love and His gospel is peace.Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.And in his name all oppression shall cease.His law is love and His gospel is peace.Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.And in his name all oppression shall cease.His law is love and His gospel is peace.Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Which brings us back to what Paul was saying to the church in Colossae: “Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. His law? Is love. His gospel? Peace. And if we keep these thoughts in the forefront of our lives, we'll be in tune with each other. Not just as church members or Christians, but as humans in our daily interactions with others. Let the Word of Christ have the run of the house. That word is love. We have the opportunity every day to show others that they have worth. That they are loved. Not when they pull their act together and behave the way we think they should... they are loved right now, just as they are. You are loved right now, just the way that you are. God loves you and wants you to know it with every fiber of your being. You concede “God loves us.” and yet there is this lurking sense that perhaps you aren't fully part of the “us.” The arms of God reach to embrace, and somehow you feel yourself just outside God's fingertips. You have no choice but to consider “God loves me,” yet you spend much of your life unable to shake off what feels like God only embracing you begrudgingly and reluctantly. “I suppose, if you insist, God has to love me too.” Experience the utter fullness of God. Completely know the One in whom “you move and live and have your being.” You will see then, that it has been God's JOY to love you all along. Then you won't be able to hold back. Then, as Paul wrote in Colossians: sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.
One more story from Father Greg, “at 3 o'clock one morning, the phone rings. It's Cesar. He says what every homie says when they call in the middle of the night, “Did I wake you?” I always think, “why no, I was just waiting and hoping you'd call.” Cesar is sober and it's urgent he talk to me. “I gotta ask you a question. You know how I've always seen you as my father – ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question.” Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I...been...your son?” “oh hell yeah,” I say. “Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.” Now his voice becomes enmeshed in a cadence o
f gentle sobbing. “Then...I will be...your son. And you...will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?” “That's right.” In this early morning call, Cesar did not discover he has a father, he discovered he was a son worth having.
And the soul feels its worth.