A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, December 25, 2016
Hodie! Hodie Christus natus est. Normally, I don’t preach in Latin, but then Christmas does not usually fall on a Sunday. When it does, at least in contemporary times in this country, there is controversy within the church as to whether or not we ought to hold worship services. After all isn’t Christmas just another holiday along with Labor Day, Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, so we’re creating conflict in holiday schedules and hardly anyone is likely to show up. This time of year, we’ve shopped like crazy, prepared the feast, and now it’s time for the family and guests to gather. How are we supposed to fit in a church service? More liturgical traditions insist that the service be held whether anyone shows up or not. In free church traditions, we have much more latitude in deciding whether we will worship or not.
But stop for a minute to consider: what is this day about? What is the name of the holiday – Christmas. The very name calls us to worship. Christmas – Christ’s Mass – hodie, a day to worship the coming of the Christ into the world. What better place to be on Christmas than with a community of Christ followers and Christ seekers? I remember when I was a young, green seminarian, doing an internship at the First Baptist Church in Seattle. Interns only get to preach once or twice, if they’re lucky, during their year of service. So, when I was allowed to preach on one of the Sundays leading up to Christmas, I really took advantage of the opportunity to call the congregation to task. I took the time to scold the congregation from the slightly self-righteous perspective of a budding theologian. “Whose birthday is it, anyway?” I asked, taking on Hallmark, Macy’s, Nordstom and WalMart, along with the congregation, for their rampant consumerism and failure to focus on the true “reason for the season.” Now, don’t worry, I think I’ve mellowed some in the last 40 years. I don’t intend to reprise that sermon today, though it may contain some material worth re-visiting.
The question does remain, though, “Whose birthday is it?” Of course, we have no way of knowing when Jesus was born. Many scholars believe he was born some time in the spring of the year. We don’t have a real record of the exact time, place, or circumstances. Still the stories and legends have weight and meaning for us because of the truth they tell. Hodie Christus natus est! Today, this day, Christ is born. The actual day is less important than the eternal truth that Christ is born. So, the church has set aside one day a year to celebrate that truth and it is hodie, this day, that we celebrate Christ’s birth, Emmanuel – God with us, the Word made flesh, Light coming into the world that no darkness can dispel, Love incarnate that no other power can overwhelm. This is our story and this is our song. How will we own it, sing it, live it out? How will Christ come into our lives if we do not take the time and opportunity to welcome the holy human presence when it comes among us?
Maybe the actual day we celebrate is not essential to our faith as long as we hold the party on some day, but, then hodie, this day, Christians all over the world are celebrating. It just seems like the right time to join in. we don’t want to be party poopers. So, we join to sing, Hodie Christus Natus Est along with “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” and “Happy Birthday.” Surely the time for singing comes round once more.
And speaking of singing, I will confess as much as I love Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio as majestic musical markers of the season, I have a very special affection for a piece by Ralph Vaughn Williams simply entitled Hodie. It is a cantata that interweaves scriptural text and British poetry by John Milton, George Herbert, Thomas Hardy and his own wife, Ursula. Set for chorus of men and boys, soloists and orchestra, it moves from angel choir to lullaby to the magi to grand finale, replete with tympani, brass, bells and chorus crying,
Ring out, ye crystal spheres,
Once bless our human ears,
If ye have power to touch our senses so;
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time,
And let the bass of heaven’s deep organ blow;
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort to the angelic symphony.
It is a glorious Christmas gift for the One who comes, ranking, in my opinion up there with gold, frankincense and myrrh. It continues:
Such music (as ’tis said)
Before was never made,
But when of old the sons of the morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellations set,
And the well-balanced world on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.
Perhaps the creation was another time for such celestial singing but now, hodie,
“On the Morning of Christ’s nativity:
Yea, truth and justice then
Will down return to men,
Orbed in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And heaven, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.
The humble stable is the portal to heaven’s high palace and the poor peasant babe lying in a manger is none other the God incarnate. What does this tell us about Christmas and where to find it? In setting Milton’s verse, Vaughn Williams captures something similar to what Raymond Bailey proclaims in today’s Words of Preparation, “Christmas is no less a cataclysmic darkness, than Easter and resurrection. The world order is altered and will never be the same. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.’ Christmas is not just for the kids. Here is the essence of Christianity; grace is a person. The truth is greater than that which can be explained. The truth of God must be received by faith.”
So, in faith, we gather to worship hodie, today, this day, because we believe that when “the world order is altered,” it shouldn’t be business as usual and when “grace is a person,” we ought to get together to celebrate. Hodie Christus natus est! Gloria in excelsis Deo et interra pax hominbus! Today, this day, Christ is born! Glory to God in the highest with peace and well-being to the whole earth and all its inhabitants! Amen.
How shall we love Thee, holy, hidden Being,
If we love not the world which Thou hast made?
O give us (purer) love for better seeing…
Thy world made flesh, and in a manger laid… Laurence Housman