by the Rev. James B. Craven III
[The following is the sermon Jim intended to preach at in person services, which were canceled.]
In the name of God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christmas was different a year ago. I celebrated the Eucharist at our dining room table with Sara and two neighbors. The pandemic is still with us, but happily we are together again this year. Christmas can be a tough time, and a joyous time. Children happily open presents by the fire. Other children have nothing to open and little to eat. Some men and women I know are hoping to get a prison visit from children and grandchildren. Children will be born at Christmas. People will die at Christmas. I remember my father telling me of hearing White Christmas on a scratchy short wave San Francisco radio station, or maybe it was a Tokyo Rose broadcast, on some South Pacific island, and how he wept, and was not alone. Families are broken and the pain of that becomes greatest at Christmas. There can be little if anything as painful as depression.
The Omicron variant of COVID is not all we have to cope with this Christmas. As the news reminds us daily, the country is caught up in an opioid crisis. There are few class or financial barriers, but it has hit hardest in poor areas. The Episcopal Church in South Dakota, heavily Indian among clergy and parishioners, is fighting back with Sacred Fire, and it is having an impact. A sacred fire burns in a large tipi for 30 days, the light of Christ, to help spread prayer and awareness about addiction and other societal ills. People of all sorts come by to sprinkle tobacco and sage on the fire and offer a prayer, to promote healing, awareness and love among the Indian Christian people, to protect all those indeed. With that sacred fire they also pray that people will be led to God, through the Church or through Indian traditions or both, and they are often blended, appropriately I think. A constant prayer for native and white people alike, “May this fire lead people to God and help people heal, so that we won’t need drugs and alcohol”.
In the broader non-Indian faith community, we too have our sacred fires. I am thinking particularly of the fire which burns 24/7, and has I believe since 327 AD, almost 1700 years ago, when the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena built the great Church of the Nativity, in Manger Square in Bethlehem, over the site history and tradition tell us was the cave where Jesus was born.
To get into the Church of the Nativity, you have to crouch down, because they didn’t want invaders on horseback to be able to get in. As I recall there is a wandering path up and down steep narrow stairways to a very small opening no larger than one of our side chapels here at St. Luke’s. An eternal flame, a sacred fire if you will, burns. And if you kneel down there is a hole in the floor, maybe 10 inches in diameter, surrounded by a silver star. Look down the hole, put your hand down it, and you can see and touch the place where Jesus was born. So the light of Christ burns there where
Mary gave birth to the Christ child. And eternal flames, sacred fires, burn all over the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, our faith’s most sacred place.
You know how to tell when the World Series is upon us? We start hearing Christmas music on the radio, in stores, and in elevators. The news media not only ignore Advent, they draw no distinction between Christmas and Epiphany. To the secular world, it is all the same.
The light of Christ, thanks be to God. We sing that every year, not only at Christmas but on Easter as we bring the new light into the darkened church. This may help illustrate for us how all this fits together, and nowhere do we see this as fully as in the great Epiphany hymn We Three Kings. I first heard We Three Kings this year the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That hymn, particularly the three male solos, truly says it all, with the symbolism of the gifts brought by the kings or wise men, who are traditionally known as Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior.
Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again, King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.
And he was born a king in Bethlehem, yet in squalor to a poor couple from Nazareth, very much in the hinterlands then. Tinfoil, had it existed then, would perhaps have been a more fitting gift than gold.
Frankincense to offer have I, incense owns a Deity nigh, prayer and praising, gladly raising, worship him God most high.
It wasn’t understood then, at the time of Jesus’ birth, but we know now that he was fully human and fully divine. Holy mysteries abound in this stuff. In the almost 30 years I have been here at St. Luke’s, we have never used incense in our worship. I like it, as it brings the sense of smell into the liturgical calculus, to go along with the senses of sight, touch, and taste. You can overdo it though. In 1986 when my dear colleague Vicky Jamieson-Drake was ordained to the diaconate at St. Joseph’s here in Durham, the thurifer got so carried away that we truly could not see from one side of the church to the other, and it is a small church. If you have ever been to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, just up from Times Square and Broadway, it is a wonderful experience with extravagant use of incense. Tallulah Bankhead once famously stopped the thurifer in the procession and said “Darling, I love your dress, but your bag’s on fire.” Millions of pounds of frankincense are harvested today, mostly from the Horn of Africa, for use in perfume, incense, and oils.
Bob Johnson, later the Bishop of North Carolina, was the rector when I came to St. Luke’s in 1992. Bob taught me so much, for example that you have to stay at a clergy conference or diocesan convention until the bishop has seen you. And after he became bishop, he confessed to me that was still the rule. Bob and I were among the relatively few clergy in the diocese who went regularly every year to the College of Preachers at the National Cathedral. One night he and I were having an adult beverage with Donald Coggin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who loved the College of Preachers and kept an apartment there. The subject of incense came up and I suggested to Bob that we have it sometime at St. Luke’s, maybe on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, Bob said he was all for it but that as he put it, “Some people will leave.” I asked who they were, as this might be an opportunity. I never did learn those names.
And after frankincense came the strangest gift of all:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume, breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb.
We know now that the human body begins to decay at the moment of death, and we also know, from the story of Lazarus, that the smell can get pretty rank. Funeral directors, through embalming and cosmetic applications, can mask that. This is not a new art. Two thousand years ago, myrrh was used to slow down the decay and conceal the smell. In John’s gospel, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea bring a hundred pound mixture of myrrh and aloe to anoint Jesus’ dead body in the tomb.
And then it all comes together nicely in the fifth verse:
Glorious now behold him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice,
heaven sings alleluia, alleluia the earth replies.
In just those four verses of We Three Kings, we see it all, from Christmas to Good Friday to Easter.
We are so very fortunate and blessed in so many ways, to be able to celebrate these holy mysteries on this holy evening in this holy place. Phillips Brooks maybe put it best:
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
And every night and every morning. And a happy and blessed Christmas to all.