Monday, December 26, 2016

The Spirit of Christmas

Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2016, Christmas Eve
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

These past four weeks, we’ve been contemplating the story of Scrooge alongside the story of Christmas – the gifts of peace, hope, love and joy. Both of these stories are familiar, and both have much to teach us. So tonight we will consider the tale of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and we will hear again the story of the birth of Jesus.

Let’s start with the fictional character – Ebenezer Scrooge. He was “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” And one night he was visited by four ghosts – his old partner Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Each one of these spirits has something important to show Scrooge. And because of what he sees, Scrooge is transformed. He goes from “Bah! Humbug!” to “God bless us everyone!”

We know Scrooge – we’ve all met a Scrooge or two. Maybe we wondered how he was so successful, maybe wondered if she ever smiled or had a compassionate moment. Maybe you had business dealings with him, and wondered how he could be so cruel. Maybe you yourself have been that sort of person. But Scrooge, as you know, did not stay as he was.

The Ghost of Christmas past appeared first to Scrooge. Taken by the spirit to see once again exactly how his life had been, Scrooge had his heart broken again and again as he saw the visions of his past. When he saw himself as a boy, “a solitary child, neglected by his friends,”
Scrooge wept.

The second spirit to appear to Scrooge was the Ghost of Christmas Present. The spirit showed Scrooge the sadness of the world around him, especially the poverty and ignorance of so many people. Scrooge realized how difficult life was for his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and regretted that he himself had made that life more difficult. He saw Cratchit’s sweet son, Tiny Tim, and again wept.

The final spirit, the ghost of Christmas yet to come, showed Scrooge a future of grief and death – of Scrooge himself, and of Tiny Tim. It was all too much for Ebenezer Scrooge. He begged the spirit – “Is there time? Can I change this future?” Of course, you know the story – on Christmas day, Scrooge awoke a changed man – determined to be a better man, filled with hope, and peace, and love and joy.

The ghosts that Scrooge encountered in A Christmas Carol challenged his view of the world, of himself, and of time. No longer did he see the world as hostile; no longer did he live in fear, and no longer did he believe that his past determined his future.

That is a fictional story, a faint shadow of the true story, the true Christmas carol of the angels who sang at Jesus’ birth. The coming of Jesus, Immanuel – God with us transforms the world, the soul, and time.

No longer is the world a chaotic and hostile place;
no longer is the soul a lonely competitor, scrambling to gain a foothold;
no longer is time an enemy, stealing our lives away.

Now the world is not so cold;
now the soul can sing for joy,
now God’s creative inbreaking
has simultaneously collapsed and expanded all time into eternity.

This is the miracle of Christmas.
In Jesus Christ, past, present and future come together as one.
In Christ, the God who was and is and is to come becomes real to us.

We experience this powerfully at the communion table, where we meet Christ in the present and the past and future. In our remembrance, we transcend the chronology of past, present and future.

As we gather here tonight, we too may sense around us the spirits of Christmases past – and we remember. Our remembering is a sacred and moving thing. It is a profound element of our faith. The Israelites were commanded to remember –
how God had made a covenant with them,
how God had delivered them from slavery,
how God had been faithful to them, even in their darkest hours.

Jesus commanded his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
So we come to this table as a people of memory. We light our candles in hope and remembrance. God’s love reignites the flame, and our small flickering candles are remembrances shining in the dark night.

The light of the past shines not only in memory, but here and now and into the days that are still to come. For our faith is based on more than simply a recounting of past stories. Our faith takes place in the here and now, in our own stories. Jesus came for us, for the littlest, the last, the least. In Jesus, we learn what love means, and how to put that love into action. Jesus calls each one of us to now, today, lead with love, to live with love.

What Jesus teaches us, and then asks of us -- is sustained love, continued mercy, persistent care. What Jesus teaches us, and then asks of us, is “to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step out in the name of love.”[1]

In the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, the past of the entire world is changed as powerfully as the present. And because of that birth, the future is changed forever.

Now, there is hope.
Now there can be peace.
Now we can love.
Now we know true joy.

The words of the story are the same every year; it is our response, the change it evokes in us, that make Christmas a time of transformation.

The story itself does not changes, but it changes us.
We relive the present; we change the past; we remember the future.

At the end of the visit of the third spirit, Scrooge promises: “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

Friends, tonight the Spirit of Christmas visits us, but it is not just tonight.
Perhaps we will feel it most powerfully tonight,
as we receive communion,
as we sing the Christmas carols that our hearts know so well,
as we watch the flickering light of candles fill the darkened sanctuary.

But it need not stay here; it need not end here.
The spirit of Christmas is the abiding presence of the living Christ.
And that spirit is always with us, even to the end of time.

As we listen once again to the Christmas story,
as we hear the angels sing that first Christmas Carol,
as we come to Christ’s table
and as we light the candles,
may the spirit of God shine brightly in your heart.
May you know Christ’s transforming presence,
and may you feel his hope, peace, love and joy not only in this moment,
but in every moment of every day of your life.

And may God bless us, every one.


Luke 2

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying,  ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’*

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

[1] Cornel West

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Remembering the Future

Revelation 1:4; Luke 4:18-19; Romans 8:4b-17
December 18, 2016
First Presbyterian Church Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

We have three brief readings today, all from the New Testament. Fittingly for the theme of worship today, we begin with the end, a single verse from the first chapter of the last book of the Bible, Revelation. As you know, we Presbyterians understand this book not as a prediction of rapture and the end times, but as a prophecy and promise of the return of Christ, bringing not tribulation and Armageddon but a new heaven and a new earth. This particular verse calls to our attention the eternal past, present and future of Christ. Now that you’ve heard an introduction five times longer than the actual scripture, listen for the word of the Lord in

Revelation 1:4:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.

The second reading is from Luke’s gospel, a brief excerpt from a sermon Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue. The sermon was well received until Jesus added that the scripture, which quotes the prophet Isaiah, was fulfilled in him. Listen for the past fulfilled and future hope in

Luke 4:18-19
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Our third reading lifts up the role of the Spirit in creating a Christian life that is based in joyful obedience – a life without fear.

Romans 8: 4b-17
So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live. All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s [offspring.] You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as God’s children.

This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

While the other spirits who visited Scrooge were somehow appealing, this spirit of the future is grim and dark – indistinguishable from the night around it. Dickens writes:
“When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded. He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.
‘I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?’ said Scrooge.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed downward with its hand.
Scrooge was terrified, but he understood that his fear could teach him something.
‘Ghost of the Future!’ he exclaimed, ‘I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.
But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?’

The spirit does not speak, but takes Scrooge to see the future.
What Scrooge sees is a series of very sad scenes:
He sees the aftermath of his own death, and the indifference of others to it.
He sees the Cratchit household, in grief over the death of Tiny Tim.
His fear turns to sorrow, and then to hope. Perhaps the fear that Scrooge feels has been with him all along- not a reaction to the visit of the spirits, but a lifelong fear that he has nursed with anger and fed with resentment. That fear had become his abiding friend, sheltering him from further pain, steadfast, always with him. His fear has kept him safe.

Aristotle said that “Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.”[1] 
We’ve all been afraid, haven’t we? We’ve all had those moments when fear blocks us from seeing, when it casts a dark shadow over all our hopes. Like the ghost of Christmas yet to come, our fear becomes indistinguishable from the night that surrounds it.

Fear brings past and future into the present, and not in a good way. Fear collapses time – every related bad memory comes to mind, and every potential future evil becomes real in the here and now. That’s why scripture is so full of injunctions to fear not. That’s why the perfect love of Christ casts out fear. But simply telling us not to be afraid is not likely to dispel all fear. Courage requires something more than mere reassurance.

When the past haunts us and the future terrifies us, the present becomes a very, very uncomfortable place to be. Fortunately, God’s view of time is not the same as ours. One of the most wonderfully compelling ideas of theology is that God is sovereign over all creation, including over time. The late Dr. Lonnie Kliever, professor of philosophy and religion, offers this explanation of the distinction between human time – kronos – and God’s time - kairos.

“Kronos … from which we take our word chronology… is sequential time.
Kronos is the time of clocks and calendars; it can be quantified and measured.
Kronos is linear, moving .. out of the determinate past
toward the determined future, and has no freedom. …
Kairos is circular, dancing back and forth, here and there,
without beginning or ending, and knows no boundaries.
Kronos is mechanistic and deterministic,
time that is ruled by the dead hand of the past.
Kronos devours us with remorseless certainty.
Kronos turns life into stone.
Kairos is creative and serendipitous.
Kairos is time that is energized by the living dream of the future
and presents us with unlimited possibility.
Kairos turns fate into destiny.” [2]

The ghosts that Scrooge encounters in A Christmas Carol challenge his view of time – the determinate chronology – with a more divine perspective of time – God’s creative inbreaking. This is the miracle of Christmas. In Christ, the God who was and is and is to come becomes real to us. In the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, the past of the entire world is changed as powerfully as the present. And because of that birth, the future is changed forever. The coming of Jesus happens in kairos, in the fullness of time.

Ephesians 1 says that in Christ, the mystery of God’s will is made known to us:
“in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him,
things in heaven and things on earth.”

We can experience this most powerfully at the communion table, where we meet Christ in the present and the past and future. In the divine liturgy of the Orthodox Church, there is a moment prior to the celebration of the eucharist when the deacon says: “It is kairos – time – to begin the service of the Lord.”

In our remembrance, in that kairos moment, we transcend the chronology of past, present and future. Kairos is sacred time, circular time, holy time, when God breaks into our linear sequence of events. We relive the present; we change the past; we remember the future.

Kliever says it well: “We are not helpless to tip the balance in the direction of kairos over kronos. We can temper our fear and our fixation on sequential time. We can deepen our quest and our experiences of numinous time. In such synchronicity of kronos and kairos lies our deepest consolation and our steepest aspiration.”[3]

Where God’s presence is felt and recognized,
God’s kairos can break through our fear and surprise us with joy.

The final ghost’s visit in A Christmas Carol begins with fear, as Scrooge comes to term with his own eventual death.
‘Spirit!’ [Scrooge] cried, tight clutching at its robe,‘Hear me. I am not the man I was.
I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.
Why show me this, if I am past all hope?’”

By the time Scrooge learns what the spirit has to teach him, he is changed – his fear has turned to anticipation, even to joy! His fear – of death, of loss, of pain – has been transformed to joy for he recognizes that his future can change! He is not beyond redemption! He can live a life of joyful purpose!

Scrooge joyfully, exuberantly promises:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.
I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.
The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.
I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

True to his word, when Scrooge awakens on Christmas morning, he is positively giddy with joy. His delight is no temporary state, Dickens takes pain to tell us, but he is a completely changed man. The miracle of God’s inbreaking with the numinous – with kairos into our linear and practical chronos is that in Christ, God is truly with us, truly present.

In the presence of Christ, time collapses; fear is banished; selfishness evaporates ; love becomes a verb. In the presence of Christ we remember our future, and we become co-workers with Jesus to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

In the presence of Christ, we know true and unending joy.
The miracle has just begun in YOU!
God Bless us Every One!


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Keep Your Eyes Open

Deuteronomy 15: 7-11
Matthew 2: 1-18
December 11, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our scripture readings for today may be a bit unexpected, given the joyful time we’ve just had with our children’s program. The first reading is from Deuteronomy, the “second law,” that is, the second giving of the law to the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land. This reading comes from a section of Deuteronomy that is about “regulations concerning the sacred division of time.” That cycle includes observance of Sabbath, the giving of the tithe, the remission of debts, the manumission of slaves, and the care of those who are poor. Let’s listen for God’s word in Deuteronomy 15:7-11, from the Common English Bible:

Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them. You must generously lend them whatever they need. But watch yourself! Make sure no wicked thought crosses your mind, such as, “The seventh year is coming—the year of debt cancellation”—so that you resent your poor fellow Israelites and don’t give them anything. If you do that, they will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. No, give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the Lord your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at. Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: you must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.

Our gospel reading is a difficult reading, a story of ego and power and violence that ends in grief But it is also a story of promise, of love, for it reminds us that the child Jesus was a refugee, whose family fled a violent regime, and whose life reversed the story of humanity.

God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt, now Jesus returns to Egypt as a place of refuge. Let’s listen for God’s story of redemption in Matthew 2: 1-18:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Christmas is for children.
That’s what people say, don’t they?
And it is! We all enjoy seeing our children’s faces light up, the delight in their eyes when they see the decorations, the excitement in their voices, the wonderful way they share the good news of Jesus in their program. We enjoy decorating for them, shopping for them, taking them to see Santa. But if Christmas really is for children, we need to look up from our own families and ask, “Which children?”

This Sunday, our emphasis for Advent is love. In our drama and video, we see Scrooge visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, who insists that Scrooge look, eyes wide open, at the reality of his time. Toward the end of this chapter, Dickens writes that the ghost says to Scrooge:

“’Look here.’ From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

‘Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!’ exclaimed the Ghost. They were a boy and girl.
Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them.
‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. …

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

"Are there no prisons?" said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words.
“Are there no workhouses?”

It was Dickens’ intention, in writing his books, including A Christmas Carol, to call attention to the plight of the poor, particularly women and children. The Ghost of Christmas Present as Dickens presents him shows Scrooge and us how Christmas was in those days, and how Christmas could be in this day.

After the publication of A Christmas Carol, Lord Francis Jeffrey, austere editor of the Edinburgh Review, (and of course, a good Presbyterian!) wrote:
“Blessings on your kind heart... you may be sure you have done more good by this little publication, fostered more kindly feelings, and prompted more positive acts of beneficence, than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals in Christendom.”

Christmas is for children.
We can see children all around us, if we keep our eyes open.
This past year, we were transfixed by tragic news images of children:
a stunned and bloody little boy in an ambulance in Aleppo
malnourished children playing in the rubble of Yemen,
the haunted face of a little girl outside a tent in a Greek refugee camp,
the traumatized children fleeing from the attack in Istanbul.

Our eyes were opened to the suffering of children far away. In those little faces, we can see the humanity that Jesus came to redeem. We can hear the voices of those who are hungry, naked, lonely. But we do not have to travel halfway around the globe to see them. We can see, right here in our community, the children of poverty and ignorance that the Ghost of Christmas Present showed to Scrooge.

Nearly one fourth of children in Sterling live in poverty. More than two thirds of them are in single parent households and the single parent is female.[1] There are those who, like Herod, would like to instill in us a sense of fear of those children and their families, whether they are in Syria, or in refugee camps, or in homeless shelters or the poorer neighborhoods of our own city.

There are those who would like for us to be afraid of the stranger, to worry that responding to their need will take away from us. There are those who would like for us to look suspiciously on those in need, or who would have us tell them to simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, even if they have no boots at all. But the spirit of Christmas is not a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love.

In this season of giving, many of us feel moved to help children. We want to make sure that they enjoy Christmas with a tree, some gifts, a good meal, a warm coat. This is truly loving.

Although this desire to help may be stronger during the Christmas season, Jesus asks us to keep our eyes open, all year ‘round, to see the need around us and respond.

He came as an infant, born in squalor, and his family fled for their lives. The child born in Bethlehem asks more of us than seasonal impulses of generosity accompanied by Christmas Carols. The child who comes to us at Christmas calls us to keep our eyes open, to look around us and truly see. What Jesus asks of us is sustained love, continued mercy, persistent care.

Whether it is someone marginalized by poverty, by race, by national origin or religion, we are all called to see and respond to that need. The good news of Christmas is that this child who comes to us has shown us how we can do this. In Jesus, we learn what love means, how love without action is mere sentiment, Someone has said that “justice is what love looks like in public.”[2] Dickens understood that how the world worked in those days did not necessarily mean that injustice, poverty and ignorance should be allowed to persist in his day.

Scripture has taught us, from those days of the past to this day of the present, that the call to love God and love neighbor is what persists. In this season of peace, hope, love and joy, Jesus calls each one of us to lead with love, to save people by serving people. “To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely – to step out in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away.”[3]

The Herods of this day want you to be afraid.
Jesus simply wants us to keep our eyes open for every opportunity to love.

“The miracle has just begun in YOU! 
God Bless us Every One!”


[3] Cornel West

Monday, December 5, 2016


Isaiah 9:2, 6; Luke 2: 8-14
December 4, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Again today we hear scripture of prophecy and fulfillment. The prophet Isaiah assures the people that the light of God will break through the darkness of their time, and that the source of that inbreaking will be a child who is the light of the world. In the gospel reading, we hear the familiar story of the shepherds, living out in the fields with their sheep, whose dark night is illuminated by the appearance of an angel – a messenger from God. Of course, they were terrified. But the angel, as angels do, reminds them not to be afraid, because the message from God is a message of hope, of light in the darkness, of an event that will change everything, even the way we understand and interpret our past. Let’s listen for the good news of prophecy and fulfillment in Isaiah and Luke.

Isaiah 9: 2, 6
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. . . . For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders.

Luke 2: 8-14 (CEB)
Nearby, shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Remembrance of the past.
If you took a literature class in college, you’ll recall that one of the great works of literature was by Marcel Proust, “Remembrance of Things Past.” That is, it was called that until a new translation, about twenty years ago, called it “In Search of Lost Time.”

Remembrance of the past. 
 The contemporary poet Rebecca Hazelton begins her poem, “Book of Memory” with this: 
“In my seeing there was a blank and he filled that blank
with words, there were words for darkness which made it lift,
there were words for cover which ripped them off,
there were legs that crossed and hearts that crossed,
promises red and read, and the pluck of banjo had a name
for that twang, and the way he called the world into notice, 
that had a word, too.”[1]

Remembrance of the past.
It’s the very substance of history – taking a long hard look at the past, trying to make sense of it, to see what lessons can be learned from it. In the same way, only on a personal level, remembrance is the stuff that most traditional psychotherapy is made of – remembering what has happened to you, thinking about how it affected you, and reframing it to make sense in your life now. Therapy can be a bit scary – actually it can be downright terrifying. When I was a therapist I sometimes saw clients who quit coming rather than recall and confront the darkness of their past. They did not want to shine a light on it; they wanted to simply make it go away, or to make it something different, or to justify their behavior, or simply to forget. Because they were afraid of what they might see.

Sometimes, we think, we would prefer amnesia to the pain of memory. It will come as no surprise to you to hear that remembrance is central to our Christian faith, as well. In scripture, we are told repeatedly “Do not be afraid.” And we are also told repeatedly, “Do not forget. Remember.”

The Israelites were commanded to remember –
how God had made a covenant with them,
how God had delivered them from slavery,
how God had been faithful to them, even in their darkest hours.
Jesus commanded his disciples: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

But remembering can be painful and frightening. It certainly was for Scrooge. The Ghost of Christmas past appeared to him, a strange and changing spirit with a bright light that shone out from it, glimmering in the dark night. Scrooge did not have the luxury of relying on his own faulty memories, but was taken by the spirit to see once again exactly how his life had been. He had his heart broken again and again as he saw the visions of his past. He saw himself as a boy, “a solitary child, neglected by his friends.” Scrooge wept, then said to the spirit, “There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that's all."

The spirit showed Scrooge the joyful Christmas celebration given by his old boss, Mr. Fezziwig, who invited all his employees to a party, spending his own money on food, drink and dance for them. Although it was not a great expense, Scrooge observed regretfully,
“The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

Observing Scrooge, the Ghost asks, “What is the matter?”
“Nothing particular," said Scrooge.
“Something, I think?" the Ghost insisted.
“No," said Scrooge, "No. I should like to be able to say a word or two
to my clerk [Bob Cratchit] just now! That's all."

Then Scrooge sees the woman he did not marry, the life he might have had. It is too much for him, too painful. The grief, the regret, the sorrow, and the shame of remembering overwhelm him. Begging the spirit to take him home, Scrooge struggles with the ghost, trying to cover up the light which emanates from it, pressing down on the spirit’s cap to cover the brightness. “But though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it.”

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. On them, a light has shined.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
It is the light of hope.

It can be hard to find that hope, when we are sitting in the darkness. It can be hard to find hope when the candle of life is snuffed out by someone or something that has taken away our power and agency. It can be hard to find hope when we remember the sad truth of history, or look around us and see that people are not good, or kind, or loving. It can be hard to once again light a candle of hope when events make us feel hopeless about the present, or the future. Remembering can lead us to despair.

But remembrance has a significant place in the Christian faith, and particularly at the communion table. We say, “And so, in remembrance of your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith.” It’s called “anamnesis,” in theological talk, and you may recognize the root word for “amnesia” in there. It is not just “not forgetting,” not even mere remembering, but in that moment of anamnesis, we bring the past into the present, as we participate in the holy mystery of the Eucharist.

In that moment, and as we come to the table, we come remembering the past, with all of its joys and sorrows. We bring those joys and those sorrows, our regrets and our pride, our whole selves, to this table, and in the light of Christ, all of them are redeemed.

As we come to this table, we come as a people of memory.
The light of the past shines not only in our remembrance, but in our presence.
As we come to this table, we come as a people of hope.
Circumstances beyond our control, events and their consequences,
humans and their inhumanity – all of these may extinguish our light.
But God’s love reignites the flame, and our small flickering candles are remembrances.

This season, this story, this table, remind us that no matter how bleak the past, no matter how dark the night, no matter how deep our distress, the light of hope still shines.
It shines in us, and in words of grace.
It shines in us, and in our acts of courage.
It shines in us, and in our songs of hope.
“Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.
Your savior is born!”

The light shines. For you.
The miracle has just begun.
God Bless us Every One!”