Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Eve 2016 - Elephants in the Manger

Have you ever been knocked over by an angry elephant? I haven’t, but I imagine it’s a horrible experience. Like getting hit by a bus or something. That trunk, swinging wildly, hitting you in the back and just laying you flat on the ground. Even just to be near to an elephant charging past must be scary. The ground shaking as it goes pounding by, knowing that if the elephant decides to charge you, you’re done for.

I bring this up because of the elephant in the manger scene.

Oh, you didn’t know there was an elephant there? Well, maybe you didn’t notice it because your attention was focused on the beautiful holy family. But it’s there. There’s an elephant at most people’s Christmas gatherings, hiding somewhere in the nativity set up along with the tree. It’s surprisingly easy to overlook, with all of the other things going on at Christmas - the music, and the presents, and the food, and the laughing and conversation. But if you sit quietly for long enough, you’ll feel it as it moves around. Big thumping footsteps that shakes you up when it gets too close. You might hear things crashing down as it waves its trunk. You might even feel yourself knocked about if you’re unlucky.

The elephant in the nativity scene, the elephant in the room actually, is whatever is going on in our lives that we so desperately try to avoid thinking or talking about at Christmas. It’s that “thing” that so often lurks in the background of our gatherings that threatens to upset the pretty, sparkly, happy Christmas we work so hard to have. The elephant is the awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes downright ugly part of our lives that we try to hide underneath the mountains of presents and food and shiny decorations.

It’s the aunt who drinks too much at supper and then starts hurling insults at family members. It’s the married couple that had a big shouting match cut short by the doorbell ringing. It’s the bank account seriously overdrawn to pay for the food on the table and the presents under the tree. It’s the person who’s missing from the Christmas celebrations. It’s the swastika painted on the Sikh house of worship here in Calgary on Thursday morning that reminds us we do not love our neighbours the way we say we do. It’s the intergenerational damage wrought on our indigenous people by Christian residential schools that we did nothing to stop. It’s the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve died in the Syrian crisis, and in other wars around the world, and who are dying still this very night. The elephant is all of the human realities, individual and societal, caused by us and randomly occurring, that are a source of pain on this night that we would rather be nothing but joy. It’s the reality here, amongst us, that this may very well be our last Christmas Eve service together. The elephant is all the things that threaten to disrupt the peace and joy and light of Christmas; the things that cause us pain in this holy night that we would rather not talk about or acknowledge.

But there have always been elephants in the world. There have always been ugly moments and broken relationships and global systems that lift a few up and keep the rest down. There were even elephants at the birth of Jesus - that Joseph and Mary returned to their hometown and no family would welcome them and make room for them. Already there was the elephant that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, and possibly was not even Joseph’s. There was the elephant that this chosen nation of God was being ruled by idol-worshipping Rome. There was the elephant that the people of Israel were, like people everywhere, not taking care of the poor in their midst. There are always elephants, breaking things, stepping on us, hurting us.

But elephants are the reason for Christmas. They are the reason God became incarnate in Jesus, and came to us as a human. Our reading from the letter to Titus says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” Last Sunday I said that the word ‘salvation’ is deeply connected to the word ‘healing,’ in its Greek roots. So really, what we have is the letter saying, “For the grace of God has appeared,” meaning Jesus Christ, “bringing healing to all.” This is why God came to us in Jesus. To heal us, and to show us how to heal one another. The reason for the first Christmas, and the reason we celebrate it every year, is that God has come to heal us when the elephants we’re trying to ignore hurt us.
Christ heals us. That’s what we sang in Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. “Light and life to all he brings, Ris’n with healing in his wings.” From the moment humankind left that perfect garden, with our hearts broken because we had somehow managed to mess everything up, God has been seeking a way to heal us. To make us whole in the midst of our pain. And God does it through love. God does it by coming down to be with us and to be with our elephants and to love us through it all. That’s why God became incarnate - why God became human. So that God might love us in the midst of all our ugliness. So that God in Jesus might actually stand in the presence of his own elephants and risk being crushed by them and, most importantly for us, make us whole.  

Jesus put his own fear of pain aside, and his own feelings of embarrassment and shame at having elephants, so that he might take on the pain of others. You see, when we love someone, it means that we make their wholeness a priority over our own. We give up trying to preserve our own serenity, we give up our own search for joy. Instead, we allow ourselves to be open to the pain and suffering of the other. And in taking on that pain and suffering, we ease it for them. And they can heal. 

This is what God did at Christmas. God became human, in order to know that struggle between protecting one’s self from one’s own elephant and voluntarily standing with another as their elephant charges. The human struggle has always been between saving ourselves - healing ourselves - and saving and healing others. And in Jesus, God demonstrated over and over and over again that God chooses to save and heal us. God chooses to love us more than God loves God’s own self. And so we are being healed. We are being made whole.

The healing seen in Christmas doesn’t mean things go back to the way they were, though, back to being perfect. Healing doesn’t restore things to the way they were before the elephant came through. Healing is not a return to the past, and healing is not easy. Healing is often difficult and painful. Healing might involve months of recovery - as we know from those who recover from major surgery. It might involve re-breaking something previously broken so that it can set properly. Healing might mean that the chemo that meant to rid us of cancer also damages the heart muscles that pump blood through the body. It might mean letting go of something we truly love so that it doesn’t crush the ones around us. It might mean letting go of our own ways of living in the world that hurt others.

But we are willing to endure all these things because healing also means love. And new life. Healing means wholeness. An emotional and spiritual health, even when physical or mental health is absent. Healing is reconnecting us to the selves God means for us to be and connecting us to one another. Healing is seeing ourselves and each other as the reason Christ became incarnate. Healing is God wanting desperately to be with us, elephants and all. It is the joy and beauty and peacefulness and light and life that we are so desperately seeking at Christmas.
But it comes with the elephants. Just to be clear, the healing that Christ brings doesn’t mean that our elephants disappear. They will always be with us - that is just part of the reality of living in this world. But in healing us, and teaching us how to heal one another, Christ also shows us how to live with our elephants. The important thing, of course, is to face them. To face the ugly things in our lives. Not to hide from them, or to try to hide them under forced smiles and meaningless conversation. No. Ignoring elephants is the best way to get hurt. And besides, it’s impossible to hide an elephant - no matter what we do, it’s going to come out anyway. So we turn, and we face it. We talk about the elephants in our live, about the pain others have caused us and about the pain we have caused others.

But we do so confident that, even though we might be hurt, God will heal us. God is always working to heal us. What we seek at Christmas is available to us every day. Christ is in the world - Christmas is today and tomorrow and all the days to come. Christ is God with us - one of us now. Loving us.

There’s an elephant in the manger scene. It is the pain and the hurt and all the things we think are irreconcilable with the joy and happiness and peace of this season. But without it, we wouldn’t have Christmas at all. The elephant is the reason we have Christmas, the reason God came down to take on our human existence. The reason that Christ came to save us, to heal us, so that we are more whole than we ever were before. And so my prayer for you this Christmas is that God gives you the strength to face whatever elephants are in your life, and that God gives you the faith to trust that God is with you, and healing you, today and in the year to come. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing healing to all.” Christ is here. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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