Christmas Eve [late service] December 24, 2009

Isaiah 9:2-7                                                                         

Titus 2:11-14                                                                       

Luke 2:1-20

We come to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve knowing there will be candlelight and wonderful music, poinsettias and a tree, and the reading of the Christmas gospel from St. Luke. The words of the first reading tonight, Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of Messiah, are also familiar to most of us, if only from Handel’s Messiah. But I will bet that none of you, setting out for church tonight, were saying to yourself, “Oh, goody, we’re going to get to hear that passage from the Letter to Titus.” And I am almost as certain that as it was read just now you didn’t really listen to it, thinking instead about something Christmas-sy or praying that this homily would be good, or if not good at least short.

But here is the Titus reading again, because I’ve always thought it would be an interesting challenge to preach on it at this Mass:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

Now this reading was not just stuck into the lectionary when the Prayer Book was put together in 1979. It has been the reading at this Mass going all the way back to Rome in the sixth century, and probably has more ancient roots even than that. That’s a much more ancient lineage than Christmas crèches and pageants, which trace back to St. Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century. So for hundreds and hundreds of years, generations upon generations of people like ourselves have heard St. Paul (or someone writing in his name) urging us to “renounce impiety and worldly passions,” live “self-controlled, upright and godly” lives, and be “zealous for good deeds.” In other words, to respond with the shape of our own lives to the redemption given to us through the birth of Jesus the Christ.

It is a sobering message, and you may be glad on this festive night that I am not going to elaborate on it by adding my own hortatory advice. Instead, I’m going to offer five illustrations of the Titus message: the five saints’ days that follow upon Christmas and can be regarded as so many ornaments on the tree of the Nativity itself. Because in our secularized world we’ve been celebrating Christmas since Halloween, by the time December 26 rolls around we’re pretty well sick of the whole business and ready to move on. So we miss the full banquet of celebration which continues in the Church for twelve days, through the Epiphany (the coming of the Magi), and indeed beyond that until the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the temple, on February 2.

But tonight, just mention of the five saints’ days that follow Christmas this coming week. Three of these days are of ancient origin, as early as the fourth century: St. Stephen on the twenty-sixth, St. John on the twenty-seventh, and the Holy Innocents on the twenty-eighth. (This year the twenty-seventh is a Sunday, so the sequence gets interrupted a bit, but we’ll ignore that.) These three saints’ days were seen in the Middle Ages as a “cortege of honor” accompanying the Christ child, and gained the name Comites Christi (“Companions of Christ”).

Each of these “companions” celebrates something that we can connect back to the Titus reading, and to the mystery of the Incarnation – God enfleshed in human life – that we celebrate in Christmas. St. Stephen was one of the first seven deacons ordained by the apostles to assist them by taking over the charitable work of the Church in feeding widows and orphans. These deacons, like other followers of Jesus in the first generations, also preached and taught, witnessing in a hostile culture to the Good News of Jesus Christ. It was for that witnessing that Stephen was stoned to death by a hostile mob that included, we read in the Book of Acts, St. Paul, before his conversion to Christianity. So Stephen is honored as the first martyr, “martyr” meaning witness in Greek, which is why his “day” follows immediately on our celebration of the birth of Christ. “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds,” says the Titus reading. And here we have one who responded in just that way, by giving up his life.

St. John gave up his life too, though in a different sense. Stephen is an example of what is often called “red martyrdom,” meaning of course the shedding of blood in death. The apostle and evangelist John, the so-called “beloved disciple,” author of the Fourth Gospel, is the only one of the Twelve who did not die a red martyr’s death. Jesus said of John that it was his “will that he remain until I come” – and that is what John did, living into extreme old age, pondering the mysteries revealed in Christ, and passing on his wisdom to us in his gospel. This is sometimes called “green martyrdom” – a witness not of blood, but of transformation of life. Again, referring back to Titus, a life self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory” of Jesus Christ when he comes again.

The Holy Innocents are again red martyrs, the children “of the age of two years” who were slaughtered by King Herod in his attempt to kill the one, Jesus, who was “born King of the Jews,” and thus a rival to him. The disturbing thing about the Holy Innocents, of course, is that they did not choose this martyrdom – they were innocent, incidental victims of injustice and violence. But how many have been like them – are even now like them – in the world since. Children, and adults too, killed in the wars instigated by men seeking to gain or maintain power for their own ends.

I suppose it is the reference in Titus to the “renunciation of impiety and worldly passions” that would apply to the Holy Innocents: that so many are victims of men of violence like Herod, who have not made that renunciation, who have not accepted or do not understand that the Incarnation of God in Christ has a very real and radical implication for the way we live our own lives, and in particular that we live them nonviolently. We celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, then, both to remember that Jesus has a special place of love for the innocent victims of history, and to remind ourselves that he likewise demands a moral response, including the renunciation of violence, from us in our own lives.

St. Stephen, St. John and the Holy Innocents are the three ancient commemorations that follow upon Christmas. But there are two others, more recent, in our calendar that bear mention because they witness that St. Paul’s words to Titus continue to make a claim on us. The first of these two, on December 29 (eclipsed this year by the shunting of other saints’ days to make room for Sunday the twenty-seventh), is Thomas Becket.

Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury in the twelfth century, martyred by four barons under King Henry II, in one of the struggles that have gone on through history between Church and State. Born into a wealthy family, Thomas Becket was appointed archbishop because he was an intimate friend of the king. But once appointed, he gave up courtly pursuits and dedicated himself to being a “shepherd of souls.” When the monks of Canterbury undressed Thomas’s body to wash it for burial, they found that under his episcopal robes he was wearing a hair shirt. So again, a person dedicated to living a life responding to the salvation brought to us by Jesus Christ.

And, finally, a saint who is brand new in the Episcopal calendar – indeed, technically still a saint proposed for “trial use,” since she will have to be voted on a second time by General Convention to receive official status. Frances Joseph Gaudet was born in 1861 in a log cabin in Mississippi, of African American and Native American descent. She is honored because she devoted her life to prison reform and education, working with black and later white offenders to secure their rehabilitation, to better their conditions, to educate the poor so that they would not fall into lives of crime. Frances Gaudet helped institute the juvenile court system and founded a school and orphanage that today operates under the auspices of the Episcopal Church in Louisiana.

So, you don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to be powerful, Jesus only asks that we start from where we are – and that we take his Christmas gift to us and with it transform first our own lives and then the world.

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