Sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2006, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
If Anybody Asks You Who I Am
anybody asks you who I am
(who I am, who I am),
if anybody asks you who I am,
tell him I’m a child of God.”
–Traditional, collected in Louisiana and Georgia
I can almost hear a sigh spreading across the Pioneer Valley this morning – a sigh of relief, a sigh of rest. Whatever we did or did not do in the countdown to Christmas – whatever cards we did or did not send, whatever Christmas tree we did or did not set up, whatever presents we did or did not give – it doesn’t matter now. What’s done is done. What’s not done is not done. Let it be. (1) Ready or not, Christ is born. New life has come into the world, and it is the life of God.
If these moments here in church are some of the most peaceful you’ve had in a while, then I invite you to take a deep breath and enjoy the quiet. Sometimes our busy preparations for the big day don’t help us open our hearts to the birth of Christ. I think, for instance, of the hapless woman I read about who did a final check of her list of Things-To-Do-Before-Christmas and realized on the afternoon of December 24 that she had forgotten to send any cards. Time was short, so she rushed into a store and grabbed two boxes of cards – already marked 50 percent off. Without bothering to read what the cards said, she scrawled a signature, and addressed and stamped the envelopes. Cards in hand, she dashed to the post office and shoved them onto the counter – and not a moment too soon, for the clerk was just reaching for the sign that said, “This window closed.”
“On Christmas Day, when things had quieted down a bit and some semblance of order had been restored, she noticed that one of those last- minute cards was left over. She wondered, ‘What was the message I sent to my friends?’ Opening the card, she stared in disbelief at the words, ‘This card is just a note to say. . . A little gift is on the way.’ . . .I have a pretty good idea what she was going to be doing on the day after Christmas!” (2)
Well, never mind. The good news is that even if our lives feel too complicated by half, Christ is born. “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” [Titus 2:11].
And “If anybody asks you who I am (who I am, who I am), if anybody asks you who I am, tell him I’m a child of God.” I’ve been singing that verse over and over since our Advent service of lessons and carols, and I can’t think of a better way to welcome Jesus’ birth than to repeat it this morning. For the Son of God, the child of God was not only born two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. He is being born right here in our midst, right here in our hearts, if we are willing to make Him room.
How do you and I come to know that we too are the children of God? I’ll make two suggestions.
First: we practice radical self-acceptance. We learn to say to ourselves, This is where Christ consents to be born, right here in the circumstances of my life, whatever they are. Maybe we’re healthy and maybe we’re not. Maybe we’re financially secure and maybe we’re not. Maybe we’re surrounded by people we love, and maybe we’re not. But whatever the particular struggles and joys of our life, this is the life into which Christ is being born.
Radical self-acceptance means saying: “I am no better than I am. I am no worse than I am. I am no different than I am. I am who I am.” It’s like standing up with open arms and slowly turning 360 degrees, seeing everything there is to see about yourself, every aspect of your life, every relationship, and accepting it for what it is – in all its messiness and beauty, in all its incompleteness. This is the life – this life, my life – into which Christ wants so dearly to be born.
God isn’t going to wait to come to us until we clean up our act or save the world or otherwise earn our salvation. God in Christ consents to be born among us just as we are, among the lowly and the poor, in the stink of a stable. Accept yourself as you are and even that knot of anxiety, even that pit of despair, can become a manger for the Holy Child, the very place where the tenderness and compassion of God is born. Your life is the poor stable into which Christ has come, and your heart is the humble manger that will hold Him.
So that’s one way to discover that you are a child of God: you practice radical self-acceptance. And here’s another: you remember that you are more than you know. Oh, we often think we know ourselves. We have our little identities. I’m a man; I’m a woman. I’m part of the World War II generation, a Baby Boomer, a member of Generation X. I’m a this or a that: a farmer, a teacher, a social worker, a lawyer, a retiree. I’m a mother, a father, a son, a daughter. I’m a member of this or that profession, this or that political party. I’m an introvert, an extrovert; a dog person, a cat person – there are so many roles we play, so many ways to name ourselves. The world around us is eager to give us an identity. Corporations would be glad to convince you that your deepest identity is to be a consumer.
Such things may be part of who we are and some of them may be true, as far as they go, but do they express the essence or totality of our identity? They don’t. The truth is that we are more than we know. That is the mystery of the Incarnation. God came down to earth in Jesus and was born in human flesh, and through God’s Son we have, as the Collect says, “been born again and made God’s children by adoption and grace.” What does that mean? It means that every part of us – every cell, every atom – is now penetrated with the infinite, mysterious Presence that we name “God.” It means that we breathe in God through the air; we walk on God’s earth as our feet touch the ground. It means that our deepest self is in God.
Recently, astronauts voted on the top ten photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in its voyage into deep space. Reporter Michael Hanlon commented in his article for the Daily Mail that these images “illustrate that our universe is not only deeply strange, but also almost impossibly beautiful.” (3) The winning photograph is of a galaxy that is 28 million light years from Earth. It is 50,000 light years across and contains 800 billion suns. 800 billion! The photograph is spectacular – a blaze of light. Who knew that deep space had such majesty? That it shone with such light?
The One who made the sun and moon and stars has been born among us, born within us. In prayer I sometimes experience a radiance shining inside me. It shines inside you, too. It is the light of God, the light of Christ, and it is as bright as the sun, or 800 billion suns. In my prayer I sometimes see it shining like a light through the holes in a colander. Who knew that you and I were home to such majesty? That deep within, we shone with such light?
We don’t own that light. We can’t possess it or control it. But we can receive it with joy. We can honor it and protect it, this seed of God that has been planted deep within us and that longs to grow up, and grow strong, and to melt away everything in us that is petty and small, just as sunshine melts away the morning fog. When we greet each other in Christ’s name at the Peace, it’s as if we were saying, “The light in me sees the light in you.”
In the days ahead, together you and I will do what we can to shine the light of love into our suffering, frightened, and violent world. In the days ahead we will listen for the guidance of the One who comes to bring peace on earth, and peace with earth, peace to the whole Creation, for, as today’s psalm tells us, when the Lord comes the earth is “glad,” the field is “joyful” and “all the trees of the wood shout for joy” [Psalm 96: 11-12].
But for now it is enough just to rest, to welcome the baby Jesus, and to give thanks for his birth, thanks for the birth of our own true selves. We practice radical self-acceptance because God in Christ has radically accepted us. We remember that we are more than we know.
And if anybody asks me who you are (who you are, who you are), if anybody asks me who you are, I’ll tell him you’re a child of God.
(1) See “Night Prayer,” A New Zealand Prayer Book, p. 184.
(2) As told by J. Walter Cross, Bradenton, Florida, 26 Dec. 1993, quoted in Homiletics, Oct/Dec, 1994, p. 49.
(3) Michael Hanlon, “Hubble telescope’s top ten greatest space photographs,” Daily Mail. Viewed 12/23/06. Thanks to Fred Krueger and Gary Debusschere for bringing this to my attention.