Students of Hope

Homily for Christmas Eve, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
December 24, 2021

O Come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.

For as long as I can remember, Christmas Eve has felt like the unfolding of a magnificent mystery. My earliest memories involve tinsel garland wreaths bobby-pinned to my hair and singing “Angels we have heard on high” with the other wide-eyed cherubs, all the while thinking about what might be waiting under the Christmas tree. As an adult, I spent almost every year singing the mystery into being from my place in the alto section…or last year, as we all did, over Zoom. I’ve learned to hold the mystery of this night wrapped in song and immersed in worship. But here we are on this particular night, and I am standing in this particular place, and I am filled with an overwhelming awe at the very idea of breaking open the word on the very night that we celebrate the mystery of the Word coming to be present with us. And here we are: God with us.

It’s easy enough to feel like we know the Christmas story…it’s a good and beautiful one, the stuff of pageants and poetry. But what if we choose to move beyond the imagery and step into the mystery? What happens to us when we enter this story standing in this world filled with doubt and fear and allow ourselves to have a radical encounter with lavish love and outrageous hope? That’s the invitation before us as we set out on this journey together tonight.

First I need to introduce you to a friend of mine, who is also a traveler on this road of hope. Patience is a photographer and a doula and a self-proclaimed kindness revolutionary. She and I met for the first time at a food pantry, and then we kept running into each other while our kids were both applying to high schools. We ended up sitting next to each other one afternoon in a high school gymnasium. I had been dreaming about this wild idea for what eventually became the Faith from the Margins to the Web project and serendipitously, I shared my musings on this bible study that centered the voices of people who are often marginalized, and wondered if she might be willing to bring her photographic gifts and experience to the project. It was, in that moment, like we both had an encounter with hope incarnate: an idea taking on a spark of life. I still see that spark every time I look at the photographs and wisdom shared by participants in that project. Engaging that project changed me: I started to see people’s souls in a more radiant way than I ever had before. I began to truly see Christ incarnate in each and every face.

Recently, Patience shared with me about a new project called the Lens of Hope, in which she and another photographer friend are choosing to literally focus on hope as it emerges in every corner of this world, even where we least expect to find it. While bringing this project into being, they worked together to write something they call their “hope manifesto” where they give words and language to their inspiration. That manifesto ends with this statement:

We believe we are students of hope, curious and open to each experience teaching us more about humanity and ourselves.

That ending statement is where I invite us to begin our journey on this most holy night.

Whenever the Christmas Gospel is proclaimed, hope permeates the narrative. Perhaps your hope is found standing in the fields with the shepherds, first trembling with fear then filled with amazement at the hopeful and glorious refrain of angelic messengers, proclaiming the good news of the messiah who had been born in the form of a tiny child.

Perhaps your hope makes its way across mountains and deserts with the magi who follow the brilliance of a star marking the way slowly and steadily towards Bethlehem.

Perhaps your hope resides in the wonder and amazement of a child born under the most unthinkable and undesirable of ways: no lodging, no supports, no place to push through the pains of labor except the straw of a barn with a feeding trough as a crib and bands of whatever cloth could be found to wrap around a tiny, wriggling body for protection and warmth

Perhaps your hope is more of the theological or philosophical sort: that this whole scenario of the nativity of Jesus, playing out at one particular time in the midst of a chaotic world actually served a divine purpose, in spite of how ridiculous everything seemed on the surface.

In all of these ways, there is hope in the story that God was present: immanent and transcendent, breaking into the time and space of this world to become intimately present with humankind. Which means, in all of these things, perhaps there is the hope that God is present, immanent and transcendent, breaking into the time and space of this world to be with us. Even now. Even in the midst of all our fear and doubt. All because of love.

Hope feels crazy and illogical, friends, because it is. Hope is the opposite of certainty, of control, of pragmatic proof; hope stands in opposition to the despair that comes when we see things the way they are and think they might never change. Hope invites us into astonishment, amazement, possibility, and the unknown. Hope requires trust: indeed, hope and trust are inextricably linked. As we dare to place our hope in God with us, we are placing our trust in a vision of what is possible beyond anything that we can currently see. That might be the best understanding I have of what it means to truly follow God.

And so, we are called to be students of hope. Let me remind you of that hope manifesto again:

We believe we are students of hope, curious and open to each experience teaching us more about humanity and ourselves.

On this holy night, the whole tableau of the nativity reminds us that God’s hope for humanity looks nothing like the way we would script it for ourselves. God comes to us in the most vulnerable and unexpected ways, tearing down our assumptions and breaking through our expectations of how we think things should be. This scene…this nativity…is beautiful for us because we never would have done this on our own. We probably would have scripted the scene with all the best amenities for the tiny babe, born of God. We would have done it out of love, of course, but our love still gets caught up in the way our society and culture teach us to love: with possessions and power. God has a wilder vision of love, and a wider view of hope.

God crafts a scene that has nothing of the world’s treasure and is lavish only in love. This scene is beautiful because all we can see is the overwhelming love of God for humanity. God’s action on this night of holy mystery is to invest trust and hope in humanity in our most vulnerable and stripped down state. The invitation is simply that we do the same: trust and hope through each moment of our lives immersed in the knowledge that the love of God surrounds us. God, after all, has come to us. We are the students of hope: filled with curiosity, openness and learning for the one who created us.

If I had a camera right now, I would set my lens of hope not on the glorious angels or the adoring shepherds or the landscape of Bethlehem under a bright and shining star. I would take a cue from my friend Patience the photographer, doula and kindness revolutionary and focus in on Mary who has this night labored, and waited, and pushed and panted and finally brought into this world God’s gift of Hope Incarnate. Mary is the quiet one in this scene, steadfast amid all the glorious chaos, a mother enfolded in love and caught in the absolutely overwhelming beauty and mystery of new life: and Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

This picture of Mary is an image of us as students of hope. Having a face to face encounter with divine love. Pausing to take it all in; to hear and see and know from being face to face with each other what it really, truly means to be human. To experience it all: joy and grief; love and loss; delight and despair and through it all to know that this experience we are having is one in which God is with us. All of it. We’ve barely scratched the surface of all that God has for us to learn about love, about life, about each other. That’s why we are students, each and every day of this life that God gives us. The more we truly see, and know and live into love for each other, the more we see and know and love God. We are here to be with each other, to learn from each other. To see God in each other. Students of Hope.

Eventually on this holy night, the shepherds return to the fields, and angelic choirs softly fade. Animals return to their chewing and eventually they sleep. Mary treasures, ponders, loves.

And Hope remains. Hope in God’s willingness to come to us in total vulnerability; to experience all of humanity; to live and die as one of us. Hope not for a world that has it all figured out, but for a world where the least among us are the greatest, and those who seem to have nothing have everything. Hope that we will walk together and see and experience God in each other. Hope that we will have a face to face encounter where we recognize that God-with-Us means Us-with-God. Always. Forever. Without Exception. Hope transforms. Hope sustains. Hope remains.

Then, and now, on this most holy night and in these very present and teachable moments:

Hope remains.

About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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