Joyeux Noël!

4 01 2010

“Joyeux Noël” Please Read: Luke 2:1-20

A Sermon by the Rev. Scott Herr            

The American Church in Paris – Christmas Eve, 2009

Joyeux Noël! This, I understand, is the French way of wishing you a Merry Christmas. I actually prefer the French greeting, even though I can’t pronounce it. Joyeux Noël echoes the message the angel declared that night so long ago, “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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

When some of us in this past year have been going through the pain and suffering of the death of a loved one, struggling with a life-threatening illness or a difficult relationship, the termination of a job, regularization of papers, or dealing with discrimination, battling serious addictions, or working through a process of forgiveness and reconciliation, wondering about what hope there is for new life, peace, a sustainable future… it’s difficult to believe Christmas is about a “great joy for all …people.” Indeed, we identify more with the shepherds who, Luke writes, “were terrified.”

But the angels declared to the shepherds that night that they shouldn’t be afraid; they had good news to tell. Their words “great joy,” literally “mega joy” in the Greek, appear together only five times in the whole Bible. The good news of great joy of which the angel spoke was the birth of the Savior. That’s what Noël means literally, coming from the Latin natalis, or birth. Great joy comes from receiving the news of the birth of the long-awaited Messiah, or Christ. In Jesus’ birth, God came to be with us, not just in the beautiful times of our lives, but in those dark days of fearfulness, despair, suffering and hopelessness.

Strangely, our Savior, Creator of the Universe, came in the most unpredictable and unexpected way. He “emptied himself,” writes Paul to the church in Philippi (2.7). Another way to translate that is that “he made himself nothing.” The great Christmas Kenosis, the divine decline…

If you visit Bethlehem, the tour bus will drop you off in front of the “Church of the Nativity.” You will be led down into a basement, down some stairs to a hole in the ground, a cave. There, the sign says, is the grotto where Christ was born.

GK Chesterton comments on this tradition that Jesus was born in a cave: “It is already apparent that though men are said to have looked for hell under the earth, in this case it is rather heaven that is under the earth. And there follows in this strange story the idea of an upheaval of heaven.  That is the paradox of the whole position; that henceforth the highest thing can only work from below. Royalty can only return to its own by a sort of rebellion. Indeed the Church from its beginnings, and perhaps especially in its beginnings, was not so much a principality as a revolution against the prince of the world.”

Chesterton gets at an important truth here; that the great joy of the Christian good news usually begins down deep, emerging even from what seems like hell. Joyeux Noël is also the name of a film which came out in 2005 which retold the true story of Christmas Eve 95 years ago on the frontlines of World War I. It was the film selected to represent France in the Best Foreign Language Film category and was a more-or-less authentic account of that near-mythical Christmas Eve in 1914, when soldiers proclaimed a temporary armistice, swapped champagne and cigarettes, and sang carols together… 

The film opens with the usual callous killing among three groups of soldiers – German, French, and Scottish – who face a Christmas Eve in the trenches. But then the miracle happens: among the German troops there is a famous opera tenor, Nikolaus Sprink. Hoping he can bring some memory of Christmas to them, during a lull in the fighting, Sprink began to sing “Silent Night.”  He actually rose out of the trenches to sing in the open of no man’s land. Soon he is accompanied by the Scottish bagpipes and the ‘chorus’ of the Germans, the Scots and the French. They all emerge, share gifts, and agree to a cease-fire in honor of the holiday. It is in this magic moment that there is some hope for the future, that life can go on even out of the ruins of violence and warfare.

Of course the story goes on with the reality of how the war continued and how some of those same soldiers were killed the very next day. When their superiors heard about the singing, some of the soldiers were tried for treason … There will always be a counterinsurgency after  the invasion of the Prince of Peace. The birth of Jesus caused Herod to insanely order the death of all male children of a certain age in Bethlehem. For some people the news of Noel will be bad news. For some, the Lord of great joy is the enemy, and the gospel must be contained and eliminated. Did you read this week about how US Army Maj. General Anthony Cuculo reaffirmed that a pregnancy during active duty is grounds for a court-martial? So much of our world is hostile to life. So much of our world is overcome by darkness; sometimes it feels as though the message of the angels is at best a dream…

But oh, how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given and continues to be given… The gospel emerges, and we get a glimpse of the amazing, the surprising reality that God is still coming to be with us, Emmanuel, full of grace and truth.

Soren Kierkegaard tells the story of a prince who is riding through his field. The prince sees a peasant girl gathering the crops. She is beautiful and the prince falls instantly in love with her. However, he is a noble prince and does not want to overwhelm her with his power and riches, so he dresses in peasant clothes and goes to work side by side with her. Kierkegaard notes that what holds our attention as such a story is told is our curiosity about when the prince will show his true identity.

We know the prince and the peasant girl will fall in love. But we want to know when and how the prince will reveal to his beloved that she has fallen in love with the prince himself. Will it be over lunch, as he tells her of his love? Will he reveal his royal purple under the peasant clothes as she confesses her love for him? Or will he wait for the wedding itself, when suddenly he reveals himself and she becomes queen of the land?

Sometimes we can think about the birth of Jesus in this way. The incarnate Lord, the King of kings, has come down to don his peasant clothing, and one day he will reveal the royal purple clothing underneath his robes of poverty.

But that isn’t exactly the way it happens, is it? Jesus doesn’t temporarily pretend to be a baby born in Bethlehem to parents that were too poor to get a place at the inn. He is not playing at being a human being. He is indeed God incarnate, in the flesh, the King of kings, Lord of Lords. But he chose to remain in those peasant clothes all the way to the cross, and when they tore those clothes away to crucify him, there was no purple to make them think twice. Instead he was mockingly given a crown of thorns. Our God reveals himself as the Crucified God…

But the good news of “great joy” has multiple refrains in that this One who was born as a humble babe in a cave, this One who grew up to live and die on a cross and who was buried in another dark cave, could not be contained. Christ is risen! Christ is on the loose! And throughout the ages Christ continues to break forth with new life, to intrude upon our dim reality with grace moments that remind us the light of God’s love and forgiveness, truth and grace continues to shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Friends, my prayer is that you will hear this message and know it’s true for you. This great joy of Emmanuel is for you, even if you’re battling it our in the trenches of  life. This great joy is for you, who though amazed at the angels’ astonishing tale, like Mary, can stop and ponder these words in your heart. This great joy is for you who like the shepherds can hear and believe. This great joy is for all people who, despite the hopes and fear of all the years, can receive by faith this humble Savior who still comes to us and abides with us…

This Christmas eve, Joyeux Noël to you! “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born… a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”


In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

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