Christmas Eve Homily – Mark W. Harris – December 24, 2017

Homily – “Decorating Our Lives”

Let me begin with a confession.  I love memorabilia.  I love little reminders of places I’ve been and trips I’ve taken.  I love the autobiography of Yaz from the miracle baseball season of ’67 and the little Pears soap tin that someone gave me when I lived in England.  These items and many more are all road signs of my life – waystations and memories, reminders of what gives meaning and substance to my days. For many of us memories are encapsuled in the ornaments we place on our Christmas trees.  Just two weeks ago Andrea and I drove down to Medway to have dinner with my brother and his wife.  Perhaps this doesn’t sound very unusual, except it becomes so because it was the first time I had sat down to dinner with him in 25 years. It is a long story which has to do with a family fight over my father’s will.  My brother became angry with my sister and other brother, and hadn’t spoken to them since the contents of the will were made known.  And I became collateral damage in this family feud, so he didn’t speak to me either. But nothing prevented me fro reaching out to, him.  Yet I failed to do so year after year. When do we have the courage to speak to heal a family, or rekindle a relationship, or tell someone how we feel. Now a health issue had helped initiate contact. He invited us to dinner.

We met at the door and then gravitated towards their Christmas tree whose white lights set it off as something to be looked at and admired, and it became an easy entre to conversation.  He began to tell us about the ornaments on the tree – the frosted fruit he had bought in Germany, and then other reminders of places near and far, but then he asked if we could recognize the theme of the ornaments on the tree.  It was littered with animals because he had a long career as a professor of biology, and each creature was a reflection of what he had studied and taught; what had been the passion of his life.  For some reason we focused on aquatic creatures, perhaps because I mentioned we had a crab on our tree, a reflection of Rockland, Maine, and they did, too, as well as a lobster, an octopus, a whale and many fish.

Just that afternoon, back in Watertown, we had decorated our tree, joking about the Pokemon creature that I was trying to hide, so the ugly Snorelax would not grace our tree.  I was trying to be the ornament censor, but Andrea and Asher both recognized my snobbishness, and the creature soon found its place on a spiked limb, but thankfully near the back.  The first ornament I picked out was one my mother had crocheted many years ago, and so I felt filled with sentiment, and then it was followed by the cable car from San Francisco, the buffalo from Ft. Worth, the Kachina doll from the south west Navahos, and Queen Elizabeth I of England., which my family joked about making disappear as payback to the Anglophile for the Pokemon slight. These marked special places where I had lived or traveled.  We talked about which ornaments were most meaningful to us. We have lots of different angels, heralding glad tidings of great joy.

Ornaments are one aspect of Christmas decorating that absorbs so many people this time of year.  We have two different crèches – one a beautiful carved stone one from Kenya, and the other a bargain variety from Building 19.  I love them both, just as I used to quietly admire the crèche my mother set up consisting of Hummel figurines.  A crèche just doesn’t look right unless baby Jesus is there, although I have heard that in some crèches, Jesus does not appear until he is symbolically born on Christmas day.  I am used to the complete scene from the beginning of the decorating season.  My colleague Carl Scovel told us about his daughter’s theft of baby Jesus from the crèche at King’s Chapel one year.  It seems that in order to save money in the church budget, Carl was reluctant to turn up the heat in the parsonage. Normal pleas from cold children did not seem to have any effect on the thrifty minister.  Finally, Carl’s daughter swiped Jesus from the crèche, which had a prominent place near the altar at the downtown Boston church. Not realizing the connection at first between cold temperature and missing figurines, Carl wondered aloud at both church and home what had become of the central figure in this family tableau.  Finally, a seemingly anonymous note appeared on his desk at home. It said, “We’ve got Jesus. He will be returned to his place in the manger, when the parsonage heat is turned up.” There was little question as to the perpetrator. But there was no room for bargaining.  She had Jesus, and was not going to give him up, until her circulation was restored.  Sure enough, baby Jesus returned to his rightful place, as soon as the thermostat went up, and Carl’s daughter’s blue fingers turned pink and warm again.

Many of us like the rituals of tree and home decorating; lights in the windows, and on the shrubs outside.  It communicates some of our beliefs about life. One of my neighbors in Milton used to like to torture her more formal neighbors who preferred white lights and suitable decorations like simple wreaths. She would set up several of those gigantic blow up figures of Santa and all eight reindeer. She wanted to make them laugh and be free of their strict, uptight gotta be perfect style of living. Even though we may say it starts too early, or there is too much muzak, or shoppers drive and park like maniacs, the momentum builds, and it permeates our homes and grows under the tree. By tonight the spirit of Christmas saturates our souls. And so we jingle a bell, and light a light, and we feel the longing once more. We want something to be born in us. Like Dr. Seuss’ famous Grinch we long to feel our hearts growing.

Most of us are very familiar with the symbolism of the season. A green tree means the growing season will return, and the lights remind us that this is the time of the turning of the seasons, and now light will begin to increase once again. Credit for first putting lights on a Christmas tree is given to Martin Luther, in 16th century Germany, where our tradition of Christmas trees comes from.  He placed real candles on the branches. Instead of ornaments, trees were festooned with fruits and nuts, toys and gifts.  So once upon a time once the presents were given out, the tree became undecorated. What would it mean to remove each ornament from your tree; to make of it a gift to another, a gift from each of us to another to renew a friendship, to speak a kind word?  Each ornament is part of a life story, our story, and we are invited to share those stories that we might become known to each other. While the gold and frankincense and myrrh that the three magi brought to Jesus did not come from a tree, they were gifts that were meant to reflect the deep meaning of what his life would be and become – the gold of the baby’s supreme worth, the frankincense that was burned in worship to show reverence for life, and the myrrh that was used in embalming to show his sacrifice for others.  Tonight we will sing once again, and light candles, but it is the being together that reminds us that now is the time to share the story in our hearts of what has brought meaning to us. Together we long to live the joy, find the hope, and let love be born. Christmas is a time when hope and joy can be reborn in whatever shape our family takes. Sharing the Christmas tree with my brother after such a long silence reminded me that love can be born again.