Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7 ; Psalm 96 ; Titus 2:11-14 ; Luke 2:1-14
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Great Spirit that binds us together and makes us one. Amen.
When I was reading for and writing my Master’s thesis I often noticed that the most interesting things happen in the margins. Reading for my thesis I would jot little notes to myself there about how I might use a sentence or paragraph from one book or another to support my own work. Writing my thesis, I would include little footnotes about things that weren’t necessarily crucial to my work, but were interesting nonetheless. You find all sorts of interesting things in the margins.
As evidence of this, I’m going to ask you all to open your hymnals to hymn #284, “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” our hymn of the day this evening. Can anyone find the marginal note associated with this hymn?
Right there, in the margins of your hymnal, you see a footnote saying that the lyric we sing as “that God the Lord of all the earth” was originally “that mighty Gitchi Manitou…” Isn’t that curious?
Who is the mighty Gitchi Manitou? Does anyone know? I was so curious about this note in the margins that I did a little research on this hymn. Go back to the margins and look at the names there. You’ll see that this tune is a French folk tune, but the texts are attributed to Jean de Brébeuf, and then later were translated by Jesse Middleton.
Jean de Brébeuf was a Jesuit missionary in Canada about 350 years ago, and he wrote new words to an old French tune that he knew as a way of teaching the people around him about the meaning of Christmas. The people around him were people of the First Nations in Canada – what we in the United States call Native Americans. More specifically, they were people of the Wendat nation – which the French call the Huron – associated with the Iroquoi peoples. So the first name for this carol was The Huron Carol, after the nation of people for whom it was written.
As this missionary went about the work of sharing his faith with the Wendat peoples, and explaining to them the meaning of Christmas, he became familiar with their own spirituality and religious beliefs. The Wendat already knew something about God, and as they listened to Brébeuf describe God the Creator, the parent of the infant Christ, they had a name to teach him as well: Gitchi Manitou.
“Gitchi Manitou” was the name they used to refer to the Creator of all things, the Giver of Life. By itself, “gitchi” means “great” and “Manitou” means “spirit,” so the Wendat peoples were not surprised to hear the missionary’s stories of God the Creator of All, who is also known as the Holy Spirit – this fit very neatly with what they already knew of God. “Manitou” means more than just “spirit” though – more than just one spirit – it also means the way that all of life and nature are interconnected. Again, as this French missionary described the Christian ideas of baptism as a means of entry into the one body which we all share together, their notion of manitou would have made this a very reasonable idea. They could take these stories of God the Creator, and the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit that binds us together and understand it as their own story.
As you read on in the hymnal, and as we’ll sing together in a few minutes, you see that they did indeed make this story their own. In this carol Jesus is not wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, but instead is given a “ragged robe of rabbit skin” and laid in a “lodge of broken bark.” There are no kings bearing gold, incense and myrrh, but instead chiefs come to pay tribute, bringing furs of the fox and the beaver.
I don’t know about you, but getting to this night – sometimes just getting through this night – can feel like a marathon. The radio has been playing Christmas carols since just after Halloween. The television has been generating miniature panic attacks with each commercial, forcing us to consider whether or not we’ve found the perfect gifts. This night, and the morning that follows, are so overlaid with the memories and hopes and expectations of generations of Christmases – it can feel impossible to get it right. Then we arrive here, at the church on Christmas Eve and hope that there is still some deeper meaning left to be drawn out of Christmas.
The good news is: there is some deeper meaning left to be drawn out of Christmas.
The challenge is: you have to make this story your own.
Like a present sitting under the Christmas tree, the gift of this night will not unwrap itself. You have to unwrap it, and claim it, and make it yours. Which is what Luke, the writer of the gospel reading tonight has done.
We get this same passage from Luke about the birth in the barn every Christmas Eve. That’s somewhat unusual, since most every other time we worship together we hear from Matthew, or Mark, or Luke – depending on which year in our three year cycle of readings we’re in – but on Christmas Eve it’s always this story from Luke.
Luke does something very similar to what the French missionary to the Wendat people did as he tries to teach us something about the meaning of Christmas: he takes a familiar story and uses it to tell a new story. He begins by talking about Emperor Augustus – a symbol of power – taking a census of the empire, calling everyone to be accounted for. Then he talks about an infant being born in a stable – a symbol of powerlessness – being visited by shepherds. Shepherds were nomads and not citizens of the empire, they were the equivalent of undocumented immigrants or guest workers. People living in the margins of their society.
The story of Christmas, as Luke tells it to us each year, is the story of God’s reign spilling over the boundaries set by the powerful people of the world and into the margins. The symbols of Christmas – dark nights and fragile infants interrupted by migrant laborers and choirs of angels point to a vision of the world as it should be, where “being connected” to the right people, the Caesar Augustuses of the world, is replaced by being interconnected by a spirit of unity – like Gitchi Manitou – that pulls us all into the center of life and out of the margins. The meaning of Christmas, however, is left to you.
What does it mean for you to hear that God is found in the hidden, the neglected, the immodest places of the world? What does it mean for you to know that when God takes a census, all the people of the world matter as much as any citizen of any empire? What does it mean for you to come before the Christ this evening like wise men with gifts, like chiefs with furs, like shepherds with flocks of sheep or parents with broods of children and grandchildren? What does it mean to take this story and make it your own?
I don’t know the answer to that question for you any more than I do for myself. I have moments of clarity and sometimes surges of insight, but for the most part it remains a mystery because the answer is constantly changing as the world around us changes – as the boundaries and the margins shift. But I do know, as I discovered while writing my thesis, that what we find in the margins is often the most interesting stuff and sometimes is even the key to understanding how the whole thing fits together.