Monday, December 24, 2012

Live the Story!

Christmas Eve
24 December 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
            At least once a year I pull out my DVD of The Lion in Winter, a historical drama set in 1183 at the Christmas court of Henry II in Chignon.  If you have never seen this film, you are missing out on a classic performance by two great actors, Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine, his wife.  The supporting cast is equally brilliant and the dialogue a gift to the ear.

            The gist of the film is this:  It’s Christmas and Henry has gathered the family at Chignon, including Eleanor, whom he has imprisoned for her frequent coups against him, and young Philip, the King of France.  Henry’s sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John, are busily concocting schemes to unseat Henry and to become king in his place.  The competing royals form coalitions form that quickly dissolve even as the peasants and servants try to create a festive atmosphere for their social superiors.

            There is a moment when Henry reflects on his life and his accomplishments in the face of his sons’ and wife’s conspiracies against him.  “My life,” he says, “will read better than it lived.”  And every year, I take out the DVD and watch two stories:  one a story about a significant figure in the history of Great Britain, the other a story about a man whose family life is a disaster.

            Why do we tell stories, whether fictional or historical or a blend of both?  I think that we tell stories for at least two reasons.  On the one hand, we tell stories for nostalgic purposes, to put us in the mood for fond memories of times past and, perhaps, lost forever.  We tell such stories and then have warm feelings that sometimes slip into mild melancholy at the sense of something lost.  On the other hand, we tell stories because we believe that some stories possess the power to influence our present and to help us shape the future.  These stories may leave us with fleeting moments of nostalgia, but rarely is nostalgia the lasting impression upon our hearts.  After the two disciples on encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus and hear his interpretations of the Scriptures, the stories of their ancestors, their response is more than a polite, “Well, that was nice.  Same time next year?”  No, they respond with stronger words:  “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road, and when he explained the scriptures to us?”  (Luke 24.32 in Common English Bible)

            Every year at this time we hear the familiar story of Mary and Joseph, the infant in the manger, angels, shepherds and sages travelling from the east to find the child of prophecy.  After two thousand years the story has become overlaid with generations of holiday traditions, so much so that our hearts and minds tend to confuse the deep meaning of this story with those holiday traditions.  Nostalgia and perhaps a little melancholy creeps over us, even in the midst of this festive season of parties, shopping and gift-giving.

            My friends, the story of the birth of Jesus, the Beloved of God, is not a story we tell in order to re-generate memories of Christmases past.  The Christian community re-tells this story, year after year, in order to make clear the power of Christmas present.  We tell this story because our world is not yet a place of peace and good will --- and we are not prepared to accept the status quo as God’s answer.  This story reminds us of the lengths God will go to reclaim and renew this world.  In the telling of this story we are left with a choice once the candles are extinguished, the gifts opened and the left-overs exhausted:  Will we simply re-tell the story or will we live the story begun in Bethlehem, brought to its climax in Jerusalem and continued in the life of the Christian people throughout the centuries?

            On more than one occasion I have lamented our use of ‘scrooge’ to describe an unpleasant miser because this use tells me that we really haven’t understood the story that Dickens tells.  Scrooge is reminded of his past, confronted with his present and is shown a possible future --- and he is changed by the experience.  Far from being an insult, a ‘scrooge’ should be any person who finally catches the meaning of the story, who is willing to change and is willing to risk living the story in her or his everyday life even in the face of the real challenges and tragedies that surround us.  Why live this story?  Because we live in the hope that this story is the real story, the real account of what God has in mind for us and for the whole of creation.

            My friends, I have only one Christmas wish for all of us:  I wish that the stories of our lives will be lived as well as they will be read.  The Light born this night shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, no matter how hard it tries.  Why?  Because that Light keeps popping up like candles at the end of a Christmas service, a Light that burns brightly and enduringly in the lives of women, men and children who have chosen to live the story of Bethlehem not just remember it.  Amen.

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