SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D DAPHNE B. NOYES AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, DECEMER 27, 2009, THE FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
Today is a day of multiple identities. It’s the third day of Christmas. Many of us are valiantly attempting to hold fast to the concept of Christmas as a 12-day event that runs from December 25 to Epiphany, rather than a 60-day shopfest starting around Halloween, culminating in a 24-hour frenzy of present-wrapping, present-opening, treks to see family and friends, the obligatory (for many) annual appearance in church at Midnight Mass or other service.
It’s also the Feast of St John, the author of one of the best-known phrases in the Gospels: John 3:16 - a phrase so well-known that t-shirts, baseball caps, coffee mugs bear simply the citation John 3:16 and the meaning is known.
So today, on the third day of Christmas and the Feast of St John, I would like to reflect on the two aspects of Christmas that are perhaps, the most universal: gift-giving and story-telling.
As Father Wood reminded us on Christmas Eve, it is the story of Christmas - the story of the birth of Jesus, the tale of the coming of Christ, the proclamation of peace and salvation for all - that brings people together on that holy night. And, as he pointed out, even for those who do not or cannot believe the story, or some parts of the story, the story retains the power to draw people together - in churches and living rooms and soup kitchens and hospital rooms and through family gatherings and cards and telephone calls and emails and yes, even Facebook and Twitter.
The story has a magnetism rendered even more compelling by the unlikeliness of it all: A young girl, not even married yet, being told by an angel that she will bear a child; her husband-to-be’s decision to stick by her despite this; the couple’s trek -- with Mary now nearing the end of her pregnancy -- to be registered as law-abiding citizens; the unsuccessful search for comfortable lodgings in which to deliver the child; the (to us perhaps) romantic notion of giving birth in a steamy stable; more angels, and shepherds, stars and wise men ... Oh my! What a story. The drama has the power to remind us that God often, perhaps most frequently, appears in the most unlikely, even unimaginable, places and circumstances. The glorious surroundings we enjoy for our worship may serve to enhance our own spiritual life, but the story of Jesus’ humble birth reminds us that they are not necessary for God to make an appearance. In fact, I suspect that an encounter with God may be just as likely on a streetcorner, or in the cleft of a rock, or in a hospital room, or in a plastic crèche, as anywhere else. God’s great gift to us is God’s presence: God’s presence in the most unimaginable situations and the most unfavorable conditions.
So what does it mean to give, really give, a gift? I pondered this question as I observed a long parade of young children and their families -- some familiar, some not -- on Christmas Eve, as they processed to the crèche, to lay presents at the feet of the Holy Family.
Perhaps you are not familiar with this custom at the Church of the Advent. The early Mass (or family Mass) on Christmas Eve is called informally the “Teddy Bear Mass.” This affectionate nomenclature reflects both the age of many of the congregants, as well as the nature of many of the gifts they bring. These donations - not only stuffed animals, but blankets, infant clothing and other necessities to welcome newborns - are conveyed by the Parish to an outfit called the Fragment Society. That’s where my knowledge of the tradition ended.
So I was inspired to do a little research on the Fragment Society. Here’s some of what I learned. I offer this in the hope that you will find some gift of meaning in this story. In the early 1800s missionary work, especially missionary and charitable work of women, was gaining momentum. Massachusetts and Connecticut swarmed with what were called “female missionary societies.” There was a Boston Female Society for Missionary Purposes founded in 1800. Miss Mary Well founded what was called the Cent Society in 1802 “for females who are disposed to contribute their mite towards so noble a design as diffusion of the gospel light among the shades of darkness and superstition.” The Fuel Society paid for coal for young seminarians, and the Boston Fragment Society provided clothes for indigent mothers and their babies.(1)
Established in 1812 and now known as the oldest continuing sewing circle in Boston, the society was founded by some of the city’s most prominent women, including Dorothy Quincy Hancock and Sarah Brimmer. Members pooled their sewing skills to repair old clothes for donation to needy residents.(2)
During the Society’s first year 506 families received aid, including many who felt the effects of the War of 1812.
The name was taken from the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes: after feeding five thousand people, Jesus enjoined his disciples “to gather up the fragments that remained that nothing be lost.”(3) Echoing this advice, the Fragment Society’s first constitution stated the society’s purpose: “...to do something towards relieving the want and promoting the comfort of the suffering poor.”(4)
Which brings us back to gift-giving. As I watched the stacks of presents grown around the crèche, I saw in the eyes of the givers a mix of excitement, curiosity, and perhaps a little awe. My thoughts went to the unknown mothers and infants who would eventually be recipient of those gifts. Unknown recipients in unknown places, unknown circumstances. All that is known is the condition of need. I appreciated the leap of faith that is necessary to simply hand something over - not to a restricted fund, not with specific strings attached, but simply to give.
My mind went to the Eucharist - the gift of Jesus to his disciples, and us; a gift whose story is repeated each time we celebrate this sacrament. “This is my body, given for you.” And I remembered again God’s great gift to us, God’s presence among us in Jesus - and how this gift was given not simply to the people of ancient Israel, but to hundreds, thousands of unknown, unborn generations of humanity - of “the suffering poor.”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son...”(5) The gift was given out of God’s unending love for the world God created, and God’s unceasing desire to dwell among us, to abide within us, in that world. How would this gift be received? Would God’s presence among us be appreciated? That is a story for another day.
(1) By1816 three Baptist wives, supported by these societies, were en route to Ceylon as missionaries. “If not deceived in our motives,” one of them wrote, “we have been induced to leave our beloved friends and native shores to cross the tempestuous deep, from love to Christ and the souls which he died to purchase. And now we are ready, waiting with the humble hope of being employed, in his own time and way, in building up his kingdom.” http://www.bethanyharrison.com/?paged=2
(4) More specifically, “the design of this Society shall be to assist in clothing the destitute, more especially destitute children, and to loan bedding and infants’ garments to such mothers as are not able to procure things necessary for their comfort during the period of their confinement.” Note that originally, this consisted of lending, not giving, clothes and other necessities to “the suffering poor.” After a few years the Society abandoned its loan policy, but it continues to give clothing, shoes, and bedding to the needy.