Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Eve of the Nativity: Christmas Eve 41 Years Ago

Before I invite you to be seated, I ask that you remain standing for a moment if you were born after Christmas Eve, 1968. For those of you still standing my sermon will serve as a history lesson. For those of you sitting, it will be a vivid reminder of what arguably was the worst year of the 20th Century; 366 cataclysmic days that rocked America and the rest of the world to the core. The English writer Thomas Fuller noted one cloud can eclipse the sun, well 1968 was the kind of year when the clouds seemingly never parted and the sun appeared never to shine.

The Vietnam War was raging out of control. U.S. Marines were surrounded in Khe Sanh. The Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, seized the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and began to engage American forces in the heart of the country we had long fought to protect. And for the first time in history, the medium of television was able to bring into the homes of people all around the globe the vivid, startling, disturbing images of warfare.

War protests erupted on college campuses and in major cities at home and abroad. Often times authorities met these protests with brute force, employing local police and the National Guard to suppress, to gas, to beat, to arrest, and at times to kill. The war, people’s diverse and intense feelings about it, and the response by government officials tore at the fabric of our country on a daily basis.

Even as unrest regarding the war spread, so too did unrest related to civil rights. Protests became more and more widespread as Black Americans, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to end segregation and to establish equal rights under the law for all people. It is near impossible for us today to recreate how volatile the situation was and to grasp exactly what April 4, 1968 meant. That was the night King was killed in Memphis, TN. Riots, looting, and fires broke out in major cities across America. The worst of it lasted for days, and cities continued to experience tremendous civil unrest throughout the summer.

1968 was an election year. President Lyndon Johnson, who came to office upon the assassination of John Kennedy and won election in 1964, was engaged in a very tight, caustic campaign for his party’s nomination. National and world events were going so badly that Johnson announced during the primary season he was backing out of the race. Robert Kennedy moved to the forefront and was beginning to pull together a delicate coalition of people young and old from differing ethnic and economic backgrounds when, after winning the California primary, he was shot by an assassin in Los Angels on June 5 and died a day later. Our nation, especially young idealists, was devastated.

Tension around the world increased as students and citizens in various countries and capitals protested the Vietnam War and generally were awash in the Cold War politics of the world’s two superpowers. On August 22, Warsaw Pact troops and tanks invaded Czechoslovakia and disposed the country’s democratically elected leadership.

Tension at home reached its zenith at the Democratic Convention in Chicago at the end of August. George Wallace and his segregationist forces contended for nomination against Hubert Humphrey, who had been cast into the process after Kennedy’s assassination. The streets of Chicago were teeming with demonstrators and Mayor John Daley employed the most brutal of methods to restore law and order.

While the Cold War was being fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia, it also was being waged in outer space. Again, it is hard for us today to remember just how important the conquest of space was at that time, important both from a strategic as well as a symbolic perspective. In October of 1968, Russia put an unmanned spacecraft in orbit around the moon and returned it safely to earth. It was a development that sent chills down the spines of most Americans.

In response, NASA decided to try what it called a “Hail Mary Pass” by putting three astronauts in lunar orbit at the end of the year. The plan was to have them lift off in the largely unproven Saturn V rocket, fly over a half million miles away from our planet, and settle into lunar orbit about 60 miles above the moon’s surface. The mission took off flawlessly on December 21 and for three days the crew made regular live broadcasts from their tiny capsule back to earth. Each night the image of our planet through their cabin window grew smaller and smaller. Families in their living rooms watched as the drama unfolded; wrapping their presents and decorating their trees as three men embarked on a voyage that dwarfed Columbus’ journey. And then, on Christmas Eve 1968, the crew successfully entered into lunar orbit.

They were the first human beings ever to leave earth’s gravitational field and the first ever to see the dark side of the moon. No person had ever been farther from home and no person since has gone any farther. On Christmas Eve night the crew made a live broadcast, which at the time, was watched by the largest audience in the history of the world. Their camera was trained on the surface of the moon, which they described as looking gray, lonely, inhospitable, and yet awe-inspiring. And then something happened beyond anyone’s wildest dreaming; the camera captured the image known as ‘earth rise’; our blue and brown and cloud swathed planet, looking about half-full as we judge the moon, so distant yet so magical as it danced in the black and starlit void of space just above the moon’s stark, gray horizon.

As we on the planet watched ourselves, transfixed by this unique perspective, Captain Frank Borman said, “For all the people back on earth, from the crew of Apollo 8, we have a message we would like to send to you.” Then astronaut Bill Anders read the following:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.

Astronaut Jim Lovell continued:

God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

Frank Borman read last:

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

Borman ended the broadcast by saying:

From the crew of Apollo 8, we would like to close with, good night, good luck, merry Christmas. God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.

The flight of Apollo 8 was an incredible achievement for the human race, surpassed only by the first lunar landing. Dignitaries and worthies from around the world sent telegrams of congratulations to the crew. Perhaps the most profound and telling came from an ordinary woman named Valarie Pringle which said simply, “You saved 1968.”

We spent the weeks of Advent leading up to tonight reflecting on the people at the Nativity. From a devotional perspective we considered how the donkey represents all of creation; that it is redeemed through the Incarnation and invited to sing in a song of praise to the Creator. The shepherds represent the work of our hands and the magi the work of our minds, both of which can be holy and sacred. The angels represent a sense of hope and hopefulness in a world that invites cynicism and fear. Joseph is a figure who laid aside himself to create a safe avenue for God’s love to be known in the world and Mary gave of her very self so that God’s love can have flesh and bone.

And now tonight we welcome to the Nativity the figure of a baby, the Christ Child, God made human. The figure says so much that no one sermon, no one lifetime of sermons, could ever come close to expressing it all. But tonight, let me suggest that one thing the Baby tells us is this: God’s love always comes to us just when we need it the most. It may come in ways unexpected from places never before explored, but God’s love always comes to us when we need it the most.

I recently read a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning called Human Life’s Mystery. One verse of the poem captures what I am thinking:

And, in the tumult and excess
of act and passion under sun,
we sometimes hear – oh, soft and far,
as silver star did touch with star,
the kiss of Peace and Righteousness
through all things that are done.

1968 was a year of tumult and excess, act and passion, and yet on Christmas Eve the whole earth heard, soft and far, the kiss of Peace and Righteousness. And tonight we find ourselves at the end of not only a year, but of a decade; a decade which many of us are ready to put in the past. It has been as challenging as any ten-year period in American history. It’s tumult and excess, act and passion have been different from previous years and decades, as all must be. But surely we need to hear once again, as silver star did touch with star, the Kiss of Righteousness and Peace through all things that are done, to find again God’s love just when we need it the most; to know that underneath the darkness there is light, underneath the suffering there is joy, underneath the silence there is endless praise. We find it every time we return to the manager and gaze upon the Baby who lies there.

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