It’s Christmas. At Ground zero. It has really only been one day since September 11th, but it’s been 2770 hours long. But today is a new day. And this night is different from all the rest—even here. Ssshhhhh. Be very quiet and you can hear the sacredness of this moment. Listen and you can hear the brush of angels’ wings flying around this chapel. They’re Saint Paul’s Angels. They bring messages from children around the world,children who want to say “Thank you for helping all the people—and that’s people spelled “pepl.”
Wise men have come for a visit. They come bearing gifts and they do not return home in the same way. Shepherds wearing hard hats are keeping watch over their cranes by night. Pastors, priests, pilgrims and podiatrists humbly offer their gifts. Santa even came by the other day. Wearing a safari vest instead of a red suit, he counted out 50 $100 bills in support of our relief effort. His reindeer were invisible, but we could hear the faint jingling of their bells.
In the deep stillness of this night there is a cacophony of voices—voices which give thanks for the incredible miracle of being alive—alive to share with loved ones this night the precious gift of life. A gift which, this year, will not to be taken for granted. When we, either individually or collectively face death, there is a space opened up in which we can appreciate all the more the precious gift of life—to be aware of the amazing web of relationships which constitutes life; and to affirm that our connectedness is far greater than our divisions.
But there are also voices which cry out in pain this night—primal angst-ridden screams worthy of a Muench painting, crying out in anguish and grief over the loss of those who will not be physically present around the tree or table, the loss of those who will not this year eat Christmas cookies with us. These are the voices of children and mothers, fathers and grandparents cry out in grief over the loss of dear ones whose lives were taken on September 11th.
But it’s Christmas at Ground Zero. And the one who comes to us this night is the one who hears our voices. In fact, He comes because he has heard our voices—the cries of all creation groaning in travail awaiting, longing for the birth of a new order—a new world in which swords will be beaten into plowshares, the poor will receive good news, families will be reunited, and the tears of all the broken-hearted will be wiped away by God’s own hand.
The One who comes tonight understands our pain for He suffers with us. In the short span of 33 years, He became not just a man, but a man who took upon himself the sorrow of the world. Even on the night of his birth, Jesus was homeless. And because of the persecution of Herod, a persecution born of envy, Jesus became a refugee, taken by his parents, Mary and Joseph, into Egypt for safety. As an adult, he supported himself and his family by assuming the role of a common laborer, working with his hands as one of the “am-ha-aretz," or the people of the land. Soon after accepting the call to public ministry, he became, in succession, a hostage, a death-row inmate, and finally, an executed prisoner. As one great theologian put it, even amidst the majesty and grandeur of Bethlehem’s manger--a place where people, animals, stars and angels rejoiced--even there, lurking in the shadows, was the spectre of Calvary’s cross. We too have seen this cross in the wreckage and devastation of what was the World Trade Center.
One of my favorite Christmas shows is the Charlie Brown Christmas special. If we were doing a multimedia worship service tonight, I think we’d have Linus do the Gospel reading. It’s such a special moment for me when he walks out onto the stage, security blanket on his shoulder, and begins to recite the Gospel text for tonight, Luke chapter 2. And I love to hear the be-bop rhythm of that great tune called “Linus and Lucy.” It makes me want to snap my fingers and tap my toes. When I hear it, I can’t help but smile. But my favorite part of the Charlie Brown Christmas special is when they decorate the Christmas tree. Charlie Brown picks out one of the shabbiest Christmas trees on the lot: the tree is drooping, its leaves are brittle and falling off, and its branches are hanging down. By any estimation, it’s a ragged tree. It's downcast and depressed.
Perhaps this year you feel a bit like that tree. Perhaps you are weary, or frightened, or depressed. Perhaps you are grieving the loss of a loved one, as we all grieve collectively the loss of the lives taken on September 11th. Maybe you’re tired and your branches drooping. Perhaps you feel brittle and any little unanticipated shake can cause you to lose your composure. Maybe your spirit is parched and dry.
But remember the tree. Even in all its frailty, when you add just a little bit of love, a little bit of encouragement, when you add just a little bit of ingenuity and imagination, that pitiful little tree becomes magnificent. It sparkles. It beams with joy. Because through love it is transformed. All it needed was a hug.
It’s Christmas at Ground Zero. And Saint Paul’s Chapel is a manger. The One who comes is called Emmanuel, God, is with us. God is with us here. God’s all-transforming love is with us. The message of Christmas is that the Creator of the Universe loves us so much that nothing, absolutely nothing, will separate us from our God’s love for us. Not height, nor depth, nor angels, nor principalities, things present, nor things to come, not terrorists -- not life or even death itself -- can come between us and God’s incredible transforming love for each and every one of us. God is here to hug us as we hug one another. God is with us as we seek to rebuild our city and that makes all the difference in the world. On this most Holy night, let us receive this love, and return love’s gift—the gift of our hearts.
A stanza of Christina Rosetti’s poem, which is also the last verse of the Christmas hymn “In the Bleak Mid-winter” captures it well:
What can I give him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: I will Give my heart.
May God fill your heart with joy and hope this night. May God renew your spirit. A Merry Christmas to you all. And may God bless us all everyone.
This sermon was preached by the Rev. Lyndon Harris, associate for ministries at St. Paul's Chapel, located at Broadway and Fulton Streets in New York City.