True Confessions of a Grinchy Priest
Okay, St. Francis, I’ve been on board with you now for over a year, and it’s time for me to come clean, publicly, from the pulpit. It’s time for you to know the full truth about your Associate Rector, and I hope you still love me after I tell you.
I’m a Grinch.
It’s true. It’s awful but it’s true.
I do not want to jingle all the way.
I don’t deck my halls—I don’t own a single Christmas decoration, not even a sad Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
I do not ding dong merrily on high, or on low for that matter, nor am I interested in participating in any reindeer games.
I am a Grinch.
There. I said it. Let Father Davies know if you’d like him to ask for my letter of resignation.
Here’s where I need to clarify.
I do love the Feast of the Incarnation.
The birth of the infant Christ is deeply meaningful to me, and the Holy Family are three of my absolute favorite people on earth—I even have an icon of them in my office.
But I do not love American Christmas, which is very different from the Feast of the Incarnation, and every year I find it harder and harder to tolerate.
I know it makes me sound like an 85-year-old telling those kids to get off my lawn, but I can’t help it—the noise, the materialism, the smearing of badly considered theology on top of secular pagan traditions—blech.
It just wears me out. I basically stick my fingers in my ears on the day after Thanksgiving, close my eyes and shout Advent hymns to drown it all out.
But what I’ve gotten up here to tell you today is that this year I’ve received an additional insight as to why I hate American Christmas so much, and it’s actually much closer to the Feast of the Incarnation than I expected.
And to explain it, I have to tell two stories.
The first is from 2012. I officiated all three of my little sisters’ weddings, and that year the youngest, Kitty, was going to be married on December 29.
I was planning to do all the Christmas services at St. David’s in Bean Blossom, Indiana, where I was rector at the time, and then drive home to Missouri on the 26th, in plenty of time for the wedding.
Well, it started snowing on Christmas morning, and it was immediately clear that this was going to be a blizzard of epic proportions.
Major roads were closing, newscasts were warning of power outages that could last for days, and it wasn’t even clear that I-70 would remain open.
And little sisters will forgive you for a lot, but not showing up for their wedding when you’re the officiant, wrecking the whole thing? That is not a forgivable offence.
When you’re a priest, you’re a key ingredient in Their Special Day, and you jolly well better find a way to get there and get there on time.
So I finished church on Christmas morning at St. David’s, threw things into the car haphazardly, prayed I had packed everything I would need, and got on the road.
It was incredibly slow going, through blinding snow, but I was trying to get as far as possible before either the roads closed or my post-Christmas fatigue made me so tired I could no longer drive safely.
What I had not counted on, not having planned to travel on Christmas Day, is that on Christmas Day, everything is closed, and that includes restaurants.
By 8 p.m. I was exhausted and starving and desperate to find somewhere, anywhere, open to stop for a bit and find some food.
I finally fetched up at a dubious looking Steak ‘N Shake in East St. Louis.
Any of you who have spent time in East St. Louis know that it is pretty questionable in a lot of ways, but I didn’t care.
I had to have food, and I had to get out of the car, and that was literally the first restaurant I had found open since I left Bean Blossom hours before.
So I went in and began eating a greasy burger and fries, feeling that strange combination of exhausted and wired that comes from travelling a long way while not knowing if you’re going to make it to your destination on time.
There were a surprising number of people at the Steak ‘N Shake, maybe people who had kitchen mishaps with their Christmas dinners or simply didn’t feel like cooking.
It came time to pay the bill and get back on the road in the blizzard, but as the waitress put the check on my table, she refused to take my debit card.
“It’s already paid for,” she said. “The couple sitting over there at the counter said that no one should have to eat Christmas dinner alone like you are, and paid your bill.”
And at that moment, as Dr. Seuss says about the Grinch, my heart grew 3 sizes.
I picked out another family sitting at another table. “Have they paid yet?” I asked the waitress.
“No,” she said. So I gave her my card and asked her to use it to pay their bill.
I went back out into the snowstorm and got back on the highway, but I like to think that the rest of the strange crew who ended up at Steak ‘N Shake in East St. Louis on Christmas Day at 8 p.m. paid it forward until everyone was fed.
So that’s the first story. The second is from this year.
You all know that our organist, Robert, and I worked very closely together on the historic liturgies project this fall.
We researched the old prayerbooks, struggled to make the liturgies make sense and fit roughly within an hour of worship time, and looked for service music and hymns authentic to the different time periods we were evoking.
Robert patiently endured my nerding out about all the old prayerbooks and their evolution over time, and even nerded out a bit himself.
It was a ton of work, super fun, and we felt good about what we were able to bring to the St. Francis community.
One thing you immediately realize as you study our Anglican heritage is the beauty of the language in our liturgies. From Thomas Cranmer on down, we have been formed in worship in the beauty of holiness.
But of all five prayerbooks we worked with, one bit stood out to me above all others.
It was in the 1549 prayerbook, and it was Cranmer’s fraction anthem, that he wrote himself.
It didn’t survive to the later editions, but it completely captured my heart.
You’ve heard me use it as my offertory sentence since that time: “Christ our Paschal Lamb is offered up for us, once for all, when he bore our sins on his body upon the Cross, for he is the very Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world: wherefore let us keep a joyful and holy feast with the Lord.”
It’s that last phrase that does me in, because it is so reflective of Cranmer’s spirit.
Cranmer lived in a time of vicious religious violence, where people were literally killing and dying over the faith.
He was in navigating treacherous political waters, and in constant danger.
But it mattered to him to create worship out of the joy of the gospel that lived in his heart, and throughout all of his work you find holiness and joy as constant themes over and over.
He wanted us to celebrate a joyful and holy feast with the Lord, in fact he gave his life so that we could do exactly that every Sunday.
So Robert gave me his Christmas gift a few weeks ago.
I have no patience, and as you’ve already learned, no sentimentality for saving gifts under a Christmas tree for the big day, so I opened it as soon as I got home.
And Robert had crossstitched me a wall hanging of the phrase, “Let us keep a joyful and holy feast with the Lord.”
It completely knocked me out. I honestly think it was the most touching and meaningful gift I have ever received.
For him to see and remember and know everything that phrase meant to me, and take the enormous amount of time, not to mention talent, to create this piece of art proclaiming it—I stood in my kitchen looking at it, and cried.
It is now hanging in my office above my door, and every time I see it I will be reminded of this dear colleague who has become a friend, someone who shares with me the holy joy of our worship tradition, and the good work God has done through us together at this church. Once again, my heart grew 3 sizes.
So why do I bring up these two stories? What do they help us learn?
I learned about something that is intrinsic both to the Feast of the Incarnation and American Christmas: gift giving.
A lot of grinchy behavior in all kinds of areas is driven by fear, most primarily fear of vulnerability. And I learned as I reflected on these two Christmas stories in my own life that there are few positions more vulnerable in life than receiving a gift.
When I received the gift of the free dinner at the Steak ‘N Shake in St. Louis, I was instantly inspired to give a gift myself.
A truly beautiful gift inspires us to step outside ourselves and pass on to someone else the feeling we have just received, of being noticed and valued and cared for.
Receiving a gift that makes us want to give a gift makes us vulnerable to having our assumptions, agendas, and priorities changed.
After a stressed and harried drive through a blizzard, a pit-stop was transformed into a true Christmas dinner, a moment of wonder and gratitude and fellowship with strangers. A meal that began as a barely-warm greasy roadside supper became, in fact, a joyful and holy feast with the Lord.
And what I learned from Robert’s gift was equally disturbing and enlightening.
When you receive a truly thoughtful present from someone, you feel suddenly very vulnerable.
You feel exposed in a strange way, because this person has seen you.
They have looked at you and truly seen what you value, what you love, what makes you tick, and then acted on that knowledge to give you something truly connected to your inmost self.
And you acknowledge that vulnerability by receiving the gift. You admit the truth that someone knows and cares about you deeply enough to give you a gift that really matters.
So I began to think about those gift-giving truths in light of the Incarnation, which after all was God’s most radical gift to us.
And the same realities of vulnerability were true.
The Christ Child is a gift that makes us vulnerable to being changed, to wanting to give the gift onward, to having our perceptions altered and our assumptions overturned.
It is the taking of the commonplace and revealing it as utterly revolutionary, a gift that once received by us, means that we will never be the same.
And the Christ Child is a gift given to us that reveals how deeply God sees us and knows us.
God penetrates right to the center of our hearts with this gift that speaks to our secret longings, our hidden hurts, and our shyest joys.
And when we receive the gift, we say yes to being seen and known, and most painfully vulnerable of all, being loved.
Is it possible that the underlying cause of my grinchiness all along was the fear of being seen and known and loved by the very Christ Child I’m struggling to receive? Maybe it is.
What a blessing it is that although my journey of faith often feels like a weary trek through a snowstorm with only a greasy burger at a roadside diner for respite, when I truly pause and open my eyes, I find that every moment is a joyful and holy feast with the Lord.
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