In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I will read you the Christmas story.
And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from the Prince of this World, the Prince of Darkness that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Adam chose to become governor of his own life, the captain of his own fate, when he turned his face away from God and burned incense at the wrong altar. On account of all this all went to be taxed, for the wages of sin is death and the tax on the wage is eternal doom. Everyone unto his own city, unto his own lineage. From sire to son, from maid to maiden the curse would be passed down. And Adam also went out from Eden to be taxed with Eve his wife, being great with child. And so it was that the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son and named him Cain. And she conceived again and bore a son named Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the soil.
And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought of the fruit of the soil an offering unto the Lord. And Abel also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and his offering; but unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord came unto Cain and warned him that sin was crouching at the door. But Cain did not listen to the Lord and he went out into the field where his brother Abel was keeping watch over his flock. But there were no brother shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night to protect Abel. It was night in the heart of Cain, and Cain slew his brother and spilt his blood upon the ground, and ever since man has been soaking the earth with the blood of his brother. And the archangel of evil and all his hellish host sang out, ďGlory to Satan in the highest, and on earth doom and death to man!Ē
Millennia later it came to pass that there went out a decree from a lesser potentate, a lackey of the Prince of Darkness, Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.†
He whom the heavens cannot contain rests in the womb of a virgin maid. Caesar resides in his palace and taxes his empire, but the King of kings lies in a manger and gives his eternals gifts at no cost. He who feeds the ravens still must be fed at the breast of a virgin. The reign of this king is not for his own advantage or good, but for the good of his subjects, even though they have rebelled against him. Yes, you too have rebelled against him and you know it. He is not a cosmic St. Nick, making his list and checking it twice to see who has been naughty or nice. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and the wage for sin is death. You know your inmost thoughts in all their vileness. Yet, in spite of this he comes not in vengeance but in mercy. Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow, but he will die a crimson death upon a tree. He will die because of us; he will die for us. And his death will be our life.
And it came to pass that the Lord came unto Cain and inquired about his brother. Though his brother was a keeper of sheep, this brother is no brotherís keeper. He was a brother slayer. The ground was cursed on account of Adamís sin, yet the Lord promised that with the sweat of the brow it would yield a crop for him, but not for Cain his son. Abelís blood spilt upon the ground would not allow it to yield. Cain would be a fugitive and a vagabond. Cain whined a bitter whine. His punishment was more than he could bear he cried. All who would come upon him will kill him he complained. Though Cain showed no mercy, God is merciful. He set a mark upon Cain and pronounced a seven-fold vengeance upon anyone who should slay him.
We too have received the Mark of Cain, and this we desperately needed. For we have slain our brother, if not with fists, with thoughts. Our hateful thoughts have murdered; our lustful thoughts have fornicated; our covetous thoughts have stolen; our jealous thoughts have gossiped. Yet no vengeance will be visited upon us. We need not fear. We have been marked, signed with the Holy Cross at Holy Baptism, the Mark of Cain. We have been spared divine vengeance. What we deserve due to our sins will not be visited upon us. The wages of sin is death and the tax on the wage is eternal doom, but the baby Jesus has endured all that for our sake. Therefore, with good reason we gather in our Fatherís house this night to adore the baby Jesus, the little lamb marked for death. Shepherds went here long before us. They came to the Holy Church. They came to Mary, for Mary is the first catechumen, the first Christian, the icon of the Church and of every believer. The shepherds, the pastores, came to the Church, these pastors entering the Holy of holies. And Holy Mother Church sent them out, called and ordained them, and they did what pastors or preachers are supposed to do: they told others all that they had seen and heard. There is mercy for the Cains of the world: a mark to spare them divine judgment, a lamb to die in their place! In an old Italian hymn, Viva! Viva! Gesu, we read, ďAbelís blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.Ē (TLH 158)† The blood of Abel closed the ground to all fruitfulness for Cain, but the blood of Jesus opens Cainite hearts, and his mercy sprouts forth fruits of love through them to all.
And Mary pondered all these things in her heart.
You have chosen the best this night. You have chosen to come to your Fatherís house. You too pondered all these things in your hearts. Your shepherd has unwrapped the Lord Christ from the swaddling cloths of the Old and New Testament scriptures. He will invite you to the manger, to the altar, to feed upon the Christ. As ox and ass fed at Christís manger, so people with beastly passions are nonetheless invited to feed upon the life-giving body and blood of the Savior and they become truly human!
Yes, soon we will enter the stable, the chancel, and feed upon God in a manger. And this is our highest worship: for there is no greater worship than to receive Godís gifts, to let Jesus be what his name says he is, Gesu,Savior! Our greatest worship is not that we are here this night, but that in the deep of night our God came here to us. Our greatest worship and service to God is not that we have resisted spilling our brotherís blood, but that Jesus, our true brother, spilt his precious blood upon the ground, that is, pours it into people who are dust in the Holy Eucharist and makes them truly human and fruitful. What can we do as we walk away from this grand mystery but be like Mary and ponder all these things in our hearts: ďThat God was man in Palestine, and lives today in bread and wine.Ē (John Betjman) And mortal men who live and die shall feast forever up on high. Gloria in excelsis Deo!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.† ß
The Reverend Fr. Peter M. Berg is pastor of Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Chicago, Illinois.