It was a cold night. Cold and dark with only the stars shining through the black sky. Snow had fallen as it did almost every year at this time, in this part of the world. It was piled up around our houses. Inside the fires and the furs kept us warm. It was a time to be together and to tell stories about those who had gone before us and how their lives had formed and shaped us and how they still seemed present among us in the many experiences of our own lives. It was good to be together and to feel embraced by the walls and the warmth of our home and the love we shared.
The newcomer wanted to tell a story. His story. One we had not heard before. We had welcomed he and his friends in. Shown hospitality. Shared our food and our wisdom. They did not seem to understand the ways of this land, especially this winter time. They complained about the cold and the snow as if that would change anything. At first they did not like our food or our ways but soon they opened their ears to what we could teach them. And we walked together.
So on this cold winter night we listened to them. To their story. About another winter, long, long ago. In that time when the birds had flown away and the lakes were frozen and snow lay thick on the ground. A woman was going to have a baby. She had travelled a long distance. Why was she not in her home with her family looking after her? Her husband was with her but they could not find a place for her to have her baby. They stumbled across an old shelter. The bark was broken and falling but at least it was a place to come in from the cold. There was no one else to help them. All they had was a rabbit skin to wrap the baby in. But it was a beautiful baby. It was almost as if there was the light of the moon reflected on his face and shone around his head. Some hunters were out in the forest, even late at night trying to find food for their families. You can become very hungry in the cold winter. Suddenly the night sky lit up in green luminescence and they heard a voice coming from the light telling them that a baby had been born out here in the woods. They told these hunters that a great leader had been born, someone greater than anyone who had come before. The hunters were amazed to think that a great leader would be born here. In the middle of the cold of winter. But as the light grew dimmer and the voices disappeared, they saw the little shelter and they heard a baby’s cry. They looked in and saw the parents and the child and were amazed that this was happening, just as they had been told. They ran to tell everyone what they had heard and seen and that this baby would be a great leader of his people and of all people. Later some great chiefs from far away also passed by that lonely place. They knelt down before this child and gave him many gifts, furs of fox and beaver. The child would survive and grow.
The newcomers said that this child was also one of us. That this story was also our story. That this child was born for us.
In the 1640’s, the Christmas story was told for the first time in this part of the world to the Wendat people who first inhabited this land by members of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, who had come from France to what they considered to be a new world, to tell this story. The words of the carol we sing, “Twas in the moon of wintertime” were originally written by Father Jean de Brebeuf in the language of the people. “Jesous ahatonhia”, Jesus your king, is what we call it. The tune we use is French but the words are a translation by an English speaking Canadian, Edgar Middleton, in the nineteenth century. It is considered to be the first Canadian Christmas carol. The Jesuits were deeply convicted that the story of Jesus needed to be told in the language and in the culture of the people who were hearing the story. Of course that had been happening in Europe and other parts of the world for centuries. European carols and paintings of the nativity made Jesus part of their world and their story. Things that a Jewish family in Roman occupied Palestine would have known nothing about. Holly and ivy and ships sailing into Bethlehem. Evergreen trees and wasail and candy canes. It all helped to hear the story. And to understand. And to make the story their own.
We cannot sing this carol, or tell this story in 2018 in Canada without recognizing that the sharing of this story so long ago and the early attempts to express it in ways that were meaningful for people of a very different culture and experience went on a dreadfully different and abusive path. Too often the story of Jesus became a weapon to denigrate and infantilize and dehumanize the people of this land. While I was preparing for this evening I was hesitant to use the carol and the art work by Frances Tyrell in the bulletin. Too often we have been content with this carol and with the way the story was told four centuries ago and to forget the path we have taken since then.
But perhaps the story can give us courage. Courage to once again tell the story of the child of Bethlehem in our own time and our own place. Every Christmas I pull out a lovely illustrated book of paintings by the Canadian painter William Kurelek entitled A Northern Nativity. In each painting we are invited to find the Christ child and members of the holy family: in a shed of straw in a western cattle drive, in a dark box car in a prairie town, in a broken down car on the highway outside a pulp and paper mill, in a grove of trees across the river from the Parliament buildings lit up in the night sky, on a small fishing boat tied up outside the boathouse in an Atlantic cove, among the crowds of tourists gazing at the frozen beauty of Niagara Falls in winter, sitting at a table among the poor at a supper offered by a church on a cold winter night.
Where do we find the Christ child? How do we tell the story of this birth and the life of this Jesus in our world? A world still beset by war and injustice, by poverty and inequity. A world ever more deeply framed and determined by technology and artificial intelligence. A world in which even the seasons are now threatened by our own human activity. A world where it is hard to tell stories of angel songs and redemption songs. We need to find courage, and language, and faith. This ancient story, this child coming among us, God with us, Emmanuel, needs to be told and needs to be heard. It is up to us to find the words and to make the story ours in our own lives.
We come to the table on this holy night. As we come, we continue the story of the child of Bethlehem. We remember his birth, his life, his death and his rising again. We sit together in this place of warmth and of embrace, a shelter from the cold of winter, and share this story, and our story and a meal that reminds us of God with us. In whatever our circumstances are this night. No matter who we are or what our story might be, here we know that God is with us. That we are loved with a love like that of a Mother holding her newborn child. And the love of one who would give all for us and who calls us to follow in his good path. Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given. Jesous Ahatonhia.
Thanks be to God.