By Joe Rutherford
Christian homiletics lost one of is most eloquent students and practitioners early this year with the death of Peter Gomes, preacher at Harvard Memorial Church and a gifted writer. He was a profoundly challenging questioner of what comfortable believers are certain is true for them and therefore everyone else, too.
Gomes’ precise understandings include historic Christianity’s use of a calendar of seasons reflecting the biblical narrative and its continuous spiraling through all the stories written and claimed by the church as the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus of Nazareth, God’s son.
In Gomes’ “Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living,” he devotes a whole section to seasons, including widely observed secular celebrations like New Year’s Day. “New Year’s” as it is widely called, is placed in the context of “beginning where we left off,” Gomes’ chapter heading.
His treatment of the day as the time when people refocus on what has to be done does no homage to football and bowl games. Instead, the focus is to consider the news – revisited only a week ago – about shepherds who went from their fields into Bethlehem to see the child of whom angels sang.
The shepherds, Gomes reminds readers, were amazed by what they had seen and heard, but did not linger in the stable.
They returned (Luke 2:20) to their daily lives, in many ways the same but also profoundly changed.
“So here we are, called to begin where we left off and yet to make a new beginning,” Gomes, an American Baptist, wrote. “It is an old choice and new chance for us and the world.”
His view is fully incarnational.
“The world will not change until and unless we change; the spirit of Christmas cannot be borne out into the cold January air unless we are borne out by it and indeed born again in it,” Gomes writes, “We may, we must return again whence we came, but we need not return as the same tired creatures, care-worn and spirit-lost, for we have seen wonderful things that have come to pass, strange and mighty sights that will never let us look at the skies in quite the same manner as before …”
Today is not merely New Year’s Eve. It is the 7th Day of Christmas, the season that most American Christians ignore or don’t know because American culture pushes aside contemplation of expectation to rush toward customs we have invented to fit the space of 24 hours.
Christmas carols themselves often offer a message written to extend into time and circumstances far beyond a narrow view of a specific day.
Consider, for example, “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear”:
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold!
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heaven’s all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats,
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing.
And ever o’er its Babel sounds,
The blessed angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife,
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled,
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not,
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the Age of Gold;
When peace shall over all the earth,
Its ancient splendors fling,
And all the world give back the song,
Which now the angels sing.
Gomes said, “We begin again, that in leaving the manger we may embrace the world for his sake and for ours.”