“JOY: When Christ Breaks Through to Us”Dr. Lee Carter Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14, (15-20). Year B: Christmas Day
At what point during this season filled with all the glitter and wrappings, the frantic shopping, the non-stop Christmas radio stations blaring “Jingle Bell Rock” and “All I Want for Christmas is You” – did the humble and beckoning Christ finally break through to you? At what point did you finally say—enough of the plastic, the red and green stuff, the decoration, the cultural façade and the gloriously fattening treats—let’s get serious about the significance of coming of Christ? Enough of the cover up! It’s time for Christ to break through to us.
Perhaps the grandest church edifice in all of Christendom was the domed Hagia Sofia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, in Constantinople. Over the centuries the magnificent structure had served not only as a church, but as a mosque after the Ottomans gained control in 1453. The great mosaics of the reigning Christ were then covered over in plaster and whitewash.
However, after World War I, the New Turks desired to turn the grand house of worship into a museum. So, in December of 1931, Thomas Whittemore led a team of archaeologists, historians, craftsmen and restorers from the Byzantine Institute of America to try to uncover the rumored Byzantine mosaics of Christ that had been nearly forgotten for almost a half millennium.
When Whittemore and his team arrived to begin work they found a thousand cases of documents from the Hagia Sophia mosque archives pushed up against the walls. They were even told that their investigation was a mere treasure hunt, that the image of the victorious Christ was long destroyed.
However, through persistent effort, as the whitewash and plastering were painstakingly removed, an almost ghostly image began to break through. Though covered over for centuries when it served as a mosque, the magnificent mosaic of Christ began to emerge.
The team had discovered the amazing Deesis panel of Christ – 19.5 feet wide and 13.5 feet tall. The extraordinary quality of the mosaics made a stunning visual impression upon all who saw it.
Today the Christ of the Deesis has become one of the preeminent images of Jesus in the world. Through the whitewash, through the plaster, through the doubt the great mosaic even existed, Christ finally broke through. And how glorious is that!
The great message of Christmas is that through ages of disappointment and darkness, when the bright messages of hope that the prophets of old spoke about the coming day of Messiah and of peace, threatened to flicker, thwarted by the realities of insatiable greed of great empires, Christ broke through.
Christ broke through to us, showing us through his teachings, his healings, and his mighty acts, how different and free the world would be under God’s new management. In fact, in the life and ministry of Jesus that Kingdom of God had dawned. And in his death and resurrection the coming of that Kingdom in full power one day will be realized. Christmas is all about Christ breaking through.
Our Christ had broken through the hopes and promises of Old Testament times, as recorded by Isaiah, the great 8thcentury prophet of Judah:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest…
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness from that time on
and forever. (Isaiah 9:2-7)
Sometimes it seems that our culture has whitewashed and plastered over the reigning Christ.
News reports about fights and arguments breaking out in the mad rush to buy Christmas presents a while ago sickened me almost as much as the decision of so many online retailers to start the buying frenzy in October.
I guess it is even more disgusting than the more conventional Black Friday attempt by some merchants to steal back a chunk out of Thanksgiving Day by holding their door-buster sales before the pumpkin pie was even digested.
It wasn’t just the Ottoman Turks who have tried to plaster over Christ so that he would not be seen during the Feast of Christmas. We do a pretty good job of it ourselves. The Ottomans preferred to cover over Christ with white washed plaster. We prefer, it seems, to use red and green.
Somehow, no matter the number of coats of white-wash or however thick the plaster, if our hearts are opened to him, Christ will break through to us. It may come the moment we hear the line of a familiar Christmas carol such as:
“Son of God, love’s pure light, radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus Christ at thy birth,” or “when peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.”
Or “Sages leave your contemplation, brighter visions beam afar, seek the great Desire of nations, ye have seen the infant’s star.”
Or “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies.” I hear those familiar lines and the plaster begins to fracture away. Christ emerges. Christ cannot be plastered over forever.
Or maybe Christ breaks through to us when we reach out to someone in need or witness an act of kindness. Whenever stranger extends love and mercy to stranger, the faint image of Christ begins to break through.
The Nativity story in the gospels illustrates the surprising ways that grace, love and peace break through to us.
On another tedious night of keeping watch over sheep, joy breaks through to poor shepherds. To the very people who were so used to being dismissed by others as mere menials, the angels announce the birth of the savior. Christ breaks through.
To the aged Anna and Simeon, looking for some ray of hope that Messiah might one day come to bring consolation to Israel, Mary and Joseph present the newborn Jesus. Here he is, Anna! Here he is, Simeon!
Christ breaks through the plaster, the whitewash. Consider the weary sojourners from the East who gazed one night at a distant star and, like Abraham of old, left home and fortune on the long trek in search of its promise, only to find themselves caught up in a treacherous plot of King Herod.
But the story did not end there. The light of the star appeared to them a second time, leading them to Bethlehem, and to the house where the child was. Christ broke through the whitewash once again.
That is our task this Christmas,
to peel off the patina of the Christ we have covered up;
to allow Christ to break through the veneer of a cynical spirit
or the facade of a hardened heart in self-imposed exile.
Joy is waiting to break through.
Christ cannot be covered up for long.
It’s the season to tear away the cracks in the plaster,
to chip away the cultural coating and covering.
Can you see the face emerging?
Don’t be afraid to welcome him.
The real Christ is breaking through to you too!
About the writer:
The Rev. R. Lee Carter, Ph.D., has served as pastor of the North Chapel Hill Baptist Church (Chapel Hill, NC) since 1994. He also is a professor of Religion at William Peace University (Raleigh, NC), and serves as the William C. Bennett Chaplain there. He is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been married to Pamela Weatherly Carter since 1975 and they have two grown children, Jonathan and Christa, two grandsons, Charlie and Sammy, and a granddaughter, Leila.
Scripture and Music:
Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
Come, thou long expected Jesus
Creation sings a new song unto the Lord
Fairest Lord Jesus, Lord of all creation
God’s Son Given
Good Christians All, Rejoice and Sing
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Jesus Loves Me, This I Know
Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Lift up your heads, ye gates!
On Christmas Night All Christians Sing
Sing We Now of Christmas