In the name of God who gathers us together, comes to us and dwells with us: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
It is a great joy to welcome you all to this celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Christmas Eve, even as we gather in a very different way from the many Christmas Eves of our lives. Humorist author and storyteller Garrison Keillor says that a lovely thing about Christmas is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together. I found that very meaningful because it is also true of this time of COVID-19 and how life has been altered.
Yet, in all of it, we here are together on this holy night to recall an event that changed the history of our world. We’re thousands of years removed from the Christmas card image of a little town called Bethlehem, a brilliant star, amazed shepherds, snow-covered hillsides (in Israel, no less!), and a new-born lying in a manger and warmed by the breath of animals.
We’ve come to the end of a year that has brought uncertainty, anxiety, and weariness, profound loss and grief, to many lives. We’ve seen the damage and loss caused by the worst health crisis in a century, a horrendous hurricane season and devastating wild fires. We will for a long time have memories of national and political division, images of crowds seething with hatred and the evil of racism which tear at the fabric of our nation’s heart. For many this year, Christmas may be just one more day to struggle through it all. So, what makes this night different? Why such a holy night? What is the reality of Christmas?
Three years ago, Michael Gerson, addressing that question, wrote in The Washington Post that “by any standard, this is an odd scenario for the entrance of divinity—to an occupied country, of disputed parentage, forced to flee as a refugee, living and working thirty years in silence, eventually betrayed by a friend, judicially tortured and dying in utter abandonment. On a small planet, near an average star.
“But this form of arrival does something important. It dusts off and reclaims every aspect of human experience and reorients our sense of low and high, weak and powerful. It is poverty given preference. It is the possibility of transcendence breaking in on any day.”
What is the reality of Christmas? Some artists have painted this night with deep sentimentality and royal elegance. Yet the truth of this night is that God came down to us in the form of a baby who hungered for his mother’s milk, soiled the swaddling clothes, and may even have had a case of colic. Jesus was born on a dirt floor in a place that was dark and cold and reeked of manure. He came from the boondocks of the boondocks; he and his mother and father were likely considered throw away people. In today’s scale of economy they would be regarded as below poverty level.
And consider those shepherds, rough and ready guys who alternated between drinking strong wine and uttering colorful curses. They stank like the sheep they tended. Socially speaking, they were “nobodies”—poor, illiterate, and totally crude.
What is the reality of Christmas? Our Christmas card fantasies are miles away from the truth of this little family who looked more like Syrian refugees than the well-fed actors who portray them in films. Given his unremarkable birthplace, the lowly place in societal order which he had and the struggles of his family life, it should be no surprise then that Jesus would grow to have such great compassion for the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the ostracized and the stranger.
What is the reality of Christmas? That the riffraff of society— tipsy, smelly shepherds— were the first beneficiaries of the joyful news of the Messiah’s birth and commissioned to be witnesses of it. That Mary, little more than a teenager, had plenty of her own fears on that first Christmas night not the least of which was that she was an unwed mother in a culture that shunned women in that predicament and lived in a time when terrorism was as real and dangerous as it is for us. And that Joseph probably wondered what in the world he had gotten himself into.
Not very romantic is it? That’s certainly not a Hallmark kind of Christmas. The irony is that it’s kind of refreshing to know that God would come into our world as a baby born in squalor and in poverty, simplicity, and messiness. And, in spite of it all, tonight is a night when right before our eyes the ordinary becomes sacred.
This little bundle about as heavy as a sack of flour is what God decided to look like and all for the love of you and me and for the love of all creation. Tonight is a time when the curtain between heaven and earth is so thin that you can almost see right through it.
The reality of Christmas is that our broken world today is not all that much different from the world into which Jesus was born for us. He came into that time and place and comes to us today to enliven our thinking, enable our own lives of grace, and make us deeply attentive to the needs of others.
If we look beyond the romanticized images of Christmas that give us warm fuzzy feelings, and beyond messy details of that first Christmas, we will find that what God has done through the birth of Jesus is to rouse and sustain in us an unlikely hope—that somehow love is at the heart of all things. What we celebrate this night is that the incarnate Word of God comes into our broken, often inhuman world to be with us, offering us strength to work for peace and justice, helping us to bear witness to God’s presence in our lives and to know we are beloved and blessed.
On this holy night, a voice is speaking—can we hear it? In the words of psalm 47, it says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” “I know the cares and the anxious thoughts of your hearts. I know the hard time you have endured this year. I know the hopes and ambitions that you have for yourselves and for others. I know your doubts, too—even as you seek to express your belief.”
“On this sacred night, I want you to know: You are deeply, deeply loved. So, I’m speaking to you in the only way I know—from a stable, as a child born into poverty, soon to grow to maturity, born to show you, in a human life, the love of God.”
Here then is the reality of Christmas: Wherever the hungry are fed, the homeless are sheltered, the poor are cared for, the marginalized and outcast are welcomed, the abused are brought to safety, the disheartened are given hope, and people are reconciled with one another through God’s grace, there is the Incarnation, of God-with-us.
He speaks through those all around us. He looks at us through the eyes of store clerks and school children. He reaches out to us with the hands of the homeless and the wealthy. He walks with the feet of the soldier and the addict. With the lonely and grieving he longs for a tender embrace. With the heart of all those who are in need, he asks us to give him food and shelter. And it is these simple yet extraordinary ways that God takes on flesh and dwells among us and is born again