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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

Christmas Eve


“I remember standing in the crypt of the small church in Bethlehem.  We had been driven there in an Arab bus by Arab guides through the shuttered towns that lay between Jerusalem and Bethlehem to one of the central shrines of the Christian world, the place, where stories told, Jesus had been born. 

 

Streets were empty, the shops closed, window displays covered with metal blinds. Roadblocks were set up at strategic points along the road.  The city had been empty of tourists for days. In the public square, Jewish soldiers sat in jeeps mounted with machine guns.  It was passion on both sides and determination everywhere. Every muscle in my body was tight. This place could explode at any moment.”

 

This account was written in 2005 by Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and author of many books. Fast forward to Christmas Eve, 2023, there will be no services tonight at that crypt in the little church in Bethlehem in Gazza. There are no tourists only suffering women, men and children. The place has exploded since October 7. There is no “peace on earth, good will,” at least in the foreseeable future. Christmas in Bethlehem today is cancelled.

 

Every Christmas Eve has followed a span of twelve months that may have generated personal and global prosperity, unexpected illness, financial crisis, another war, hope for peace, a new relationship, a lost relationship, unemployment, a new job, the death of a loved one, the birth of a baby. 

 

I don’t know where any of us land in all this after the past twelve months, but I want to acknowledge that for everyone here today this may or may not have been the best of years and the joy you hoped to feel this Christmas may or may not be as present. Tension, depression, and violence and the unravelling of the world don’t disappear during the Christmas season—they may even increase. Yet we want this night to be different. Here it is Christmas Eve.

 

Life can be messy. And so can Christmas. Isn’t that the way it was that holy night? We tend to look for God in the nicest of places, the clean and the warm. Meanwhile, God appears in a stable surrounded by animals and simple, dumbstruck shepherds. It seems so easy to be swept into a nostalgic state with rose-colored images of Christmas, the holy family dressed in silks and velvets, surrounded by shepherds fresh from the shower, animals spruced up for the show, and angels pink and plump like the well-fed offspring of European nobility.

 

But this baby was born into a shockingly bad world where narcissistic kings raged, wickedness flourished, babies were murdered, and women and children were regarded as third-class citizens. Artists throughout the centuries 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.

 

This baby was born in a place that was dark and cold and stank of manure. The only witnesses were shepherds who looked like homeless people. No trumpets, no fanfare, no attendants. This little bundle about as heavy as a sack of flour is what God decided to look like and all out of a profound love for us and the whole world.


So, if our Christmas plans have gone even a little askew, if life is for us right now a bit untidy, even somewhat tattered, we have only to look at of that first Christmas to know that God often works that way. Tonight, we find a real child, a belching, crying infant. Here is the God who chose to enter our world in an ordinary way and, by that choice, hallowed flesh and blood, dirt and sky, and every aspect of life as we know it. For tonight is a night when right before our eyes the ordinary becomes holy.


We are gathered to celebrate and proclaim what is unique to Christianity alone: that God has become one of us. In this tiny one, suckling at his mother’s breast, unable to open his eyes, is the enfleshment of God, God’s ultimate self-disclosure, God’s ultimate risk-taking, God’s brilliant exclamation point to the promise “You are loved!”


The miracle of this night is not lost in first century Bethlehem but is here with us. Today we celebrate that God is alive and at work in our world, that Christ is born again and again when we hold the lives of others in our hearts.


Sister Joan continues her reflection this way: “I looked across the hillsides that surrounded the village in the church.  I tried to imagine David and his sheep, a young man and his pregnant wife, a band of angels and a human birth.


The angels and the stable, the donkey and the sheep I did not care about. What affected me deeply, however, was the thought of the birth.


“Somewhere, somehow, Jesus of Nazareth had been born here, in the same kind of environment that existed here today into a culture where people were strangers in their own lands and soldiers walked the streets to control them.  If Jesus was born into this, and brought the presence of God into its midst and changed the attitudes in the heart of it, then so could we.  So must we.”


And that is, dear ones, the hope and miracle of Christmas.


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