Christmas Eve, 2015
According to a recent survey, while only 18% of Americans attend church on an given ordinary Sunday, that percentage swells to 47% who attend a church service on Christmas week. With the possible exception of Easter, more people have attended more Christmas services than any given Sunday service. More people have heard more Christmas carols than any other single sort of hymn. More people have heard more Christmas homilies than any other one subject of preaching. So as I stand here this evening I ask, “What. is left. to say?”
Persistently pondering that particular pickle over the past couple weeks, I finally turned to that unending source of fresh perspectives, children. “Girls, I need to talk to you,” I said. Things became suddenly and suspiciously quiet and all gazes were averted while the children in question visibly searched their memories for a possible source of whatever trouble they might be in. “No, no, not that kind of talk,” I hastened to reassure them. “I get to do the Christmas Eve service this year. What do you think I should say?”
By virtue of my day job (and my occasional middle-of-the-night job), my kids have led a somewhat odd existence. Faced with Labor Day vacation from school, they focused their joy not on the marvelous prospect of having a day off, but rather on, “Mumma, Mumma, Labor Day….does that mean lots of babies will be born today?”
“So, kids, it’s Christmas Eve, what should I talk about?” “Isn’t this the day that Mary had Jesus?” Yep, this is that day. I expected burbling and bubbling about babies and cuteness and light from the star, warm cozy straw, and lowing cattle. Instead I heard hesitation and then disgust and then “O Mother! You are NOT going to talk about her labor, are you?”
Having been calmed by reassurance of a complete lack of biblical source from which to draw detailed stories of Mary’s birthing experience – “and she gave birth” is pretty much all the play it gets, my children’s pronouncement came – “Well, it’s Christmas. There’s really only one story to tell, isn’t there?”
Jesus is the Reason for the Season! proclaim the banners – all in capital letters, shouting their message – and so He is, but what is the reason for Jesus?
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright observed that when you try to point something out to a dog, the dog watches your finger – missing the “thing” altogether.
Christmas comes. When we can draw ourselves away from the sales and the glitter and the hullabaloo, we concentrate on the swaddling clothes, the shockingly friendly livestock, the manger transformed over centuries of sentimental imagination into a crib of warm, sweet-smelling hay. The stable in our minds seems suffused with a golden glow – perhaps the light emanating from the choirs of angels. In our urgency to cling to the bright golden glow of Christmas sentiment, we risk missing the point of the Christ child altogether.
Luke takes great pains to describe the setting and time of Jesus’s birth. A time of Roman oppression, of darkness and fear for the people He came to dwell among. “The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light.”
Joseph was saddled with obligation, to an oppressive government, to his future bride, to his God making incomprehensible demands. Mary was far from home and family, in a stable with the livestock – pregnant, out of wedlock and laboring. “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
“The shepherds were despised by the orthodox good people of the day. Shepherds were quite unable to keep the details of the ceremonial law; they could not observe all the meticulous hand washings and rules and regulations. Their flocks made far too constant demands on them; and so the orthodox looked down on them as very common people.” (Barclay, p. 17) “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them” – unto YOU a child is born….
We live in a world of darkness, of violence, of hunger – all outcasts by another’s standards, all sometimes lonely, or lost, or frightened, or wandering. “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.” The promise of Christmas lies, not in the sweetness of the baby, not in the serene smile of His mother, but in God among us, born into the gritty, real, cold, lonely places of our hearts and lives. It is a promise of hope, a promise of relationship, a promise of light, a promise of life.
It is Christmas. There really is only one story to tell, isn’t there? “and the story we tell each other as Christians at this time of the year, is a story that in the middle of everything else, God comes and is with us in all of that. In the questions, the pain, the sadness, the difficulty, the longing and the looking, the fragility and insecurity. Identifying with it, taking it on, sharing it with us and bringing light in that darkness through love and compassion, welcoming us into the life the son brings.” (Anneke Oppewal, private communication, Midrash).
That is the mystery. That is the miracle. That is Christ among us.