The Adventurous Lectionary – Christmas Eve and Day , December 24/25, 2016
Christmas Eve is a challenge for preachers. And, this year, so is Christmas Day.
Christmas Eve is perhaps the best-attended worship service in the Christian year. Family members and visitors who don’t normally attend church show up not only as a matter of obligation to their parents, but also hoping to experience wonder amid the bells, carols, and candle lighting. Self-described spiritual but not religious persons may show up in church in quest of something more meaningful than their own non-institutional, individualistic spirituality. On Christmas Eve, some may even give the church one more chance to show itself as authentic, beautiful, and welcoming in light of their previous experiences of exclusion and intolerance. This is a time for experiential faith – for recalling the glow of childhood and the marvel of a newborn – not didactic preaching. This is both a challenge, and good news for the preacher. We need to avoid the temptation “to hit one out of the park” and wow the visitors.” Our best hope to make a difference is to be the preacher we are, and not some super preacher or prince or princess of the pulpit, but to live out our faith personally and accessibly.
As the pastor explores the Christmas texts, he or she needs to be liberated from outworn dogma and catechesis, most of which will mean nothing to the congregation, and to awaken to incarnations in the least likely places of our lives and ministries. The adventurous preacher needs to speak to the seeker in each of us, whether we are churchgoers or refugees from institutional religion.
Christmas Day presents a different kind of challenge. It falls on a Sunday this year and the crowds of Christmas Eve will be opening presents, recovering from hangovers, or enjoying a leisurely brunch. Most likely attendance will be down from last Sunday. Yet this is a day of celebration and affirmation of joy, the joy of incarnation, of God in our midst, that lasts a lifetime.
Christmas takes us beyond doctrine to experience the light of the world shining in a manger and in ourselves. I typically add the Prologue from John to my Christmas reflections. Joining the story of Jesus’ birth with the John’s Prologue brings together the macrocosm and microcosm, the universality of the incarnation and the personal moments of spiritual birthing, to transform our lives and the world.
John’s Gospel speaks to us from the world of the academy. John paints on the broadest canvas possible: galaxies, stars, suns, and emerging planets burst forth in John. Divine Word and Wisdom, Logos and Sophia, move through all things. Without beginning in its artistry, the Wisdom and Word of God artfully creates the cosmos. All things shine through the divine artistry. Every human is enlightened by God. Salvation is focused on God’s Wisdom and Word in Jesus, uniting male and female, and human and non-human, and then spirals forth to give light to every human. No one is left out of God’s plan of salvation. God is born in you and me. God is with us in our sometimes awkward family reunions and in the weary travelers who make it home for Christmas.
Theophanies, appearances of God, can appear in the most unlikely places. Marginalized shepherds are visited by angels, overwhelmed by their “Hallelujahs” and raised to full humanity as God’s beloved children. Despite their fear and awe, and their obvious poverty, they rush to Bethlehem to give homage to the newborn and his parents. In some ways, the stable was familiar to the shepherds; but its familiarity is the source of their wonder. Perhaps, they ask themselves, “How can God come to so simple and ordinary place? How can God come to people like us?”
The incarnation occurs in a smelly stable: nothing is too ordinary or unimportant for God. Incarnations everywhere: in a working class family living in an occupied land; in a tired mother unable to find a place to give birth; in lower class shepherds; and in us in our joy and sorrow.
The universal emerges in the personal. God is coming to us within the moments of our lives, not as an external supernatural force, but as the deepest truth within. At Christmas, we invite God to be born in us; Christ is the image of hope for the seeker within us and the seeker beyond the church. Christ is nothing like what we expected: he is with us, in us, and beyond us, guiding us by his love and light.