Christmas Eve/Christmas Day
Isaiah 9:2-7 ;Psalm 96 ;Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-20; John 1:1-14
On Christmas Eve at South Congregational Church, UCC in Centerville, MA on Cape Cod, we typically do an informal, family-oriented version of lessons and carols, with lots of music aimed at an intergenerational congregation, many of whom are visiting relatives and at worship for the first time since last Christmas as well as others whom, frankly, would rather be home playing video games or enjoying Christmas cheer. Since I believe that all preaching and worship is communal and contextual, I take into account the varied audience – all seekers and pilgrims but none strangers – for my Christmas meditation. I believe that each person in attendance is seeking meaning or healing in her or his life. I also believe that God is moving in everyone’s life, “believer” or “seeker,” inviting all of us, even the most bored, to re-discover the “hidden wholeness” that is at the heart of the Christmas season. I also believe that the carols of Christmas need to be affirmed and passed down as a counterpoint to the kitschy music popular music of the season.
Some preachers believe that they have to hit a homerun on Christmas Eve. Others believe they need to proclaim the mysteries – and most of these are incomprehensible to the “nones” and “spiritual but not religious – of Christmas as they elaborate on the incarnation, virgin birth, the supernatural coming of God. Still, more “orthodox” preachers want to connect Christmas with Calvary, or as a billboard in Central Pennsylvania announces, “born to die.” I don’t take any of these paths to Christmas Eve preaching. Of course, I aim at excellence and desire to communicate the deeper messages of the incarnation, but it is the excellence of making Christmas come alive in the experience of those present perhaps not until next year. While moments of grace can be dramatic and a worship service can be life-changing, more often than not grace comes without fanfare and may not even be noticed as it moves through our lives. My hope is to open the door for God’s revelation in the busyness and reveling of the season.
These days, the Isaiah 9 reading seems all too relevant. (I focus on verse 1, 6, and 7, eliminating the other verses in public reading as I will have no time to contextualize them in Israel’s history.) To at least half those present, we have been in a state of national confusion, chaos, and uncertainty, for the past year. Leaders seem to have lost their reason, bloviating about nuclear war like playground bullies; intentionally creating environmentally-destructive programs or eliminating environmental regulations; rolling back gains in human rights and health care; and preferring polarization to community. Our national and planetary future is in doubt. Some have given up altogether, feeling themselves powerless pawns in the machinations of the indifferent, if not, malevolent powers and principalities. We need a light to shine in our darkness. We need images of hope. We need to discover, as Howard Thurman says, the growing edges of personal and institutional spiritual transformation. On Christmas, the hopes and fears of all the years are gathered in a humble stable and in the messiness of our lives.
I move from Isaiah to the synoptic and Johannine Christmas stories, once more emphasizing the messiness and complexity of the first Christmas. The Christmas story is simple and undramatic, repeated in the birth of every child. But, the birth of every child is testimony to God’s growing edge and hope in the darkness. Moreover, this child, born in Bethlehem, changes everything and gives birth to a new season of human history. Divinity coming to a working class family who have nowhere to stay. Christmas is about unlikely incarnations, not only in Bethlehem but in our own lives. God comes to the places that hurt most and that are most troubled in our world. God comes to the undocumented workers and their “dreamer” children, Syrian refugees, persons experiencing homelessness, and God comes to us. John’s Gospel goes even further to proclaim that the true light enlightens everyone – yes, everyone without exception – and that includes black lives matter protesters, frightened white males supporting Trump and Moore, justice-seekers and corporate moguls. As Titus and John both note, salvation is possible for everyone. The “Christmas magic,” touted by television holiday shows is not just the kiss under the mistletoe but the transformed heart and lifestyle we see in Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey, and our own world-weary and wintry spirits.
I keep in mind the joyful messiness of Christmas, the presence of the Infinite in the finite, and God in humankind, but most of all I share this good news through a story – a story about fallible humans who, having been touched by an angel, seek all the rest of their lives to live up to God’s revealing presence. At Christmas, we are the characters – we are unkempt and weary shepherds, privileged magi, anxious political leaders, and harried parents. We are the Christ-child, albeit metaphorical, in the sense that God has a dream for us. There is a chance for all of us to hear the message, be transformed, and go forth illumined by what we’ve experienced.
The mood of Christmas I seek to convey is hopeful intimacy and wondrous incarnation. I want to open the door to the holiness in every life and the radical amazement of a world in which God takes flesh right where we are to bring us hope and salvation. (For more on the Christmas season, see my book “The Work of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Howard Thurman.”)