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It’s entirely appropriate to celebrate Christmas with light during what for us are the shortest days of the year. I’ve said that I love this service and for how it always reminds me of John’s words in his telling of the Christmas story- “A light has shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” We sit with light and dark. With the everyday and the holy. With hopes and fears. We sit at the place where all of these things meet in the person of Jesus.
I have to say I’m really really glad to be able to come to worship together on Christmas Eve; to stop in all the frenzied activity that for so many defines the season. I read someone say recently that they’re not sure how much rejoicing goes on at Christmas. Lots of frolicking for sure but how much rejoicing? How much sitting with deep joy?
So I’m glad we have the chance to sit, particularly with Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. Many of the traditions which we love and with which we’re so familiar are not here. I realize I’m on potentially dangerous ground here and by no means am I one to decry tradition. On this year’s Christmas episode of “Abbot Elementary” (a show set in a primary school in Philadelphia) Jacob Hill, a young teacher (who is a well meaning but annoying advocate for social justice) inserts himself into a Christmas Lunch celebration/tradition put on by two of his fellow veteran teachers, Barbara and Melissa. He proceeds throughout the dinner to tell them everything that is wrong about Christmas, from the consumerism to the co-opting of pagan rituals. Barbara and Melissa end up suddenly feeling the need to get some air, despite the fact that it’s below zero outside (because it gets cold in Philadelphia too).
I don’t want to be a Christmas Crank tonight of all nights. I do want us to notice how things are stripped away in our story. There are no animals mentioned. No ox and donkey looking lovingly down at the manger. There’s no little drummer boy accompanying the shepherds (or sheep for that matter). There’s no heavenly glow at the birth scene (though there’s certainly a glow in nearby fields). There’s no description of a bleak midwinter night. There is a manger. There is Jesus and his family. There are shepherds and angels. There is praise. There is pondering.
I’m glad for the chance to ponder. That much loved carol talks about a town that lies still; that sleeps a deep and dreamless sleep. Our reality is much different isn’t it? I wonder if anyone went out shopping today (or maybe last Saturday). People searching for the perfect gift. People arguing over parking spots. People planning gatherings. People who are wondering where their hopes and fears are going to be met. What is it that we hope for? What is it that we fear? We’re all aware of forces at work in our world which are beyond our control. There is something or someone to whom we answer – jobs, the market, families, influence (influencers), sports, entertainment, mindless distraction… Imperial forces were at work in the lives of Mary and Joseph. The force to whom everyone was answerable was that of Rome. The Emperor Augustus mentioned in the first line of the story. The saviour of the world, as he was known. The one who brought peace to the empire. But at what cost? Which brings the question – where do we look for peace, and at what cost? In our story, we have a figure who lays in direct opposition to false claims of peace bringing – to false claims of power to which all else must bow. The figure has been laid in a manger. Mary and Joseph had heard the announcement. They accepted the announcement. They had set out on a journey together, trusting. They struggled together to find a space in a busy and distracted world.
They found the space. May we be like them. I’m thankful for the opportunity to find space such as this. Space to ponder. Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. Someone has said “… God’s activity in the world, in its mystery and surprise, sometimes requires discernment that is achieved only with difficulty, even among those specially favored by God.” A lot of our frenetic activity over the past weeks has been about us. This story reminds us that the story in which we are invited to live is not primarily about us. This story is centred on what God is doing, and can’t be reduced to our own expectations (great or small as they may be), or our own traditions even. This story reminds us of the one whom we are invited to make our centre, and it is most definitely by design that the Christ candle sits in the middle of the Advent wreath. The still point of the turning world; let us cease from all our strivings and adore. Jesus – “The Lord is salvation.” Emmanuel – “God is with us.” God lives and God gives in order that we might be brought back to Him, made whole, forgiven, made new.
Made watchful. The shepherds are sometimes thought of as lazy or drowsy, which gave rise, no doubt to carols like “Shepherds, Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep.” They weren’t lazy, they were hard at work. In the night. In the darkness. They were watching. In that watching they were ready to greet the heavens bursting open and God bursting through. I wonder if Jesus was hearing echoes of the story of his birth that his mother might have told him when he would tell his followers years later, “Be alert at all times, praying…” Be watchful. Be alert.
We talked about signs last Sunday. Seeing signs of the holy, of God in the seeming mundane (and I say “seeming” as in a world in which the Word was made flesh, is anything really simply mundane?). May we be watchful for signs of God’s activity around us. There is nothing extraordinary about a child wrapped in bands of cloth – it was common practice to make sure the little baby’s limbs would straighten. There was something unusual about a child being found in a manger – a place where animals were nourished. I don’t want us to miss this tonight. The shepherds come to praise “God is with us” in a place where animals come to eat. The one who is called the Word of Life will later on call himself the Bread of Life, and we will gather around to praise him and adore him and to eat.
So may our gathering around His table be a sign of our praise and adoration as we ponder the wonder of “God is with us.” The place where hopes and fears, sorrow and joy, are met as God reconciles us to Himself. The manger is not the end of the story. More of the story is told by poet Richard Wilbur. As we close, let us listen to his “Christmas Hymn”:
A stable-lamp is lighted Whose glow shall wake the sky; The stars shall bend their voices, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, And straw like gold shall shine; A barn shall harbor heaven, A stall become a shrine.
This child through David’s city Shall ride in triumph by; The palm shall strew its branches, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, Though heavy, dull, and dumb, And lie within the roadway To pave his kingdom come.
Yet he shall be forsaken, And yielded up to die; The sky shall groan and darken, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry For stony hearts of men: God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s love refused again.
But now, as at the ending, The low is lifted high; The stars shall bend their voices, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry In praises of the child By whose descent among us The worlds are reconciled.