A Christmas Eve Reflection
By The Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 24, 2014
University Baptist Church
What can a preacher say on this night of nights that is not already said in the music, in the drama, in the scripture readings? Why do we go through these rituals every Christmas Eve? Do we cynically see it as an archaic backdrop for the real event, the exchange of gifts? There are so many holiday responsibilities that it’s hard to even etch out an hour or so to get to church.
But we do it anyway.
We need to hear the story again.
We need to sing the carols.
We need to be taken back to that hillside where the shepherds heard the angels tell them good news of great joy.
We need to wonder at the manger scene where the savior of the world’s first roommates are sheep and cows.
We need to look to the star and imagine what it might be like to follow the best of our dreams and visions.
We need to sing lullabies by candlelight, hot wax dripping and hardening on our fingers.
Who cares if it’s not snowing outside, it’s Christmas.
Christmas comes to a messy world.
It comes to the world where there are wars and rumors of wars.
It comes to the world in which people continue to have to travel great distances on the whims of political leadership.
It comes as people find their voices and protest unfair treatment.
And it comes even as deranged individuals take out revenge on property and even kill to make a twisted point. We gather here on this night of nights and remember the ancient lesson that we have not quite learned. That violence begets violence, fear begets fear, grief begets grief, an endless cycle until we choose differently. And it is still into this world that God comes, smuggled in far from the seats of power. Exuding a new Power. A Power that will have us look at the world with new or enlightened eyes.
Magic is in the air. Reindeer fly. Oil lasts. A homeless baby is born and people notice. If we pay attention, that magic can last beyond the wrapping paper and the eggnog. It can and should inform and transform who we are. We are people who believe that God can intervene in our little lives and wake us up. And the visions of sugarplums become the vision of peace on earth. Where lives matter, Black lives, Asian lives, refugee lives, white lives, native lives, police lives, homeless people’s lives, immigrant lives, they all matter. God surprised the world on Christmas and came not to the elite, not to the temple, not to the rich and powerful, but to one on the margins. A bedraggled family far from home. And God said, “this is how I come into the world.”
As we gather with families reunited and memories stirred, we also think of families that have been torn apart. The first Christmas has a lot more to do with families torn apart than it does with family togetherness. As the drama goes, the holy family is shut out and shunned, even by their own kin. The government thinks that they are a threat and they barely escape an ethnic cleansing. They are refugees and suspect and from the wrong part of town and alone. The three of them: far from home, in fear for their lives, wandering, wondering, hoping, praying. Then magic happens. God sends them shepherds, Magi and even angels to guide them. Buoyed by this support, they are a force to reckon with. This trio held it together and paved the way for all of us seekers of hope and peace on earth.
Who is your holy family this Christmas?
Who stands by you and points you toward a new tomorrow?
Who will not forsake you?
Who will pull you through? That’s what we celebrate on Christmas. It’s the holy family that is gathered, and they meet new companions: shepherds and angels and magi. Strangers who support them and these strangers are a part of God’s family working their part in the miracle.
I like what Martin Copenhaver, president of Andover Newton Theological seminary said about this Christmas magic:
On Christmas cards and in Christmas pageants the shepherds are portrayed as gentle keepers of the pastoral scene. But the reality of their lives was much harder and rougher. They were working men on the night shift, like cowboys in the Marlboro country around Bethlehem.
Shepherds were looked down upon because they could not keep the routine of hand washing and other forms of ritual cleanliness that were so much a part of Jewish law. Also, since sheep do not keep the Sabbath, neither could shepherds. So they stayed out of town, in part, because good people would not associate with them.
And yet the news of Jesus’ birth announced precisely here--not in a palace or a temple, not where things are bright and beautiful, not to good people, or to whomever might be considered the right people. As surprising as this would have been at the time, in retrospect it seems entirely fitting because Jesus is always showing up in the most unlikely places and associating with the most surprising people…
If you are far from home or feel distant from those who are very near, if there is more tension than cheer in the air, if you are exhausted, or feel a letdown, or if in any other way this feels like an unlikely place for Jesus to show up--pay particular attention. Hark! Because Jesus is always showing up in unlikely places, including perhaps the most unlikely place of all--our own lives.
And so we tell the stories again, hoping, praying that we get it this time. We sing the carols hoping that their melodies and poetry will unlock a place in our hearts where God is trying to get in.
And we wait for the good news to break forth just like that beauteous heavenly light. And we see with clear eyes our place in God’s family.