December 24, 2009 Christmas Eve
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given . . . . So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
Nativity, Lorenzo Lotto, 1523
Dear friends, a word of welcome on this holy night. I know we gather from near and far, old friends and new. Grace and peace to all, expansively, wide as the universe tonight. And a prayer that the holy Word of God spoken first in that Bethlehem stable may now be spoken in our hearts and in our lives, with tenderness and gentleness, kindness, compassion, and generosity. A prayer that the Light of God that first shone that holy night may now be for us a light to bring healing and strength, clarity, and a sense of purpose and direction. In the name of Jesus, born for us all, grace and peace.
Thinking this year about how we get there. How we get to Bethlehem.
For Mary and Joseph, of course—we know the story. The census and the requirement to return to the ancestral city. The long road from Nazareth in the Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. Many miles, and perhaps with some real danger for those on the road after sunset. And this, the last hard night. Mary beginning her labor, the effort to find a place to stay—until finally there is this simple shelter. Anxiety, and then relief. At least off the street and protected from the cold wind.
For the Shepherds, the song of the angels sends them running from the hills into the village, to see this wonderful thing. I know I go for my morning run up in Highland Park while it’s still dark most of the year, and even on pavement or on well-marked trails, and with streetlights, that can be dangerous. I’ve had a few falls over the years—a rock or a pothole, or in the winter sliding on ice. No streetlights where the shepherds were, and probably no trails, until they got nearer town. Just a mad scramble down hillsides and across meadows. Slipping, sliding, falling in a scramble, then up again, breathless. Sailing along in their excitement, in their eagerness to be a part of something more dazzling and more glorious than they had ever thought possible. “Come, let us see if what the Angel told us is true.”
I think of the Magi too. They aren’t really a part of the Christmas Eve scene, but the crèche isn’t really complete without them. Even now, this night, in their distant land, they are studying the skies. Even now they see the first light of the star. They are consulting the ancient manuscripts of prophesy, making plans, getting ready for the journey. A journey that would be not days or weeks. Many months, certainly, and perhaps years before they would see home and family again. Hundreds of miles, across ancient trade routes, over mountains, across deserts. Setting out—if not tonight, then soon, very soon. Like the shepherds, their minds racing. Their hearts full. Excitement. Wonder.
All of us, drawn here tonight. Which is kind of amazing, when you think about it. Not just because the weather forecast was a little iffy. It has been such a hard year for so many. The Great Recession, of course. Can’t think of a family that hasn’t been affected in some way. The continuation of war—families with dad or mom deployed away at Christmas, and we remember them very much tonight in our prayers with love and respect. In this long season of conflict. The struggle to deal with brokenness and polarization and social and political uneasiness. A time of so many losses. And of course in so many personal ways. Certainly here in this parish this has been a year when we’ve lost some good and much loved friends. As I know is true in many of our families also. And there is the continuing story of loss even in the life of the Church.
I’ve heard more than one person over the past month or so say that it just seems kind of hard to find the energy for Christmas this year. And who can blame them? The excitement of the shepherds, the enthusiasm of the Magi, even the humble strength and determination of Joseph and Mary. That all may feel a little abstract, a little distant this evening. We nod in the right direction, for the kids maybe. But the underlying feeling is that we need to get back to reality.
With all that, let me just say that wherever we are this evening, I have a prayer for us. Because the reality is that nobody ever gets to Bethlehem on his or her own strength. Mary had Gabriel to break the news. Joseph had his dream. The shepherds heard the angels. Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory be to God on high. The Magi saw the star. The point is not for us to dig deep or work harder at it. The point is that we would open our eyes and our ears, our minds, our hearts, the fullness of our imaginations, and let God speak to us and reveal himself to us, just as he did to them. Whether by visions on the hillside or signs in the heavens or dreams in the night. To let him be the fuel that moves us forward, the wind that fills our sails. That moves us from the place where we are, and puts us on the road toward Bethlehem. We don’t earn our way there. We can’t force our way. For all the shopping and decorating and carol singing, Christmas is fundamentally, and at its heart, not something we make happen. Not a product of our best efforts. Rolling up our sleeves.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
The Lord Jesus is born. Two thousand years ago. In Bethlehem. And the story began. His life, his perfect words of peace and hope, his perfect kindness. Word made flesh, among us, full of grace and truth. His manger. His cross. His resurrection. The Lord Jesus is born, the baby lying there in the straw. The Blessed Mother sings him softly to sleep.
And it is for us. All for us. For our healing, for our joy. For our renewal, in this life and in the life to come. To be our hope, our present, our future. God with us, Emmanuel. At the altar tonight, God with us. In the heavens above us, God with us. In the songs of the angels, echoing around us. In our dreams. In the quiet spaces and back corners of our minds and our hearts. Where every road can take us. Grace and peace, that the holy Word of God spoken first in that Bethlehem stable may now be spoken in our hearts and in our lives, with tenderness and gentleness, kindness, compassion, and generosity. That he may be born in us, tonight, and live in us forever.
Blessings, and Merry Christmas!