God’s Continuing Gift, Christmas Eve – 2010
December 24, 2010
On this holy night, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who, according to Luke, was born in Bethlehem, in a stable, because the town was full of out-of-town visitors who had come to pay their taxes. But if you look around, you will see that we’ve made much more of this celebration than the observance of a simple birth story.
This time of year is profoundly fraught with multi-layered meanings; family traditions; economic success for merchants; in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice; the pause between the end of the lunar year and the longer solar year; and our year-end tendency to want to evaluate this year before embarking on another. All these things, along with a group of fictional stories like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, find their way into our consciousness, our decorations, our gift-buying habits, our parties, and into our expectations. Our culture treats Christmas with massively sentimental attention. We watch Hallmark specials on TV, we resurrect “A Christmas Carol” with its ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; and we long for our families to match these sentimental visions. We can even get sentimental over a puny little Christmas tree, like the one in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
None of this is bad. Traditions instruct us, delight us, and remind us of our values. But Christmas trees and Rudolph don’t have anything to do with the birth of a Savior. What is this story meant to tell us? If we really want to look at Christmas past, imagine the morning after Jesus is born:
The stable is full of animals. The cow is loudly asking to be milked. The straw smells like animal dung and the funk of childbirth. Stunned and exhausted new parents wake up to an entirely different reality from yesterday: there’s a baby in their lives now. They rub their eyes: were those really angels making all that noise last night? And what about those shepherds – they found us in this dim little stable because, they said, a host of angels showed them the way. The new life lying in the straw between them is somehow the cause of all the commotion. True, every baby is a miracle, but this baby – Mary and Joseph can’t stop staring at him, touching him, holding him, like any new parents – they know that God has plans for this baby, and they’re a little afraid.
We often regard this sweet scene through a Hallmark-special fuzzy lens, as though it were only about another sweet baby. But this nativity scene, the morning after the dazzling holy night, isn’t just the end of Mary’s pregnancy and the start of a new family. The baby in the manger is none other than Emmanuel, God with us. The people who walked in darkness have, indeed, seen a great light – and we’re not just talking about the shepherds and the star. The light emanating from this sleepy domestic scene is the light of God, come to be with us, come to dwell in us, come to transform us. The response of faithful people to this new reality is to learn from Jesus, to emulate Jesus, to become bringers of God’s light ourselves. We celebrate the gift that God has given to us in Jesus when we subvert oppression, especially in the life-affirming ways that Jesus employed – by teaching, healing, giving voice and vision to those who have been in darkness. The work of Christmas begins, but does not end, tonight.
One of the best-loved of all Christmas hymns is “Joy to the world.” Listen to the first verse, where we sing “the Lord is come” – very much like the memorial acclamation in the Eucharist, when we say “Christ is risen.” “The Lord is come” says that Jesus comes to us here and now, not only on that first Christmas 2,000 years ago. The universe shifted the moment that Jesus was born, shifted toward the reality of God’s presence in and with and for God’s creation. We are faced with the task as Christians of making real that revolutionary love, here and now, in the time and place we belong to. Christmas present should look different and better than Christmas past.
The other part of the first verse of “Joy to the world” that challenges us is this: “let every heart prepare him room.” How have you made room for the living Christ amid the busy shopping days and decorating and parties? The only way for us to “prepare him room” that matters to the world is when we make room for Jesus to challenge us and change us, to develop us and transform us into Christ’s own hands and feet and strength and love for this time and place. To “prepare him room” means giving up some of our attachment to having a “perfect Christmas,” one that touches all our personal buttons and fulfills every tradition and wish. To prepare him room means, perhaps, less retail and more giving; less concern about having a perfect dinner table and more feeding the hungry; less decorating and more real celebration of who Jesus is, the one who is always being born in our hearts and who desires always to be with us.
Christmas doesn’t end tomorrow. Christmas doesn’t end with Epiphany, or Lent, or Easter; Christmas is God’s continuing gift of God’s presence with us, and Christmas is our challenge to prepare room in our hearts, and in our lives.
So what about Christmas future?
As we pack up our ornaments for another year, fill the garage with boxes labeled “Christmas,” think about how your life in January and February can continue the work of Christmas. As you pull the tinsel off the tree and put away the Frosty the Snowman videos, imagine who is lost, who is hungry, who needs peace in March and April. When the shepherds are back with their flock in the box, remember their surprise and joy, and find someplace to offer the song of the angels to someone who needs it in June.
Howard Thurman puts it this way in his poem “The Work of Christmas”:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
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