Christmas Eve: December 24, 2013 (10:30 p.m. service)
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
It’s finally here. Merry Christmas to you all – I am delighted to see you here tonight.
Christmas hits us all in different ways. Some of us can’t wait for November to roll around – we know that as soon as we can get Halloween out of the way, the stores will replace the orange and black with green and red, and the holiday will commence. Two months of Christmas cheer is just fine with those of us that love this holiday.
But others of us may dread this time of year—perhaps because of its association with sad events of the past, or because the person with whom you most enjoyed celebrating the holiday is no longer here. Maybe you’ve heard of “Blue Christmas” services, created especially for those for whom the holiday is difficult. Christmas can be very hard if you are in pain. For those of you who find yourself in a place like this, please know that my prayers are with you.
I find myself somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum. As a kid, I absolutely loved Christmas. I couldn’t get enough. But the magic has leaked out a bit over the years. The stress of the holiday often robs me of the joy I’d like to feel. I feel like I’m searching for something that I’ve lost.
As many of you know, Don and I are Texans. I remember a time a couple of years ago when we back to Texas in mid-December, to spend a little holiday time with family and reconnect. About halfway through that trip I realized that I was looking everywhere for that old warm feeling for Christmas that I remembered as a child growing up there in central Texas.
I looked everywhere—through downtown San Antonio, on TV, and in the malls and stores. In the case of Texas, of course, these were HUGE stores, almost overwhelming in their scale and treasures. One day I went with my mother to the grocery store. It was enormous! It felt like ANYTHING I wanted was there, and, I might add, much cheaper than here in New York. It took a lot of restraint not to completely fill my cart.
After I completed by purchases and was waiting for my mother by the checkout lanes, I witnessed an event that restored some of the warmth of Christmas that I had been missing. At one register I noticed several people staring intently at the computer screen that details a customer’s purchases. I quickly figured out that a manager was explaining to an elderly woman that her food stamps would not cover the cost of all the items she had placed on the checkout belt. The woman became distraught—she wasn’t sure what to put back, or how to get out of this situation with any dignity intact.
That’s when the Christmas moment occurred. The woman behind her in line reached forward with a bill—I couldn’t tell if it was a ten or a twenty—handing it to the clerk to pay for the overage. I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, but it was clear that the woman making the payment did it as a holiday gesture.
The elderly woman began to cry, as did the giver, and even the clerk was wiping her eyes. The purchase was completed. The woman gathered her bags to leave, but before she did she hugged the stranger who had paid the balance. It was a moving, fleeting encounter. And I knew that in that moment I had a passing glimpse of the Christmas spirit incarnate.
In fact, this holiday phenomenon is not unique. The Associated Press recently ran a story about similar acts by “layaway angels.” The article said, “At Kmart stores across the country, Santa is getting some help: Anonymous donors are paying off strangers’ layaway accounts, buying the Christmas gifts other families couldn’t afford, especially toys and children’s clothes set aside by impoverished parents.”[i]
I am touched by these stories. These actions embody the true meaning of Christmas—selfless, unexpected, beautiful acts of kindness for others. But it seems like these acts are often undertaken only during the Christmas season. How can we make this feeling of generosity—this desire to connect to others, to look outside ourselves—go beyond the season? What if we could carry our Christmas compassion throughout the year?
The story of the birth of Christ that we just read from the gospel of Luke is filled with surprising acts of love. But the story is so familiar to us—the subject of countless Christmas pageants (although maybe not of a St. Michael’s pageant!), of crèches, Christmas cards, and who knows what else. If you are like me, when you hear the story your mind is filled with images and memories.
The challenge before us is to find something fresh in the story—to find a way for it to speak to us anew. And also to find a way to carry this message with us always. As one commentator said, “What good is it that Mary gave birth to Jesus if he is not born in me?”
As I prepared for this sermon, I began to think about our preconceived notions about what is going on in the nativity story. Scholar David Lose compares our ideas about the holy family and the circumstances of the Messiah’s birth to the soft focus of a Doris Day movie in the 60s – we have made everything fuzzy around the edges to suit our own desires.[ii] The truth may be a bit different.
One of my favorite examples of such romantic notions comes from one of my favorite Christmas hymns: “In the bleak midwinter.” You may remember the first verse: In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan; earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.” Well, I checked Bethlehem’s historic weather patterns. The average low temperature in the winter is 41 degrees, with an average of one snowfall day a month—but the lowest recorded temperature in December was 30 degrees. Somehow I find the image of a snow-draped manger scene a little hard to swallow.
Another thing to consider is the circumstance that took Mary and Joseph away from their home—a registration, or census. History tells us that Luke has his facts wrong: There is no historical record of a Roman census at this time. But that bit of historicity is unimportant to Luke. What is important is that we understand that the Jews are living under the thumb of the Romans. As scholar Joy Brown says, “This return to home bears the weight of tax season, not Black Friday.”[iii]
Professor Brown goes on to remind us that, despite the difficult circumstances, this is a homecoming for Mary and Joseph—they are in their home territory, with their clan, their extended family.
When it comes to the question of their lodging for the evening, we have to let go of our modern understandings of the hotel business. There was no such thing as multi-room lodging. “The young couple’s arrival in Bethlehem brings them not to a stranger’s business, but a relative’s home,”[iv] With all the extended relatives coming to town for the census, the family’s second room would have already been filled. What Mary and Joseph are offered is the house’s third sleeping space, where the animals are kept overnight. It was a part of the house, certainly not the barn or shed that we picture.
So Mary gives birth in the home of family—this is not a sad turn of events; rather it is gracious hospitality. And what of the manger? Some suggest that this is a significant metaphor. The Christ Child in a feeding trough is no accident; his body and blood will feed us—it will become our salvation. Further, this humble beginning draws the sharp contrast between Jesus and the rulers of Rome, who saw themselves as sons of God. This Son of God is one who aligns himself with the least, those on the fringe, those in need.
And that’s where the shepherds come in. One has to imagine that at least part of the fear that the shepherds experience is anticipation of what they might be walking into. They are simple folk, and they have been told to seek out a powerful savior – the Messiah. They must have been sure that they would be out of place at the side of such power, and also certain that they would not be let in the door. I imagine that they found comfort in this family scene, in familiar surroundings—not filled with pomp, but instead only with love.
All of this adds up to a surprising scenario: A king who, from his very beginning is countercultural. A king whose birth is a sign that he will turn everything upside down. This king who demonstrates that he will stand with those on the margins. Such a king is one who can comfort us too—who will stick with us even though we might feel unworthy. One who understands our sadness, and promises fulfillment of our longings. One who promises new, surprising beginnings.
We here at St. Michael’s are in the midst of a new beginning. I believe there are exciting things on our horizons. If you are new to this community, or if you’re only on the edge of the community now, I warmly invite you to come more fully into the life of St. Michael’s. Now is the time. We need each of you. Liz or I will be glad to talk to you about your own hopes and needs and dreams for a caring community, and discuss how together we might make that happen in this place.
You see, what came to earth that night long ago and halfway around the world was love—a love demonstrated by the act of God taking on human flesh to live among us—to be one of us. That is nothing less than remarkable. And it calls for nothing less than our very selves in return.
There is another verse of that hymn I mentioned earlier, “In the bleak midwinter,” that says all of this far better than I can:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him give my heart.
We can help each other to capture that Christmas Spirit all year ‘round, and to be the instruments of Christ that we are all meant to be. Together we can be countercultural. Beginning tonight, let us create in our hearts a permanent dwelling place for the spirit of Christmas. In doing so we will change not only our world, but also ourselves in glorious ways.
Merry Christmas to you all. Amen.
[ii] http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=537, accessed 12/22/11.
[iii] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=12/24/2011&tab=4, accessed 12/22/11.