At long last, it’s Christmas Eve!
I have to say, friends, of all the times we come together here at East Church throughout the year; this is probably the service of worship I look forward to most. The beautiful music; the warmth of candlelight in this sanctuary filled with greens and poinsettias; the joy of families and friends worshiping together; hearing the old and familiar story of God’s great gift of love in the Christ child: all of this fills up my heart more than I can tell you.
And yes, I know that everything about this night cannot help but be imbued with all the sentiment and tradition of the season; in fact, one of the things I’ll never forget is something that was said to me at another church several Christmas Eves ago by someone who came through the vestibule to greet me after worship. She shook my hand quite vigorously, she gave me this great big hug (in Maine parlance, she “muckled right on to me!”) and then, with tears in her eyes, she said, “Oh, thank you, thank you so much for this service! I love coming to church on Christmas Eve, because it’s the same old thing every year!”
Ummm… you’re welcome?
Actually, I have to say that I agree… yes, it is the “same old thing” again this Christmas, and thank the Lord for it!
But that having been said, I also have to tell you that every Christmas Eve there’s a moment that few people in the church ever get to see: it’s after the last carol has been sung, the organ has been switched off, the candles extinguished, and all of you have gone home, perchance to get a few hours of slumber before the kids are up and the Christmas celebration starts in earnest. The heat gets turned back here at the church, the lights are switched off; and finally, after I do a last minute check of things, I’ll lock up for the night and head outside to go home.
And every year, that’s when it happens: I’ll look up at the night sky, feel the cut of the night air, hear the utter quiet that has descended upon the busy streets; and suddenly it’ll hit me: Dear Lord, at last it’s Christmas! And all over this community and nation and world this night, people are celebrating and singing and worshipping because God so loved this world that he gave us his son.
In these moments I’m inevitably reminded of the words of a poem that I have known and loved for many years now; written, I just realized this week, by the Rev. Phillips Brooks, who, as you might remember was also the composer of “O Little Town of Bethlehem:”
“Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight.
Christmas in lands of fir trees and pine,
Christmas in lands of palm tree and vine,
Christmas where snow peaks stand solemn and white,
Christmas where cornfields lie sunny and bright,
Christmas, everywhere, Christmas tonight.
Christmas where children are happy at play,
Christmas where old men are patient and gray,
Christmas where peace like a dove in its flight,
Broods over brave men in the midst of a fight,
Everywhere, everywhere Christmas tonight.
For the Christ child who comes is master of all,
No palace to great, no cottage too small…
Everywhere, everywhere Christmas tonight.”
I have to tell you, friends; it’s an incredible feeling to stand outside in our small little patch of the world here in New Hampshire – whatever the weather(!) – and to suddenly and profoundly become aware that Christ is born, and it is, indeed, Christmas everywhere tonight, even and most especially in those places far from our sight. It occurs to me, for instance, that for us in this beautiful sanctuary tonight, places like Afghanistan and Liberia are truly a world away; and yet right now, men and women of the armed forces who have been deployed there and countless other places all over the world; and they’re singing carols tonight and saying prayers for peace on earth, the same prayers we lift up here in the Merrimack Valley.
Likewise, there are members of our families as well as dear friends who are literally spread across the miles on this holy night, people we aren’t able to see this Christmas, or even wish a holiday greeting. And yet, tonight we’re sharing a graceful gift of hope and love and joy that is theirs as well as ours, and that makes us one; what an incredible thought that at least in a spiritual sense, we’re all home for Christmas. And then there are those who may not be so very far from us, but for whom tonight, as the song goes, “the colors [are] dulled and the candles dimmed:” the people who truly do walk in in the darkness of grief and sadness, carrying the long held regrets, festering anger and the utter injustice of life that all too often seems to rule the day. Well, friends, tonight is Christmas for them as well; and especially on them this night (and maybe in that regard, for you too) light has truly shined.
For you see, it’s Christmas; but ultimately Christmas is not about the day, or the celebrations we have, nor the lights on the tree or the gifts beneath it. Christmas is about good news: the good news that God has come to us as one of us, entering our lives and living in the guise of a tiny, helpless baby born in a manger of Bethlehem! And what that means, beloved, is that God truly knows us; God knows how we live and knows how we feel; God knows our hopes, our dreams, and our deepest need.
Author and Pastor Edward F. Markquart has said it this way: “Because of God becoming human, we know that God knows our feelings of fear, our feelings of failure, our feelings of elation, our feelings of sheer joy and ecstasy… because God is like us. God is one with us” in Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel; born in Bethlehem in the city of David, “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Popular culture and political correctness to the contrary, friends, Christmas is all about Jesus. And wherever we happen to be on this Christmas night – be it in this place of worship, amongst loved ones around a brightly lit tree, or else at some far flung locale away from the beloved traditions of the day – and however we happen to be tonight, whether it’s full of holiday cheer or feeling the old familiar pain that never really leaves us, the good news is that Jesus is here with us in the midst of it all. And tonight he simply wants to say to us, “Listen. Listen to me, and open your heart because I am here, and I love you. You are mine. I want to live in you; I want to fill your heart with my love.”
I can’t imagine a better Christmas gift than that this year or any year; a greater blessing there than could ever be. And my hope and prayer tonight is that each one of us here will know that gift and blessing as our own.
It’s been said that on Christmas Eve, God came down the stairway of the stars with a baby in his arms. Everything that we are, beloved; everything we believe, all our hopes and dreams and prayers for our lives and for this world, the promise we have of life that’s abundant in this world and eternal in the one to come: all of this, and so much more, has to do with this one tiny little baby born to us on this Christmas… this Christmas that’s everywhere – and to everyone – tonight.
And so let rejoice in the gift, dear friends; and may our thanks be to God for such great and audacious love that comes to us and abides with us tonight and always!
Merry Christmas, and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry