Well, once again at long last, it’s Christmas Eve!
I have to say, friends, that of all the times we come together as God’s people throughout the year; this is probably the night I look forward to most. In fact, I figured it out and this makes 37 years – 9 of them right here at East Church – that I’ve had the great joy and privilege of leading Christmas Eve worship as a pastor; and I’ve got to tell you, all of those years and all of those times shared in worship are filled with memories and meaning that fill up my heart more than I can possibly express.
I’ve actually been remembering something tonight that was said to me at another church many 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 (as we are fond of saying up in Maine, 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 just love coming to your church on Christmas Eve, because it’s the same old thing every year!”
Ummm… you’re welcome?
Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about that as of late, because I realize that if there’s one thing we can say about anything having to do with Christmas Eve 2020, it’s most assuredly that this year it’s not the “same old thing!” In fact, I think we can safely say that this year’s celebration of Christmas is to say the very least, unprecedented and nothing we could have possibly imagined a year ago. And I’ll confess, it still seems inconceivable that we aren’t able to be together as a church family in this sanctuary on this holy night… and yet, out of an abundance of concern for the safety and well-being of everyone around us (to say nothing of our love for one another), it is both appropriate and good, friends, that this year we aren’t gathering for in-person worship.
So yes, this year is different… and yet, I dare say that there’s so much that’s still the same. After all, we’re still worshiping together as God’s people… we’re just doing so from different places and in a multitude of different ways. We’re all still singing all those songs and carols … or at least, I trust that we’re all singing from wherever we are! We’ve still been reading that old and wonderfully familiar story of our Savior’s birth… perhaps this year we’ve even heard it in a way that’s fresh and new! And in a few minutes, we’ll be lighting candles that will remind us that the light of Christ has come into our darkened world, singing “Silent Night” as we do.
So considering all that, in many ways I still have to agree with that woman who spoke to me with such joy and thanksgiving all those years ago: yes, in every way that matters, it is the “same old thing” again this Christmas, even now… and thank the Lord for it!
Actually, you know what; I also have to tell you that one of my favorite moments every Christmas Eve is one that few people in the church ever get to see: it’s after the last carol has been sung, after 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 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 – almost certainly in a different way, but still celebrating nonetheless – all 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 by the Rev. Phillips Brooks, who was also the composer of “O Little Town of Bethlehem:”