Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7, Luke 2:8-20
The Lord has proclaimed
to the end of the earth:
Say to daughter Zion,
“See, your salvation comes… (Isaiah 62:11)
When I was a child, Christmas morning was a well-planned ritual in my house. With six kids under one roof, it had to be. No one was allowed down the stairs until we were all awake. As the youngest, I generally made sure that everyone was awake while it was still quite dark outside. We paraded down the stairs together and, my father pointing the way, turned toward the dining room rather than the living room where all the treasures were. Yes, my parents forced us to eat breakfast, to drink hot chocolate out of ceramic Santa-shaped cups made by my great-grandmother, and to wait. It was excruciating.And then, we had to line up again, in order of age. Some years, the youngest went first; other years, the oldest went first. Those years were the worst.
Once in line, we paraded into the living room, where delights from Santa and wrapped gifts from family and friends awaited. It was utterly magical. For about an hour. And when the excitement and newness wore off, we all settled into a kind of stupor – tired, deflated, maybe even let down as the older ones went back to bed and my poor mother secluded herself in the kitchen to prepare a feast as my dad helped those of us who remained to assemble or try out whatever new gadget or toy we received.
By the time I was school-aged and siblings began to trickle out of the household, there was a real melancholy on Christmas morning. When I began singing in the choir and then playing the organ as a teenager, Christmas Eve was where all the excitement was. Christmas morning seemed a mere afterthought.
Thankfully, those days have passed. Yes, I love Christmas Eve for its worship and joy and beauty. But I reallylove Christmas morning, when a quiet has settled on the world, and there is, just over there, a babe born in a manger, as his exhausted parents hover nearby, keeping warm by the breath of the livestock. The shepherds who came in the night have departed, and just the three remain, the friendly beasts keeping them company.
The reality is harsher than this, though. Mary and Joseph and the baby were far from their home in Nazareth, and, in Matthew’s telling at least, they were soon to be refugees, fleeing into Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod who feared this newborn king. Feared him so much that he ordered every male child under two to be killed. We remember this as the Feast of Holy Innocents on December 28 each year. One wonders if, when Jesus grew up, he felt some responsibility for this massacre. Perhaps that’s why he had such a soft place in his heart for the children.
So, why do I love this morning so, when the harsh reality of the birth of Jesus settles in? Because this is life. This is truth. That God did not come to perfection, did not come to peace, did not come to the worthy or the deserving. God came into the messiness and ugliness of this world in order to make it good, to name it worthy and holy. And in the peace of Christmas morning, that reality begins to settle in.
Tim and I have a tradition that goes back to the earliest days of our courtship. Every year on the evening of the fourth Sunday of Advent, we pick up a cup of hot chocolate and take a drive through whatever neighborhoods strike our fancy looking at Christmas lights. This year, it was not so much a drive as it was a stroll up 5thAvenue! In some years past, we travelled far and wide to find the really spectacular displays and could always count on the old Italian neighborhoods in South Philadelphia to pull out all the stops with entire streets joining in the festivities, lights strung from balconies on one side of the street over to the other.
One year, maybe the first year we were married, I was serving as organist and choirmaster at a small church in the far western suburbs of Philadelphia where two of the stalwart older women of the church had been recently widowed. We decided that year to pay a visit on these two during our light-viewing drive, taking them a poinsettia and letting them know that we were thinking of them.
One of the women was my predecessor as church organist. In fact, Marguerite Bell had been the organist for 40 yearsbefore I arrived. When Tim and I showed up at her house, she invited us in and proceeded to apologize for her minimal Christmas decorations, as if we had expected that she would be in some kind of all-out festive Christmas mood. She did, however, proudly show us the nativity set that she and her husband, Andy, had bought on a trip to Switzerland many years before, and then she told us a story:
When they had first married more than 60 years earlier, they had been, as she said, poor as church mice. Their first Christmas nativity scene had been a cheap, wooden cutout thing nowhere near the elegance of the one we saw on this night. But the stable itself, even now, was the one that her husband had made for that first Christmas of their marriage, an old wooden orange crate, spray-painted black. Marguerite told us that when, years later, they began to set up their beautiful new nativity scene with the figurines from Switzerland, Andy suggested that they buy a fancy new stable in which to place them. Marguerite’s response to that suggestion was, “No, dear, this one is just fine. The original was not exactly The Ritz.”
No, it most certainly was not the Ritz. There were no Christmas lights. There were no trees and no tinsel. There were no Pinterest-perfect decorations or exquisitely prepared feasts. There were no gifts or carolers or Santa Clauses or elves.
There was a cold night and straw and fear and loneliness and pain to welcome this tiny, helpless baby who would change the world.
So, in the quiet of this morning, we can be with Jesus and Mary and Joseph and one another. We can remember why God came into this world, to show us God’s love. And we, in turn, are to show that love to all of God’s people.
Even though the celebrations of Christmas Eve and the raucousness of Christmas morning have passed, the chorus of angels speaks to us still. This good news for all the people is now ours to share. And the life of that baby born in a manger tells us what our work is in response to the angelic message, a message best put it into words by the great Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman:
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 flocks,
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 the people,
to make music in the heart.
A blessed Christmas to you and yours in this holy season.
Howard Thurman. “The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations” (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1985).