Sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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Isaiah 9:2-7+Psalm 96+Titus 2:11-14+Luke 2:1-20

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

Thanks to Lutheran pastor and speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber, I hastened to my dictionary this week to look up that word, “pining.” She wrote a blog post about it because it struck her that the word usually means longing for something, like a Victorian heroine waiting in vain for true love to arrive, so it seems a little out of place here.[1] But in this case, pining means (according to Merriam-Webster, at least) to lose vigor, health, or flesh (as through grief): to languish.

In first-century Palestine, the people were languishing under the rule of the Roman Empire and its local enforcer, the brutal Herod the Great. In our time, the languishing looks a bit different, but it is there just the same. A pandemic we have not been able to shake. Economic fragility afflicting millions. Gun violence as the leading cause of death among children. A level of public discourse that makes me want to pull the covers over my head each morning. This is the sin and error in which we are pining.

And into all of this, God comes. Taking on human flesh in great humility, as an infant child born to a young girl and her working-class spouse, God appears, and the soul felt its worth. The soul felt its worth because God doesn’t just come for the general betterment of society. No, God comes for you and for me.

The familiar Christmas song from which these words come, O Holy Night, has long been a favorite. It does, after all, have musical drama and a soaring chorus, but it was not always so well-loved. Penned by a one-handed French atheist in 1843 (I’m not making that up – his name was Placide Cappeau and you can Google him) and set to music by a Jew, Adolphe Adam (best known for composing the ballet Giselle), the initial popularity of this “Cantique de Noël” or “Christmas Carol,” did not last when Roman Catholic authorities found out that it was written by an antireligious poet, and it was banned in France after premiering in 1847.

Enter a Unitarian minister and well-known music critic from Boston, John Sullivan Dwight, who reworked some of the lyrics, and “O Holy Night” was born. Apparently, what attracted Dwight to retrieve this piece was the third stanza, the part that says

Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is Love and His gospel is Peace.
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother
and in his name all oppression shall cease.

You see, Dwight was an abolitionist, and in 1855 this country was on a steep slope into Civil War over the issue of slavery.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

“O Holy Night” was an instant hit, at least in the north. It was not so popular in the south. Even after the war, if it was sung at all, the offending third verse was omitted. Even today, one of the most popular versions of this by megastar Carrie Underwood actually changes the text so it says, “Chains shall he break for His child is our brother.”[2] Funny how people, Christians included and maybe especially, have trouble using the word “slave” or claiming that the slave is our brother, or sister, for that matter. One thing is for sure, we will never be able to make right centuries of wrong if we can’t even talk about it.

All these years after the birth of the savior, we still just can’t get it quite right.

Which is why he continues to come, continues to be born.

We gather every year in anticipation that our souls will feel their worth.

That we will be worthy.

We come to the manger to glimpse a new and glorious morn, to once again fall on our knees in gratitude for this gift. A gift of life and love which we can never earn and can never lose.

If you are trapped, pining, languishing, straining to hear the voice of the angels, Christ comes for you.

If you are plagued by self-doubt or worry that you will never have enough, will never be enough, Christ comes for you.

There is nothing you have to do other than to open your heart to receive this newborn king once again. We are all the innkeepers of our own hearts, so the question is whether or not we have room for Jesus. “Let every heart prepare him room,” the carol goes. Tonight is a very good night to do just that. And then?

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise his Holy name!

Oh, holy night.

Oh, night divine.

Merry Christmas to you and all those you love and pray for.


[1] https://substack.com/inbox/post/90535788

[2] https://genius.com/Carrie-underwood-o-holy-night-lyrics

allsaintsadminSermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas