We have finally arrived at the loveliest day (night) of the year. We all love stories, and there has never been a more beautiful nor a more hopeful story than the one told by St. Luke in the passage we have just heard. How many times have you heard this story? Have you memorized it? Has it become such a part of your subconscious that you don't hear it anymore? Have you become tired of it?
We approach this day and its appointed lectionary with trepidation. Children don't have to worry. They still feel the thrill of it. Grown ups, however, do worry:
- Am I going to be disappointed if I don't feel the wonder I felt when I was a child?
- Is this Christmas Eve going to pass me by if I don't feel it? Please God, let me feel something again, don't let this day leave me indifferent; or, worse, don't let it leave me worrying about the dinner tomorrow, about whether family members will get along with one another, about the anxiety of gift-giving:
- Did I spend too much again?
- Did I think only of my own family and friends? Did I remember those who don't possess the material goods I possess?
And then Christmas Eve passes and we are left without the wonder, without that feeling of excitement that was part of our childhood. It is not surprising that there are so many depressed people the day after, that loneliness engulfs so many of us.
Much of what we think and expect of Christmas Eve, for instance, came to us through the genius of Charles Dickens and his immortal story, A Christmas Carol: vivid depictions of a roundabout kind of obedience to the Gospel commands of Jesus:
- a stingy man becoming generous through fear and, eventually, compassion;
- a sick child being given a chance for healing; hungry people being fed.
- In Dickens' story we are also given images that have stayed with us - the carolers, the stuffed goose, the decorations.
And when our Christmases don't turn out to have the light, the second chance, and the redemption found in A Christmas Carol, we feel that we have failed.
We have passed through Advent, which, we Anglicans claim, is a time of reflection, prayer, and preparation.
We now come to the heart of what we were anticipating, the heart of the hopeful story.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, Isaiah promises. What brought on the light in darkness? The answer comes in those immortal words: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. And the government (the authority) will be upon his shoulders.
What startling and wondrous images these are! First, we are given the image of the deep darkness of ignorance; then we are given the image of the great light of an announcement. Luke imbues his story with light. The glory of the Lord shone round about them, he says, and the only way we can picture glory is through light. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and sayingâ¦ Glory to God in the highest.
Oh, is there a more beautiful picture painted in so few words? How does the multitude of the heavenly host appear to you this day (this night)? Forget everything else you expect from Christmas Eve and focus on the multitude of the heavenly host. You will be surprised how cleansing the image is.
Become one of the shepherds trembling with fear. This fear is the awe we feel in the presence of something that is beyond our senses and our capacity for understanding. This awe should fill us today (tonight). For what happened in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago was then and remains now beyond our understanding. For to us a child is born, to us a son is givenâ¦ and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father. A child, a little baby?
Who can explain the Incarnation of God? Enter into this realm of awe; you are in great company. You are in the company of the angels and of all the saints and of the redeemed who surround you today. We welcome the awe with the humility of poor shepherds being confronted with glory. We hear the great announcement and ask for grace to believe. We fall on your knees with gratitude.
This is how we recapture the awe and wonder of Christmas Eve, and that is the way to wipe all petty considerations from our minds. Let us together go look for the child and worship. Amen.