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Christmas Eve Meditation
December 24, 2014
Luke 2: 1-20
A reading from Luke’s Gospel:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
We’re all so familiar with Luke’s Christmas story that we practically know it by heart. The emperor Augustus calling for all the people to be registered. Mary and Joseph trudging to Bethlehem. No room at the inn. The birth in the stable. The shepherds in the fields. The multitude of heavenly host, praising God and declaring peace on earth. Mary pondering all this in her heart. Yes, the story of Christ’s birth is familiar to us. But what are we to make of it, or more importantly, what is it trying to make of us?
Of course, for centuries theologians have tried to express the meaning of these events in carefully worded creedal statements. For example, the earliest Christian creed, the Nicene Creed, tried to settle various Christological controversies and set the record straight with this formula: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.”
Then, a few centuries later, the Scots Confession explained it this way: “When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, his eternal wisdom, the substance of his own glory, into this world, who took the nature of humanity from the substance of a woman, a virgin, by means of the Holy Ghost. And so was born the ‘just seed of David,’ the ‘Angel of the great counsel of God,’ the very Messiah promised, whom we confess and acknowledge to be Emmanuel, true God and true man, two perfect natures united and joined in one person.”
Now, propositional statements such as the ones in our Book of Confessions are necessary. They are to be read, studied, discussed, and debated. But unless I’m misjudging this congregation, I doubt that you ventured out into the cold, dark night at 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve in order to discuss and debate creedal statements. More likely, you made your way to this sanctuary hoping to hear and experience something resonating deep within. Something compelling you, grabbing you, giving you hope and making you want to sing.
Songwriters Jason Gray and Jason Ingram wrote a song that Austin’s Conspirare Chorus sang at their Christmas concert earlier this month. These lyrics convey the inadequacy of religion when religion is only a matter of words, rules, or obligations.
Give me rules/I will break them
Show me lines/I will cross them
I need more than/A truth to believe
I need a truth that lives/Moves and breathes
To sweep me off my feet, it’s gotta be
More like falling in love/than something to believe in
More like losing my heart/than giving my allegiance
Caught up, called out/Come take a look at me now
It’s like I’m falling, oh/It’s like I’m falling in love.
Give me words/I’ll misuse them
Obligations/I’ll misplace them
‘Cause all religion/Ever made of me
Was just a sinner/With a stone tied to my feet
It never set me free, it’s gotta be
More like falling in love…
Love, love, love
Deeper and deeper, it was/Love that made me a believer.
The December Harper’s Magazine contains a memoir by Kenneth E. Hartman titled: “Christmas in Prison.” Hartman is serving a life sentence without parole. His account of prison life, especially at Christmas time, is almost unbearably sad, yet he is not despairing. He tells about how on Christmas day the inmates gather in what serves as the prison sanctuary. This is a bleak room with water-stained ceiling tiles. The walls are bare and painted in the same institutional off-white as is every other room in the prison. But on Christmas Day there are a few long streamers of gold tinsel cascading across the walls. A couple of wilted poinsettias are placed in the front of the room.
“The most touching decorations,” Hartman writes, “are the simplest: there are small boxes made out of paper, about three inches square. They sit atop the baptismal box. On one the word Faith is written in small, childlike letters. On another is Hope, and on the last, in slightly larger letters, Love. These are what we’ve all crowded into this room for, into what is the modern equivalent of the medieval narthex, the place for those deemed unworthy to sit with the good people in the regular pews. And it is love, written with a bit more emphasis, that we all long for most.”
Friends, the room we gather in tonight is distinctly different from that bleak prison chapel, and thankfully our circumstances are decidedly less desperate, but surely we gather for the same reasons. It is love for which we all long most.
Yes, we can do our best to explain the Christmas story in creedal statements, with precise theological accuracy, but in the end the Christmas story is a love story. It’s about how God’s eternal love came down and became incarnate in human flesh. As such, it doesn’t demand our allegiance so much as it captures our hearts. It pulses with the good news that our often bleak and sometimes hopeless world is, in fact, imbued with God’s love. We thrill to the news that we are loved, that God is with us, that faith, hope and love abide. Such news compels us, as it did the shepherds, to rejoice at the wonder of the eternal God making God’s home with us. It moves us, as it did Mary, to ponder the magnitude of God in human flesh, our flesh. It sends chills up our spines, makes us want to dance, to sing, to light candles, to embrace someone. Why, it’s…it’s almost like falling in love.