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Christmas Eve Homily 2019

the Reverend Matt Gaventa

December 24, 2019
Luke 2:1-18

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A Reading from the Gospel of Luke

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.


As a teenager in New Jersey one of the things you learn how to do is how to take the late train home from New York. Part of the problem is that Penn Station on 34th street is a bit of a maze, and perpetually under construction, but the greater problem is that boarding a train surrounded by the late-night crowds can be like a scene out of the Hunger Games. Multiple hundreds of people gather in the huge waiting lobby underneath the display board, waiting impatiently to learn which track Edison line is going to be on. This is not predictable knowledge; it changes like lottery numbers, and it’s not announced until there are only minutes left to spare, so that when it is announced, now all of a sudden several hundreds of people all finally learn exactly which narrow escalator they have to get on to make their way down to the right platform. It’s late at night. Some of them are not on their best behavior. Some of them are lugging around their baggage. And all of them are stampeding onto one single-file moving staircase, desperately hoping for a seat on the last train out before morning.

It is not a scene that brings out the best in humanity. But at least it prepared me for Bethlehem.

This past summer, with a group of clergy here in Austin, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in pilgrimage in Israel, including a day-trip from Jerusalem into Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, the cathedral built on holy place where gentle Mary allegedly laid her child, that still, still, still place where the baby Jesus slept, that place that shepherds found in the bleak midwinter, Bethlehem, the little town that lies so still. Except. I have to tell you. First, because Bethlehem is in the West Bank, first, we crossed over the border checkpoint and through the wall, flanked by barbed wire and armed guards, but I thought, at least the church itself will be holy. And then we brought our tour bus through the bustling modern city, filled to the brim with tourist bazaars and knock-off Starbucks, and I thought, well at least the church itself will be holy. And then we parked our bus inside a shopping mall parking garage underneath a sign surrounded by t-shirts that said “To the Church of the Nativity via the Escalators,” and I thought, well, at least the church itself will be holy. And still. And gentle.

But the Church of the Nativity might as well have been the late shift at Penn Station. We entered at about 9:00 in the morning, but instead of finding the majesty and mystery of God, we found construction, scaffolding, and a crowd. The line snaked down the length of the cathedral floor, around the scaffolding in such a way that no one person could possibly have seen how long it properly was. It was also hot, in June, in Bethlehem, inside a stone cathedral without ventilation, surrounded by tourists, and nothing of course brings out good behavior like being in a hot crowd. But we waited. We waited for a long time, as the line slowly slowly snaked its way forward. Finally, we made it past the central altar to a chapel at the back of the cathedral. Most holy sites in Israel are built on top of ancient places, and this is no exception, so that where you are ultimately trying to get is down a semicircular set of stairs to a small grotto underneath the sanctuary. By time we could see it it was close to lunchtime. So there we were, among the hundreds of hot, crowded, hungry people, all shoving our way down one incredibly dangerous stone staircase, all for a chance of a seat on the last train home.

There were places on that trip where I had no trouble imagining Jesus doing his ministry. On the Sea of Galilee you could close your eyes and be there. In the Garden of Gethsemane you could close your eyes and be there. But it’s hard to feel the story alive in the depths of the Church of the Nativity. It’s hard to feel the midwinter stillness of it. It’s hard to picture some quiet stable, some starlit silent night, some quaint peace into which the Savior of the World so gently appears, it’s hard to picture any of that when you are gradually falling through a mosh pit on your way into a church basement. Except, of course, that the picture the Gospel paints doesn’t really have a lot of stillness in it, either. Mary and Joseph travel across Israel for the sake of this census, as would much of the population; the whole country is on the road. More to the point, they are gathering in population centers, or at least Bethlehem is seeing an influx of travelers, otherwise Luke would hardly bother to tell us that the inn is fresh out of room. In addition, Mary and Joseph barely get a moment to themselves before Luke sends over a whole mess of shepherds, which means half the town already knows. The truth is that for all of the quiet gentle stillness we sing about on Christmas, the story in Luke’s Gospel is unabashedly chaotic, frantic, and crowded.

Not just a little bit like the Church of the Nativity. As we crammed down to the grotto, and as the clock neared lunchtime, the priest on staff began to remind us that the chapel itself would close for lunch, so we needed to hurry, which is a hard thing for a crowd of people shoving down a staircase to hear. It did not make any of us any holier. And once we finally got to the bottom, once fifteen lanes of people merged into one, the priest there was no less insistent. Hurry, come on, hurry, move quickly, we are closing, hurry, there are so many people. Finally, the grotto opens up, and I made my way to a small alcove off to the side, the Altar of Nativity, marked by a centuries-old silver star laid into the flooring, to reflect that this is where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Here, I was sure, I would find the holy thing, the point of this whole journey, the bus, the border wall, the parking garage, the t-shirts, the crowds, the scaffolding, the heat the stairs of doom, all of it, the point surely had always been to come and touch this star, to come commune with something here that was deep and sacred and still. So I did my part. And as I let my hand sit on the spot where Jesus was born, the staff priest came along behind me to pronounce my benediction, as he was doing over and over to each pilgrim who lingered. Okay. Okay? Jesus loves you. Now move along.

It never did quite feel holy. But then again. Such is the nature of the story: chaotic, frantic, crowded, nothing remotely close to what the birth of the Messiah was supposed to look like. And such, I think, is also so often the nature of the season: chaotic, frantic, crowded, nothing remotely close to what Christmas is supposed to look like. If you have been to the grocery store this morning you know. If you have been to the post office in the last week you know. If you have been to the hospital or the clinic or the shelter in this season then you know, you know that this season does not always look the way it’s supposed to look. It can be hard to find the gentle. It can be hard to find the still. It can be hard to find the holy in this holy night.

And yet.

The miracle of Christmas is not that Jesus is born into the stillness. The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus is born into the chaos. The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus is born into the crowd. The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus is born into frenzy. The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus is born into this world as it is, not as we might like it to be, that Jesus is born into this time as it is, not as we might like it to be, that Jesus is born for us as we are, not as we might like to be. The miracle is that we can gather up here on this Christmas Eve, tired and weary, with all the baggage we can carry, and even so. Something holy happens. Unto us this night a child is born, a Savior, the Messiah, and by his grace we will all get home. Okay. Okay? Jesus loves you.

Now move along.

Amen.


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