Most years on Christmas Eve I have a funny little quip in which I say how great it is to see everyone in our sanctuary for our Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, especially newcomers, and even more especially the folks I haven’t’ seen since Easter! Truth be told, though, I just wish I could've seen anyone that night! But my heart has still rejoiced that, while we live in a time in which pestilence and plague continue to keep us physically apart, that wonderfully horrible and horribly wonderful gift of the internet has made it possible for us to still be together, to still pray together, to still ponder Christmas and all that it means.
It is perhaps a strange grace of God for us to mark the occasion of Christ’s birth in this way. While we have been blessed at Good Shepherd with dedicated Altar and Flower Guild members who have put out our creche, hung our wreaths, and made out space look and feel as much like Christmas as possible, this is not the way it’s supposed to be. There should have been Christmas parties we attended, cards and presents we exchanged with our church friends when we arrived for worship, and a packed house to sing Silent Night together by candlelight at the end of Midnight Mass. This is not how Christmas is meant to come, it’s not how any of us expected to be spending Christmas Eve when this year began. But was that night so long ago so different? Was it really what anyone expected the breaking forth of God’s kingdom into the world to look like?
I believe the writer Madeline L’Engle sums it up nicely in her poem, First Coming. She writes:
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.
He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
If Christmas teaches us anything it is that God shows up when we do not expect it and in ways that we often cannot fully comprehend until they have long passed. Surely the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of all would come when humanity is at its absolute breaking point or when we at last had achieved world peace and were “ready” to receive such a One. And surely an arrival would befit the Sovereign of the Universe, with banners unfurled in a great and glorious splendor of royalty. But as Madeline reminds us, and as Saint Luke in the Gospel reminds us, that’s not what happened at all. God’s birth was like most of ours, born into a harsh world to a relatively poor family living in a very complicated time, politically and culturally speaking. It’s not at all what people were expecting. And perhaps that is the point.
Perhaps that is what 2020 has shown us. We expected to celebrate weddings and graduations, and attend concerts and ballgames. Even when the terrifying reality of a global pandemic began to set in we expected it to last just a few weeks, and then just a few months. We expected our churches to be places where we could find solace by being together to pray for an end to the virus, or at the very least where we could honor our dead with the full rites of the our faith. But none of those things have been possible, and every expectation we have had in 2020 seems to have been dashed again and again. Should Christmas be any different?
What is it that we have come to expect from Christmas? Being together with family and close friends in times of gift giving and general merriment, sure, but what do we expect FROM Christmas? Do we expect Christmas itself to change us, to move us, to make us not only more welcoming of the Christ child into our hearts but more eager to follow the path he will go down? The modern mystic and civil rights activist Howard Thurman, whose book Jesus and the Disinherited our church read over the summer, once wrote in a piece called The Mood of Christmas:
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
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 people, to make music in the heart.
We can always count on Christmas to come, but every year it disrupts our expectations. This year is no different. The coming of God in the Incarnation blows all the other stuff out of the water, and this year, when all the other stuff isn’t possible, we can at last understand. When God stepped into the world, held in the arms of a teenage mother named after the sister of Moses, the great liberator, the whole world itself was liberated, every human heart was liberated, from the shackles of fear and the oppression of the self, from the unreasonable expectations of a world more concerned with gaining power than being emptied of it. Our hearts may ache this Christmas time because the traditions we have come to expect are not possible, but what an amazing gift it is that we can see fully what is truly going on tonight! The holy child of Bethlehem reaches his hand out to us and invites us not to bring gifts to him but to accept the gift that he offers of a world that is transformed, that is not just healed but renewed. As that often overlooked verse of O Holy Night 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.
The world wasn’t ready for that invitation. Perhaps it’s still not. But every year this Christmas comes, whether we’re in a church or not. And every year God breaks into the human story again, shattering all of our expectations by not coming to rule over us but to walk with us down the path of transformation, both for ourselves and for our world. It’s not just about feeling extra holy or making sure we honor the whole season of Christmas for the next 12 days. It’s not about hanging on until we can get back to the way things used to be. Christmas as a moment in time, one that is no longer bound to distant years in Palestine, comes to shatter the world’s expectations and invite us to something far beyond anything the world can give us. Perhaps, in the midst of a pandemic, when all we are used to, and all that we have thought we have known of Christmas get torn away like the curtain that hides the Wizard, perhaps now our hearts can be so prepared to receive the greatest Christmas gift of all.
The sanctuary of Good Shepherd, Asheboro ready for Midnight Mass.