A sermon for Christmas Eve
December 24, 2022
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: Luke 2:1-20
What is Christmas about? We start with that simple question. And I want us to answer it honestly, without pious pretension. And yes, we all know that Jesus is the reason for the season. But let’s trash the rhyming slogans for a moment, and really consider it.
The truth is Christmas is about a lot of things. For many of you, Christmas is not complete without this Christmas service. It’s not complete without singing Silent Night by candlelight. It’s not complete without sharing in the Body and Blood of our Lord. I didn’t grow up with those things. Now, they are certainly important to me. (One would hope that would be the case!) But growing up, Christmas for me was about different things.
Growing up, Christmas for me was about decorating sugar cookies. Every year at Christmas at my grandmother’s, we would decorate sugar cookies. They never looked good. They tasted even worse. But we did it anyway. We would eat little pizzas baked on rye bread the size of crackers, bundles of grease and fat and goodness strategically designed to make you forget how many you had stuffed into your mouth already. We would drink Christmas cheer. It’s not how I might define Christmas cheer today, but in my tea-totaling household it was a frozen strawberry slush. Year after year, my Uncle Damien would try–try so hard–to start a new tradition of reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and the nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. It never held. Ironically, that couldn’t compete with all the many other traditions.
What about you? When you think of Christmas, what do you think of? What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What meaning does Christmas carry for you?
Such memories harbor, for me, a tinge of sadness now–and honestly, sometimes a torrent of sadness. While the holidays still bring me much joy and gladness, the childhood magic has worn off, and those memories of joy are now accompanied by feelings of loss, of hurt, of grief. Some of those people aren’t there anymore, grandparents, friends, my Uncle Sam who always made me laugh. That comes with life; no getting around it.
There’s a word for this: charmolypi. It’s a Greek word that can be translated as bright sadness, bitter joy, joyful mourning, affliction that leads to joy, a profound mingling of joy and grief held together at the same time. If you live long enough, you will feel charmolypi, perhaps especially this time of year.
This comingling of joy and grief not only permeates our true experience of the holidays, but it saturates what we read today in the Gospel of Luke. Luke, ever the historian, begins by telling us what’s going on in the world. Emperor Augustus is in charge. Quirinius is in Syria. We are during a historical period known as the pax romana, the Roman peace. Except it wasn’t really peace. It was order maintained with cruelty and inhumanity, the kind of cruelty and inhumanity that led to mass crucifixions and indiscriminate slaughter. Luke doesn’t yet tell us that Herod is around, but we will find out soon enough, as he orders the execution of the children of Bethlehem in an effort to stomp out the threat of Jesus.
This is the world in which we find Mary and Joseph, a brutal and terrifying world. Mary and Joseph are at the bottom, mere subjects lorded over by people far away; they are insignificant and small. They, poor, cannot even find a place to lay their newborn child, except in an animal trough. They wrap him in the best they have: bands of cloth. They find themselves away from family, in a strange place, in an oppressive world with its fear and violence. This is our world today for so many people in so many places.
But in the middle of this real sadness, joy–heavenly joy, real joy–rings out. The angels of God proclaim it. “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.” As of old when God heard the cry of the children of Israel enslaved in Egypt, God has heard the cry of the world. And God has come down in the middle of the sadness, in the middle of the cruelty and inhumanity, in the middle of the oppression and violence and fear, all to redeem us. Rejoice, because God has come down into this mess of a world as a baby.
So, what is Christmas about? When we get past the easy slogans and the cheap sentimentality, when we get past our illusions of perfection and visions of nostalgia, when we get past all of that and see the world as it really is–a world in which suffering and pain and mourning and grief and sin and evil and death are very real–when we get to that point, only then can we see what Christmas is really about.
Christmas is about bringing brightness into the sadness. Christmas is about bringing joy into the grief. Christmas is about bringing peace into the violence. Christmas is about bringing hope into the chaos. Christmas is about bringing love into the fear. And this is not our doing, but it is the very work of God, who chooses (in love) to give us himself (for love) as a baby (to love). Christmas is about the heart of God breaking for us, breaking for our pain and suffering, breaking into a million pieces at our tears and grief. Breaking into so many pieces that God can be shared, in the person of Christ, in the bread on the altar.
Yes, Jesus is the reason for the season. Sure, that’s true for us. But I don’t think it’s true for God. For God, you are the reason for the season. You are the reason he came to live, die, and rise again. You–the real you, and your pain, and your suffering, and your hardship, and your sadness, and your grief, your sin, and your death–you are the reason. Because God wants to bring joy and peace and grace hope and love to your life. God wants to do that by bringing you close to him, in real relationship, to make you an inheritor of eternal life. God wants to do that so much that he came to live like us, to die like us, so that we might rise like him.
My friend, you are God’s reason for this season. That’s good news of great joy for each and every one of us, for each and every person who has ever walked the face of this earth, for each and every person who has walked, as Isaiah says, in darkness and in the land of deep darkness. We have seen a great light, shining just for us, alleluia, alleluia.
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