Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 24, 2015

2015.12.24 ” To Hear The Story, Light A Candle, Sing Silent Night, And Go Home” – Christmas Eve

Central United Methodist Church
To Hear The Story, Light A Candle,
Sing Silent Night, And Go Home
Christmas Eve
December 24th, 2015


“God Is With Us” by the Malaysian artist Hanna Varghese


Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has
come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2: 15)


Each Christmas Eve I feel like a person hurrying down the sidewalk of a busy street (let’s say, State Street), who pauses on their way to look at the Christmas display in a department store window, (let’s say Macy’s – or as most of us remember it – Marshall Field’s). No matter what your errand or urgency, the scene you see is so wonderful, so amazing, that you can’t help but be transfixed, temporarily forgetting why you were in such a hurry in the first place. But then reality intrudes, and you must hurry on down the street.

That – I believe – is like what we do when we gather here tonight, to hear again the story of the birth of Jesus, before rushing on our frantic way.

At Christmas, most of us are in a hurry. In addition to the already thinly stretched responsibilities of families and jobs, we pile on those things that go with Christmas: houses and trees to decorate, cookies to bake; cards to send; gifts to purchase, wrap, deliver; parties to attend; dinners to prepare; and journeys to take, to be with family, if we can. Tonight, up in a United Methodist Church in Arlington, VA, my grandson, 4 months old, the great-grandson and grandson of United Methodist pastors, is portraying the Baby Jesus. How I wish I could be there! But then, like unexpected shepherds and wise men and women, all of you showed up!

Despite all our busyness – if we are fortunate and have planned well – we make it a point on Christmas Eve, to attend worship and hear again this wonderful story. And like the person looking in that department store window, we are momentarily transfixed in wonder, peace, and hope.

Each year on Christmas Eve, I fret about what to say. This year, I was tempted by the title, A Long Time Ago in a Galilee Far Far Away.” But I resisted that temptation.

John Buchanan, the former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, says that whenever he began to fret about what to say on Christmas Eve, his wife, his closest advisor, would say, “Stop worrying. They’re not coming to hear you. They want to hear the story, light a candle, sing Silent Night and go home.” In my heart, I know it’s true.

Nevertheless, each year I ask myself, “What is it about this story that evokes so much emotion and meaning in us?” Is it the story? The associations the story evokes in us? Or is the message of the story, which – no matter how many times we hear it – never becomes old, but also never seems to be understood.

banksyx-masTake the story: The text itself – just a few verses – is more suggestive than descriptive. It is surprising how few of the things we imagine are there, are not there. For example, there is no donkey; being poor, Joseph and Mary likely walked the 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. There is no ungracious innkeeper, or even an inn, for that matter, what it says is that when it came time for Mary to give birth, there was no “room” available for them. The likely explanation is that because there were many people staying in one room, there was no private place to have a baby, and besides – according to Jewish law, childbirth was unclean, so to have the baby there would have ritually contaminated everybody. Joseph and Mary sought what privacy they could – for their sake and others – likely a stable, even a cave, underneath the building. In Luke’s version, there are no stars, no wise men; that’s Matthew’s story, occurring some two years later. According to Luke, the only guests were shepherds from a nearby field – the poorest of the poor. Not the best way to have a baby; but frankly, worse happens every day. The point of the story is, “GUESS WHO is being born this way?”

For most of us, the deep feelings we have about Christmas lies not in the scant details of the story, but in the memories and associations it and the associated holiday evokes in us. Such that every Christmas, we become like Ebenezer Scrooge, haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past.

Depending upon where we are in life, we have so many Christmases to remember. Is Christmas ever more magical than when we are children? Growing up in western Kentucky, my parents – as children of the Great Depression – gave me the Christmas they never had. While I got things like bicycles, I remember my Dad telling me how, when he was a child, they felt lucky to get gifts like apples and oranges. Believe it or not, children and youth, there was a time not so long ago when video games and iPhones did not exist.

And then there are the Christmases when we are parents. The worst Christmas I ever had was when I was a foster parent, and the court took away the child we had had for four months, to return him to his mother, three days before Christmas. But – of course – with four more children to come – there are so many good Christmases to remember, mixed in with midnight services, Santa duties, and not enough sleep. Parents, remember those nights? Some of you are still living them.

In later years, all that changes, doesn’t it? Our children are grown, if we are fortunate we are grandparents, though – given modern families – our grandchildren (like mine) are often far away. There is likely an empty chair at the table because people we love have died. We may even find ourselves alone at Christmas, which can make Christmas a sad time for many. More and more, I understand what Garrison Keillor once said:

“I am pretty much hardened to Christmas music, except at the end of the Christmas Eve service when the lights dim and the glories stream from heaven afar and the heavenly hosts sing Alleluia and then, from long habit, tears well up in my eyes and I weep for the dead who enjoyed Christmas so much . . .” (“All I Need for Christmas”, Garrison Keillor, Dec. 19, 2007)

But while Christmas associations are powerful, ultimately it is not how we feel about Christmas, but the message of Christmas that gives us hope. Again, Garrison Keillor:

“The basic idea of Christmas is a cheerful one: that we are connected to all of creation, the fish, the forests and mountains, the stars, the solar systems, and infinity itself by the love of the Creator who came to Earth in the form of an infant and was first recognized as divine by poor uneducated shepherds and by travelers from afar — a story that endures despite all the tinsel and glitter. You can take the story literally or partially or as metaphor, and it will warm you. A gift from us Christians to all of you Spiritual But Not Religious. (Garrison Keillor, “No Apologies for Loving Christmas, “ Chicago Tribune, December 18, 2015.)

Did you get that? The message of Christmas is that we are all connected to each other, by the love of the Creator, who came to Earth in the form of an infant, to save us from ourselves and to show us how to treat one another. They had a hard time understanding it then, and we still have a hard time understanding it now. For example, the British street artist Banksy suggested in a drawing a few years ago, that if Joseph and Mary tried to get to Bethlehem now it would be harder than then, given the security wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, Israelis from Palestinians. Or how about this: Conan O’Brien pointed out recently the state of Texas is trying to stop a family of Syrian refugees from resettling there. Texas officials said, “We’re too busy with Christmas to think about a Middle Eastern family with no place to stay for the night.” (December 09, 2015). Are we all connected, or not?

Now – perhaps more than any time since 9/11 – we find ourselves living in fear, that sleeper terrorists – or more likely – some psycho with a gun might kill us at our place of work or a shopping mall or even at church. So perhaps this year the words in the Christmas story that should command our attention are the angels’ words to the shepherds: “Do not fear!’ Reminding us, that one of the products of faith through the ages has been not only comfort, but courage. The novelist Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead, Home, and Lila, wrote an essay recently in the New York Review of Books, in which she said: “I have something I have felt the need to say. America is full of fear. Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” (Marilynne Robinson, “Fear,” The New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015.) Do we get it?

So, in these ways and more, like a person hurrying down a busy street, momentarily transfixed by a department story window, we pause in the midst of our Christmas rush, to hear this story, to light a candle, to sing Silent Night, and go home.

Several years ago, Dean McIntyre, the Music Resources Director of The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Discipleship, and also a church organist, told this story:

A few years ago, as I played the organ for our church’s late-night Christmas Eve service, I noticed a well-dressed thirty-something woman, alone in the pew, singing, praying, reading, and listening along with the rest of the congregation. As we moved from the opening celebration of “Joy to the World” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” through the lessons and carols, into Holy Communion, and finally into the quiet and meditation of lighting candles and singing “Silent Night,” I observed that she was no longer singing. As she stared at the flame of her own hand-held candle and stood in silence while the congregation spread the light and sang the carol, tears began to flow. After others had departed, she remained silent in her pew, still holding the now-extinguished candle. After I had closed up the organ, I approached her as subtly and gently as I could.

“Hello. Merry Christmas,” I said softly with a smile. She gradually revealed that she was in town visiting friends for the holidays. And as she continued to dab at her tears through our conversation, I learned that she had lost both parents in a six-month period a few years earlier and that she had recently gone through a difficult divorce. She was obviously an emotionally vulnerable person, perhaps still grieving, perhaps still angry.

“You know, I was just fine tonight. My friends didn’t want to come, which is okay with me. I really enjoyed the singing, the candles, the sermon, the Communion, and being with warm and wonderful people. But as I watched more and more candles being lit, and finally lit mine, and as we sang ‘Silent Night’ so beautifully, I just fell apart. It made me remember Christmas Eves at home with my own family when I was a child and special times with my husband.  I’m not a person who breaks down and cries over such things, but it was those candles and ‘Silent Night’ that did it to me.  I’m not sad — I’m happy! And yet, I’m crying and my stomach is tied in knots.” We talked for a short time longer, then I escorted her to her car and said goodbye.” (Dean McIntyre, Christmas Eve Musical Hospitality, Discipleship Resources, the United Methodist Church.)

Like this young woman, we shouldn’t be surprised tonight if we experience a flood of feelings, emotions, images, and remembrances from the past, some pleasant and some not, some welcome and some not, feelings about our lives and family and faith and other things important to us. Through the hearing of the story, through the lighting of candles and the singing of “Silent Night,” may Christ be reborn in us, bringing healing, courage, compassion, and hope. Amen.




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