A Sermon for Christmas Eve 2022
One of my favorite parts of Christmas has always been the pageants when children act out the story of Mary, Joseph, and the baby born in a manger. It is the most evocative story that we know. I like pageants because they are so down to earth and because there is always the potential for things to veer off course.
Last Saturday, we held a Christmas pageant rehearsal. When it came time for one of the shepherds to say his big line, “I have wonderful news! The Messiah is born,” this little boy mistakenly shouted out: “I have wonderful news! The mimosa is born.” As we all know, every Sunday tens of thousands of Episcopalians confuse messiahs with mimosas!
Likewise, many of us confuse Christmas with gift giving. It’s easy. After all, throughout November and December we are bombarded with countless ads for gifts and reminders to buy toys, scarfs and scented candles for everyone we know.
Ideally, our search to find the perfect gift for someone we love is a sort of spiritual pilgrimage to find the right present for the right person at the right time. Gift-giving is the language of the tongue-tied. It allows us to say, “I love you!” “I care for you!” or “You are very special to me!” with a present.
However, our ambitions often fall short when we try to tie them too tightly to material things. I remember one Christmas when all that I wanted was a puppy. I unwrapped one gift after another, complaining and heartbroken, because there wasn’t a dog in any box that I opened. There I was surrounded by presents but sulking.
This is a season of anticipated gifts, gifts bought, gifts sent, gifts given, gifts received, and even gifts returned. Retail workers will tell you that the days immediately following Christmas are among the most stressful of the year. Stores are flooded with folks who are not satisfied with the gifts that they received at Christmas and want to return them. The other unsatisfied group are those who are frustrated that the gifts that they gave were not fully appreciated.
There is an old story of a young man who visited his mother every Sunday night. One Christmas, she gave him two ties as a gift. The next Sunday, when he came to visit her, he wore one of the ties. When his mother looked up and saw the tie he was wearing, she said. “What’s the matter, don’t you like the other tie?”
Ever since the Wise Men arrived to gifts to greet the baby Jesus, we have been exchanging presents at Christmas. Sometimes, it gets out of hand. We spend weeks buying a long list of things for people who already have too much. They in turn are left with more than they want or can use. After a while, the novelty of almost every gift wears off.
There is something anticlimactic about the aftermath of Christmas when the whole celebration hinges on presents. After the stress of searching for the perfect gift and the excitement of opening presents, we are left with piles of wrapping paper, ruins of ribbons and boxes scattered all about.
Of course, a few months later, we can barely remember what we received. What we always remember, however, is the time spent with family in the quiet hours and days after all of the presents have been opened. It’s cliche, but the best gifts are usually not the expensive presents, but the gift of time with one another, words of appreciation carefully written inside a card, a warm embrace or the gentle touch of a hand and a smile that conveys deep love.
The true meaning of Christmas is about the gift that God gave to us. The Bible says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” The greatest gift is not under the tree, but in a manger. It is bound in swaddling clothes, not wrapped in shiny paper. Christ is the reason for celebrating Christmas, but he often gets lost in our festivities and gift giving. Christ is the ultimate sign that God loves us, and we in turn are invited to love God back.
The English essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote that there was once a philosopher standing alone before a window on the top-floor of his home overlooking the city at night. Down below people were going about their business – babies were crying, people were dying. Some folks were struggling, while others were rejoicing. Some were cold and seeking shelter, while others laughed and sang. But the philosopher was unmoved by it all. He said to himself, “I am alone here under the stars.” Is God like that? Is God aloof, alone, above it all? Is God a disinterested observer? The child born in a manger, God’s greatest gift, would tell us otherwise for His name is Emmanuel. “God with us.”
For those of us who believe that love is the greatest gift of all, Christmas is the most beautiful expression of love. The child in a manger is God’s ultimate word of hope, a light in our darkness, a wish for justice, and an offer of peace and joy in world that can be cold and chaotic.
Take away the birth of Christ and you will take away the One who changed the course of history more than any Caesar, Emperor, Czar or President. Take him away and you will take away much of the world’s great art and all the cathedrals of Europe, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bach’s concertos and Raphael’s paintings. Take him away and you will have to take away most of the world’s hospitals and universities, which first developed within the life of the Church.
Without Jesus, many great movements would never have taken place – the fight against slavery, the ending of apartheid, the refusal to accept the suffering and starvation of countless human beings. Untold acts of generosity, hospital and prison visits, children mentored, friends forgiven, marriages saved, and addictions overcome would never have occurred. All of these came about because of God’s gift at Christmas. The arrival of the Messiah tells us that the God who created the universe is not remote or aloof, but He comes among us in flesh like ours.
And God gives us the freedom to accept or reject His gifts. It is easy to take them for granted and act as if we had provided everything for ourselves, including this planet, our health, our families, and our freedom. But these gifts come from God are essential to our ability to succeed, to work, and to provide for those we love.
We take it for granted that with the click of a finger we can purchase a ticket and fly across the country to join our family for Christmas in the luxury of a safe, well-heated home. We wake up to a world illuminated by sun rays that have traveled 93 million miles in four minutes to reach us. We sleep at night under the Milky Way, which is composed of 100 thousand million stars. We take it all of this for granted and then have the audacity to wonder, “Is there really a God?”
If ever a giver were made to feel frustrated with the ungrateful recipients of his gifts, it was God. You would think that our Creator would seek vengeance, but God doesn’t. Instead, the Holy One overlooks our ingratitude and flaws and waits for us to learn how to mirror divine love and treat others with kindness. God comes in human flesh so that we might see the miracle of God in everyone around us.
And miracle of miracles, we come away from Christmas happier when we worry less about the gifts under the tree and focus more on appreciating what God has already given us. Such freedom simply to be allows us to savor each moment with family and friends.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The peace and awe of this hymn captures the essence of Christmas. It was written by Phillips Brooks, the Episcopal Church’s finest preacher, who in 1865, as the young, 30-year-old priest, visited the Holy Land for the first time. Like so many who travel there, he was profoundly moved.
On Christmas Eve, his friends and he set out on a two-hour horseback ride to visit the fields in Bethlehem where the shepherds first saw the star announcing the birth of the Messiah. Once they arrived, Brooks surveyed the scene, took out a pen and wrote these words,
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by…
And the beauty of this hymn is the way that it insists that what happened in Bethlehem so long ago continues to happen to us whenever we accept the love of God, who comes to us in the vulnerability of a little child. This holy infant invites us to leave behind our selfishness and the need to prove ourselves and invites us to surrender to peace and love and joy. Brooks writes,
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.
May that be your experience this Christmas! Amen.