Sermon: The Meaning of Christmas

A Christmas Eve Sermon

This year is the 300th anniversary of the writing of “Joy to the World”.

I have been trying hard, all week,
to write a sermon for you
on that carol,
but it kept eluding me.
Joy for some reason felt out of reach.

This December,
I listened to the Christmas songs
on the radio,
trumpet,
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
With those kids jingle belling,
and everyone telling you,
‘Be of good cheer’ …
it’s the hap … happiest season of all.”

And those words felt far away
from the stories I heard this year of:
dear ones missed,
injustices witnessed,
tricky relationships navigated,
loved ones worried about, and
Christmas chaos unlocked.

Amidst songs of roasting chestnuts and open fires,
I found myself asking:
Where is the space for real people
and all of their complexity?

This question brings me to today’s story of Christmas.

It makes me think of Mary and Joseph
who witnessed exploitation of the poor,
knew long hours and exhaustion
and had experienced days and years
that went much differently than planned.

While it’s tempting to paint
the holy family’s trek to Bethlehem
as peaceful and serene,
that’s far from truth.

After a long day of travel,
I imagine them arriving in Bethlehem
with aching bodies,
knocking on door after to door,
looking for a place to stay.
However, the crowds have beat them.
Every. Last. Place. Is full.
Finally, someone takes pity on them,
and says, well, you can sleep in my barn.
There, Mary tenaciously labors,
determined and red-faced,
as noisy animals meander around her.

Even afterward,
I can imagine an anxious Joseph,
awkwardly rocking a squalling newborn,
while Mary, limp with exhaustion,
tries to rest on a pile of hay.

What strikes me about this Christmas scene
is its humanity.
Mary and Joseph know what it is
to experience the full spectrum
of the human experience –
disappointment and joy,
exhaustion and surprise,
utter chaos and soft love.

It is there,
in our frail humanity,
that the Holy choses to be born.

I thought about that this Sunday,
as some of us went caroling
to those who are sick,
or home-bound,
or can’t attend Sunday worship.

At our first stop,
we huddled together outside,
singing of angels, and of Christmas,
and peace, love and healing
birthed in our very midst.

And before you know it,
someone suggested “Joy to the World”
and the energic lyrics tumbled out,
loud and unguarded from my mouth.
The lively words vibrated in my lungs,
as I looked around
and considered our frail humanity.

I thought of my own frailty:
grief I experienced this year,
ways I wish I had done things better,
relationships I’ve still to mend,
and how we all are just looking for a friend.

With an affectionate pang,
I realized that
we are all people who worry about dear ones,
who have fragile dreams and bodies,
and experience the spectrum of the human experience.
And yet there we were,
tears of joy leaking out of some,
because in our midst, Love sprung up.

Then we hopped in our cars,
and traveled to the home of a 97 year-old.
I don’t think I have seen a brighter smile from that man,
than the moment we crowded into the living room
and filled that space with our fervent fa-la-la-la-las.

By the time that we made it to “Silent Night”,
I glanced at a glass star
hanging in the window light.

And it came to me,
how much I wish for joy,
for dear ones to live forever,
for the world to treat people fairly,
for my own ability to find meaning.

As we gathered ‘round
even with our human limitations,
I witnessed radiant beams spill through that star,
streaming right on in the window,
from heavens afar;
streaming right on into
– it felt like –
the bruises and aches,
of our world and lives.

Christ, our Savior, is born.
Christ, our Savior, is born.

And now I see:
Even when we have given up
on looking for joy,
or consolation or care,
these things still come to us.

This revelation returned to me afresh
this week as I watched the
computer-animated version of the Grinch.

The premise of the movie is that
the Grinch grew up in an orphanage,
left out of every holiday tradition.
In retaliation, one Christmas,
he decides to steal every last stocking,
present, and tree in Whoville.

Inside the last house,
a girl surprises him,
thinking he is Santa.
She welcomes him, wraps him in a hug.
and even explains the town’s tradition of holiday singing,
which makes them feel something more.

She returns to bed.
The Grinch finishes his thievery
and then pushes his bounty
to a cliff overlooking the city.
With his sleigh full of presents,
and he proudly celebrates:
he has stolen Christmas.

And yet, when the little girl wakes up,
without stocking or presents or trees,
the mother of the little girl says,
Christmas can’t be stolen
because Christmas comes from the heart.

And they gather in the center of town
with the rest of Whoville,
and still they sing.
This shocks the Grinch
until at last he closes his eyes,
and listens to the music,

“Welcome, welcome!
Fah Who Rah Mus!

Welcome, welcome!
Dah Who Dah Mus!

Christmas Day is in our grasp!
So long as we have hands to clasp!

Fah Who Foraze
Dah Who Doraze

Welcome home.
Welcome home.
Welcome home.

The words sink in.

Suddenly,
the Grinch realizes
all of him is welcomed:
the cynical part, the misanthropic part,
the sad part, the lonely part,
the hungry part, the human part.

He goes down
and brings everything back and apologizes.

In turn,
the little girl invites him to his first holiday gathering,
where she receives him as a friend.

Welcome home.

Suddenly,
it feels like the door has been flung wide
to you and to me.

With surprise,
I see that no matter where we find ourselves
this Christmas season,
whether harried or hurried, hungry or hushed,
mercy leaps to embrace us,
and makes room at the creche.

There is space for our whole selves at the manger,
somewhere between animals,
smelly shepherds and strangers,
and as we gather
singing, sometimes off cue,
we discover together,

love

joy

and possibility,

born again; born anew.

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