A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Good evening, Merry Christmas, and … You Made It. 

Every year, every Christmas Eve when I stand here and look out on all your faces, I always want to congratulate you for making it here tonight. Whether your December was harried and overbooked and you had way too much to do so that you’re resolving next year to do less and not be so exhausted--you made it.

Or maybe you had a lonely month, a first (or second or third) Christmas without a friend or family member you sorely miss. Or you don’t have all those December distractions you once had and thought you’d never miss but kind of do and you’ve struggled with this quieter life you now lead--whichever of these scenarios most describes you, you made it. You’re here.

I’m going to extend that grace and gratitude to myself, and my family, this year. We made it. Those familiar with our lives know we’ve had a year that proves the existence--here on earth--of hell. There were times this fall I never thought I’d be able to stand in a pulpit again, definitely not Christmas Eve 2022. But we made it.

This space holds all that we bring in the way only (and I mean this) only church was built to do. And it’s the most beautiful thing on earth.

Our church here--I’ve pointed this out years past--looks like a barn. It’s gorgeous at Easter, but it was built for Christmas. I wish I could find out which of those two holidays was first held here back when it was half the size and space it now is. Maybe it’s the wood rafters--I think that’s a lot of it. They make this place look like a barn, a stable. Phillip Larkin, English poet of irreverence whom probably no priest should quote from the pulpit, but I do love his poem Churchgoing, described an old English church in which he sat as an “accoutred frowsty barn.” Accoutred frowsty barn. I think of it often when I sit in this space.

So the wood rafters certainly make this a Christmas church. So does the fact that no matter how hard we try to clean this place up after our Children’s Christmas Pageant (last Sunday), you still always find bits of hay and pageant props lying about--the wooden manger, angels’ haloes, loads of glitter!

Or maybe what makes me think this church was built for Christmas is the intimacy of the space, how it somehow manages to be majestic and cozy at the same time--I credit the architects who worked on it over the years for making this so. The effect tonight is of that first night, crowded under timber post and beam. It never fails to remind me of paintings you see of the creche, my favorite being those where an impossible number and variety of people--men, boys, shepherds, magi, old women, midwives, gawkers and villagers, shepherds’ friends--all crowd around the manger. As if the differences of their lives--and there are many, for them, and for us--make zero difference under that roof, with God.

The Easter story, our other great feast, doesn’t have the equivalent of this. It’s of course our primary story, without which we wouldn’t be here at all. And it has chaos and crowds, but more ominous, as crowds can be. People acting in mobs can be more dangerous than those acting as individuals--we know that from psychology. And so think of Jesus’ trial, and crucifixion, the crowd crying “Crucify, crucify him.” Easter also gives us fallen, complex characters, like Peter, who betrays Christ. Pilate, who washes his hands of complicity. The disciples, who doubt the women’s story after the resurrection. And it goes on.

Christmas, however, is first and foremost a celebration of being human. The Incarnation, God taking on flesh, becoming us, is how in our faith we proclaim the deep down goodness of who and what we are. There are bad actors in the story, to be sure. Herod the Great, evil king. Or the inhospitable innkeeper--actually he’s not in the Biblical story, we added him later and is, to us now, essential to the telling of it. But these do little to dent the feeling of unalloyed goodness of this story, and of the people in it. It’s a story about God’s love for the world and for us, plain and simple. So much so, that God chose to dwell in and among us.

Christmas is of second most importance to Easter, but it comes first. And it begins our story. The first message we hear about ourselves as an old year draws to a close and a new year begins, and as we are all gathered together under these rafters like those so long ago, is that we are good. We contain, and are a part of, God. So let’s take that with us tonight and into this new year. Live your life--and treat others--like you know these things are true.

Merry Christmas. Amen.