Weekly Preaching: Christmas Eve/Christmas

December 19th, 2018

Christmas Eve. There's still usable Advent material in my previous blog, "Preaching Advent," but beyond that, here are some key questions and thoughts I’ve assembled over the years of preaching Christmas Eve:

What do they come for? 

I try to remember what people came for — and precious few would say We come on Christmas Eve to hear Rev. Howell’s sermon. They come for the music, and at our place for that magical moment when we sing Silent Night, lower the lights, and raise our candles. It’s hokey — and I love it. I’ve tried to name the wonder so it isn’t just “pretty.” If it’s beautiful, it’s because it happens in the dark. Lots of darkness in the world, and in our lives, so the little candle is a promise, a pledge, a defiance. It’s a parable of a faithful life of resistance to evil.

Gandalf (Lord of the Rings) said it well: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”  Or this, from the medieval Franciscan, Giovanni Giacondo: “The gloom of the world is but a shadow / Behind it, yet within reach, is joy / There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see / And to see, we have only to look / I beseech you to look.”

It’s also helpful to help them hear their own music. We have a soprano sing “O Holy Night,” and there’s much in there (“chains shall he break…”). Last year I drew their attention to “Then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth," suggesting that the order matters; it is the appearing of Jesus that defines our worth. We sing “Away in a Manger,” and I’ve invited them to pray the last stanza (“Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me I pray; bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there”). When I wrote a book about Christmas music (Why This Jubilee?) a couple of years ago, I found myself surprised, delighted and moved over and over by the depth of theology, psychology, geography and history in our simple carols. I now try to help people really hear what they've sung by heart forever

Who comes?  

It’s a cheap shot to ding the C&Es. We aren’t crowded on Dec. 24 because of them. Rather, everybody comes and they bring visiting parents, aunts, grandchildren, etc. But you do have the very occasional attender; how are we to speak to them invitingly? I’m fond of what the novelist Julian Barnes said: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” I believe the most adamant atheist and the most casual spiritual person have a deep-seated longing for home — for Christ. Name the hollow place for what it is.

What do they need to hear?  

I’ve chided the sporadic attenders and pleaded with them to continue coming. Not helpful. I do suspect Christmas Eve isn’t a bad time to quite gently take on popular atheism. Among the many anti-Christian bestsellers was God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (may God rest his soul). I’d play on that and say, Correct, God is not great. God, rather, is quite small, vulnerable, a God who doesn’t conquer everything but gets defeated in the most profound embodiment of suffering love ever. Jesus did not rise up miraculously in the manger and denounce his foes. Jesus has a tender place in his heart for Christopher Hitchens.

What mood are they in?

Some are sentimental, some are giddy, some are edgy, some are facing family dysfunction. Some have already been drinking. I think almost all are in a bit of a “What really matters” mood. If you’ve never read Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, you should. He says this: “One Christmas was so much like another… I can never remember if it snowed for 6 days and 6 nights when I was 12 or 12 days and 12 nights when I was 6… All the Christmases roll down to the sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street.” 

I’ve used this tactic; I’ll ask, What did you get for Christmas in 1998? Or in 2004? No one can remember, of course. Then I ask, Whom did you love in 1998? Who was with you in 2004? “Through the years we all will be together.” It’s not the stuff. I giggle when I recall my girls getting bikes on Christmas Eve. But what year was it? And where on earth are those bikes now? It’s the people, the love, the relationships. That’s all we have to give, all we really want to receive. And that’s what God gives. Not this thing or that answer to prayer. God gives God’s own self at Christmas.

What is my tone?  

Of all preaching moments, my tone on 12/24 had best be gentle, slower than usual, resonant with wisdom, patience, kindness and wonder. Sighing is in order. If you have a smart-alecky voice like mine, you have to practice.

Where do I go first?  

Since homilies on Christmas Eve should be short, you have to take people somewhere quickly. There can't be a lot of reiterating the text or ramping in with chit-chat. You have to take them to a very different place quickly. It could be your grandparents’ Christmas tree. I like a couple of historical moments: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife died in 1835. He remarried in 1843, then she died in a house fire in 1861. Shortly thereafter, his son was wounded in the Civil War. With war raging, and bearing so much loss, he woke up on Christmas day and wrote, “I heard the bells on Christmas day Their old familiar carols play, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men...The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men. And in despair I bowed my head ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’"

This sequence moves me every time. There is sorrow and good cause to feel forlorn at Christmas, but Longfellow continued: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.’”  That was my sermon one year.

Or you have Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s amazing letter from a Nazi concentration camp: “I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas...I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant: We are beggars, it’s true. The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.”

What about the text?  

If you follow my blog, you know I’m big on attention to exegetical detail. I think I am less so on Christmas Eve, although there are little details in the texts that intrigue and could be lingered on to make a whole homily.  The name Augustus, who promised everything Christ came to deliver: peace, salvation, good news, unity. You could cite historians regarding the situation when Jesus was born, but it would be hard to top Madeleine L’Engle: “That was no time for a child to be born / With the earth betrayed by war and hate / In a land in the crushing grip of Rome; / Honor and truth were trampled by scorn / Yet here did the Saviour make his home. / When is the time for love to be born? / The inn is full on the planet earth, / Yet love still takes the risk of birth.” 

The phrase, “No room in the inn” is easy to spiritualize, and I’d commend Frederick Buechner’s eloquent lament over the fate of the innkeeper. There's Mary “pondering” in her heart. So much in Luke 2, much less John 1

Anything you might report on?  

I think of the prophets and their symbolic actions: is there something you can do and then just tell about it? A couple of years ago, in the gap between Christmas Eve services, I drove to inner city Charlotte just to see what if anything might happen, if I might notice something. I parked, and immediately (as if God set it up) a city bus stopped where I was standing. An older woman, looking utterly exhausted, got off with a battered, rolling suitcase. She sighed and looked at me. I innocuously said “Merry Christmas!” She moaned a little, and said, “Not for me.” I said, “Tell me about it.” She squinted, looked me over, dressed as I was in dress shirt, wool slacks, and with my very Caucasian complexion, and said, “You don’t look like the kind of fellow who would understand.” I hung in there and said, “Try me anyway.”

I reported this in my homily that evening and tried, gently and briefly, to explore who’s hurting out there, if would we understand, and how Jesus came not so much for us but for her and her kin, looking very much like someone who would understand.

The main thing, the only thing

It’s the Incarnation. God became flesh; God came down; God is as close as my own heartbeat and the breath I just took. God understands us, and redeems us from the inside out. This is why God’s revealing of God’s heart and mind came through an infant — something we all once were, something that elicits tenderness from even the hardest among us. This is the only real unique thing about our faith. Hans Urs von Balthasar said it well: “Only the Christian religion, which in its essence is communicated by the eternal child of God, keeps alive in its believers the lifelong awareness of their being children, and therefore of having to ask and give thanks for things.”

"What can we say come Christmas Eve/Christmas?" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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