Why do you think so many people attend Christmas Eve services? I’m reading a new book on preaching. I, too, hope it helps. I’ve learned you don’t come to church to hear us preach. Well, shatter my ego – I’m just getting the memo. I can tell by your head nods you already know this – right?
Professor Nathan Walker says you come here primarily to experience something both within and beyond yourself. Deeply felt emotions, memories and experiences we keep to ourselves and rarely speak, intersect our yearnings for a larger, greater world. Some tell me they come on Christmas Eve hoping for a closer connection with God; others yearn to hear that in awe, wonder, and creation they do encounter the divine. For others, doubts and fears rob them of all joy and they come to find hope and peace. One year a father happened in here on Christmas Eve. His teenage daughter died in a car accident on this night some years back. He yearns to hear the Christmas story, to be with people who believe it, even when he can’t.
Something about this night evokes worship and adoration. The rush of Christmas preparation is about done. The streets are quiet. Christmas lights, I notice in driving home after the late service, seem brighter. On this night I feel God’s presence is so close. As a child I would look into the Christmas Eve sky, stars brightly shining, and wonder through Luke’s eyes, what would I have seen? I lingered, hoping to see a brighter star – the very one God sent to lead the magi to Christ. What’s the source of our longings – maybe God?
Later I learned scholars don’t really know when Jesus was born, but are pretty sure it wasn’t tonight. I learned Bethlehem’s star could have been a comet or two planets aligning. Theologian Scott Hahn says, “No human mind, unaided by angels, could have dreamt up Christmas.” So my humble advice – don’t throw out what scholars cannot explain.
Over the years I have grown more convinced Christmas is true, regardless of historical verification. Christmas is true – because our hopes and fears meet at Bethlehem’s manger where God comes to love the fears and doubts of the years right out of us. This night let us hear anew the angels, “Do not fear, for I bring you good news of great joy. Born this day, a Savior, Messiah, Christ the Lord. And here’s the sign. Now go and see.” And that’s why are here – we must go for ourselves, pause, linger long enough for joy and adoration to arise within, and you get it – all God is doing to be with us, in us, and among us.
In my older age I am getting over my impatience with tacky Christmas decorations, stupid seasonal songs, over spending, crass commercialism, over eating and over drinking. In a strange way, church and culture yearn for joy. Some try to create joy – others receive the joy God brings. Either way, people who don’t get Christmas will never understand Christmas joy, if we adamantly correct those who say, “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas;” and write off those who come up with more reasons than Jesus for the season. Maybe if we dared live joyfully, and realize they long to do the same – and love and include them with no conditions attached, God can handle the rest. Do we really understand that Christmas is a feast – a party? There’s a reason.
Fr. Richard Leonard, a Jesuit, tells of Christmas midnight mass where he presided three weeks after his ordination. The sacristan designed and made special gold vestments for him to wear that night. The church was packed with people filled with more than one type of Christmas cheer. Five men, guests, seated themselves on the front pew. One guides the others through the service. After the mass Fr. Richard welcomes them. One fellow says, “Father, you wear your frock divinely.” It turns out these guys are showgirls at a club down the street. The one who knew the service convinced the others they needed to get religion between shows that night and brings them. He says, “Seeing how we enjoyed your show, you should come to ours. Tickets will await you at the door. The last show starts at 3am.” Fr. Leonard was horrified – a newly minted priest at a drag show? What if the Bishop finds out? Back at the rectory he tells the story to three Jesuit seminarians. Guess where they end up? Free tickets, a discreet table in the back, complimentary drinks – they watch, hoping quietly to slip out, when Mark – in persona as Marcia – wishes all a Merry Christmas. She says they have been to midnight mass tonight and want to welcome the clergy. A stoplight hits their table – and Marcia calls Richard up to lead them in singing, “O come all ye faithful.” On the way, he figures his career and life are done. Not so – but within six months he buried three of them – suicide, AIDS, and a heroin overdose. A fourth man wanted to get out – and Richard and the Jesuits help him. Fr. Richard later baptized him, did his wedding and received his wife into the church. The fifth, the one who brought them to church, thrown out of his home when he told his parents he was gay, now works full-time with homeless teenagers.
Some, Fr. Richard says, would probably say those men had no business being in church for Christmas Eve – and certainly he and the church should have stayed clear of that club. At Christmas God reveals otherwise – a lowly couple, shepherds, angels. We see clearly God’s eternal nature to reach for and love us all with good news of great joy. It’s called Christmas – and love overcomes fear; light drives away darkness so we see God face-to-face and in that glance realize God has come to be with us, so we can be with God, all of us. Jesus – born into this world, into the lives of the likes of you and me, lifts us into God’s life and love. That, my friends is the real Christmas miracle – God so loves us to come, live and die among us, and assure us that one day, finally, divine joy will overcome our deepest fears. As wonderfully joyful as this night is, hold on – God’s not done yet.