28 December 2008

Christmas Eve 2008 - Sermon

Christmas Eve 2008

St. Andrew’s Church

by Stuart Pike

Incredibly enough, we have finally made it to Christmas! The wind up for the season seems to be at such a frenetic pace that I am sure many people are simply glad to see Christmas because much of the rush will finally be over.

I, like many people I know, cannot experience Christmas without remembering past Christmases and all that they brought. Christmas for me when I was growing up had a lot to do with family and with traditions. As we usually lived far away from extended family, Christmas meant my immediate family was the focus. Our parents, my sister and my identical twin brother spent the holidays together.

From my earliest memories, there seemed to be two competing stories or themes about Christmas. One theme was about Santa and reindeer and presents - The Santa story. From the colour red of Santa’s outfit, to the sound of sleighbells, to the shiny garlands and Christmas ornaments, to the gaudy Christmas wrapping, to the sounds of toys being played and sometimes broken: this Santa Story was noisy and fun and somewhat garish. I remember one Christmas that my aunt who lived 1000 kilometres away shipped my brother and me a toy percussion ensemble kit with drums and cymbals and more, much to our delight and the rest of my family’s despair. That aunt was persona non grata for years to come!

The other Christmas theme was always there in my family as well. I thank God that my parents brought us up with all the opportunities to experience holy things not only at Christmas, but throughout the year. This other story, or theme was, of course, the real Christmas story: the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem all those many years ago - the Jesus story.

This theme was quiet and still and holy. Despite the sound of the glorious anthems and music in Church which I loved, despite the words of the readings and the sermon, the message of the Jesus Story was felt, more than understood, in a mysterious and perfectly silent peace. The anthems, the readings, the sermon all simply pointed to this mystery, they put the mystery into a setting, a container, but the mystery was received in awe and wonder in stillness. For me it was sometime during the distribution of Holy Communion that this mystery was received.

Of all of the Christmas hymns which I knew, it was “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which spoke to me the most. I felt its truth. “Above [Bethlehem’s] deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” Yes, that was right to me. Most of our life was like a dark and dreamless sleep when compared to the light of those silent stars and the truth to which they witnessed. And, yes, yet in our dark streets shines “the everlasting light.” Yes, holy things aren’t apart from the everyday, but the everlasting light shines in the midst of it all - sometimes invisibly, it seems, and yet perceivable. The lesson from Isaiah speaks of this light when it starts off, saying, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined.”

Essential to the deep truth of this hymn were the words about, ‘how silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given’, and though, “no ear may hear his coming, ... where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” And the hymn ends with, “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” I had been told that Emmanuel meant, “God with us.”

I must have been around eight when I remember really listening to the words of that hymn. I was left awe-struck by them. They were so real and true and deep. They left me feeling so excited and with a sense of immense privilege that God, who I had always assumed was far too great to be concerned with petty human affairs, actually rushed in to be with us - to abide with us.

Of course it wasn’t something which my eight-year-old brain really understood: how exactly did it all work? But then, today, it is equally not something which my 48-year-old brain really understands either. But even at the age of eight I knew that the truth of this mystery was something which can be known without having all the facts along with diagrams and a flowchart to explain it all.

Although I loved all the noise and fun of the Santa story, I knew that the Jesus story was deeper and lovelier and truer.

It has only been in the years since I was eight that I have come to a fuller appreciation of the mystery. I’ve learned some new words and read of some new images. Incarnation is probably the most helpful word to point toward the mystery. Anyone who knows Spanish knows that “Carne” means meat. In-carn-ation, then, means that God became flesh, or human. How and why God did that is certainly a mystery, but one which can be grasped at if one can begin to imagine the great love that God has for us. God is a lover whose love is so great that he wants to be right with us.

And God did it in the most amazing way - he came to us in the greatest humility - as a newborn baby. And not any baby - a baby born in the deepest poverty - laid in the animal’s feeding trough instead of a cradle. And the message was heard not by the royalty and the wealthy of the land, but by the humblest of people - the shepherds who lived outdoors with the animals which they looked after. This God, wanting to include everyone, came to us as the humblest so that no one should be left out.

It would be after the late Christmas Eve service as I went outside with my family that I would always look up hoping that there would be no clouds and I would see the silent stars going by. For me, no matter where I lived, it was Bethlehem, and the great mystery had just taken place that night.

The deepest, truest part of that hymn is in the prayer of the fourth verse which prays to the holy child of Bethlehem to descend to us and be born in us today. God comes to us not only in the child born two thousand years ago, but he comes to us again and again, born in human hearts today. I have witnessed this amazing mystery of others being Jesus to me throughout my life. But more astounding than that is the thought, for each of us, that the holy child of Bethlehem is not only born in others, but is born even in ourselves.

I wish you all a joyous Christmas as we celebrate the true story: the Jesus story. And remember, all of our children will learn the Santa story; make sure you let them experience the Jesus story. “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

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