The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve
December 24, 2021
O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
Last Christmas, when once again we had closed for public worship, as we were watching infection rates soar, not knowing that some of the darkest days of the pandemic were still ahead of us, about ten of us gathered in the church to present for you all a live streamed Christmas Eve mass. Almost all of you had been separated from the sacrament and could not make your Christmas Communion. It was not an easy time, and yet Jesus came. We were the “people who have walked in darkness,” and we still saw the “Great Light.”
In many ways we are in a different place now. We have excellent vaccines, therapies that work and reduce both morbidity and mortality, access to masks and testing, and a better understanding of what we are facing. We also have two years of experience responding to Covid, learning from our mistakes, trying to do out best. And yet, here we are again. As the darkest days of the year have arrived, infection rates in the City are up over 430% and there are more positive tests than at any other point in the pandemic. More members of our own community have become ill in the last two weeks than in the last two years, and folks are frightened. We are hunkering down again. Advent gave us a sense of quickening, but really mostly because of the sense of the pandemic’s coming surge.
It is easy – and perfectly normal – for us to feel a sense of absence: the absence of our normal life, our routines and connections; absence of both physical and metaphorical light and warmth; absence of hope; perhaps, even, absence of God. Christmas comes to remind us that no matter what the powers and accidents of world have wrought, that there is always light, always warmth, that God is always near, bearing hope and love. Christmas reminds us of all we have forgotten, all the ways that the love of God manifested in the work of so many people has shone through, especially the distance we have travelled since March 2020.
Christmas is, in fact inevitable. That is the genius of the Christian calendar. No matter how we feel personally, whether we are ready or not, the great sequence of feast, fast, and ordinary days, keeps rolling. On the one hand, it marks the days, weeks, and years until Jesus comes again in power and great triumph. On the other it ensures the cyclical retelling of Jesus life, death and resurrection so we may practice our responses to incarnation, to healing, to joy, to death, and to resurrection. We may be happy and carefree on Good Friday, yet we are called into the deepest, highly moving recollection of Jesus’ death on the cross, made to confront what Jesus’ absence might feel like. And, perhaps like tonight, though we may be full of worry and anxiety, still Jesus is born for us in Bethlehem and we behold that “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The Incarnation is inevitable. It is and was and ever shall be. It happened in Bethlehem in Roman Judea over two thousand years ago. It will happen in a time to come. Most importantly for us, here, tonight, it happens now. Into a world of economic, political, and social uncertainly, of waxing and waning empires, of pestilence, in which hope might be in short supply, God breaks in. And Christmas teaches us that this inbreaking is inevitable, and when it comes it still can feel unexpected:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. Thou hast multiplied the nation, thou hast increased its joy; they rejoice before thee as with joy at the harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
God in Christ bursts in and gives us new perspective, shows us that these travails are temporary, that while they are absolutely real and even devastating, that in and through whatever we face we are loved, understood at the deepest level, and held forever by God. God, taking on our human nature, taking on our flesh, living in our body, feeling all that humans can feel, experiencing the cycle of our lives, empathises with us in all our pain, suffers with us, and yet empowers us to transcend this moment and know that it is love and reconciliation, love and atonement with God in Christ that are God’s desire for us. The Incarnation gives us the power to behold in the world all the incarnations of God’s love that surround us even now: doctors, nurses, all the other medical workers and caregivers, researchers and scientists who bring us everything from the technology we use to connect to the vaccines and medicines we need, all those other essential workers, delivery drivers, market clerks, farmers, and our friends and family.
Tonight we can see ourselves in the shepherds who, in the midst of their labour, living in that world of uncertainty and anxiety, encountered that angel – whose appearing itself unsurprisingly inspired fear – and were jolted into a new sense of understanding as “the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
Jesus enters in, whether we are ready or not, to overturn our despair, fill us with hope, bring us out of ourselves, and strengthen us as members of something larger than ourselves.
The Christmas story tells us that God enters into our world, intervenes into history, into the lives of everyday people, not for his own amusement or out of boredom or petty rivalries with other gods, but in order to inaugurate a new age, to bring about change and transformation.
The Christmas event reassures us, even on this strangest of Christmas Eves (the second in a row), that God loves and values each and every one of us, living our particular lives, in our particular circumstances, in our specific locations, and that God, having already broken into our world as that child in the manger, returns to us again and again to fill us with power and authority to do the hard work of love and justice to which we are called in the world. I pray that each of you can go from this place, as “the shepherds returned [from the Manger], glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Christmas Eve, 24 December 2020
© 2021 Andrew Charles Blume