I sit to write on Christmas Eve, trying, and trying again as I have for days, to bring words to the meaning of this day. For myself, of course, yes, but also for those who will gather in a few short hours now.
Last Christmas was almost unrecognizable for all that we could not do, but this year? It seemed possible that what we remember as ‘normal’ was within reach again. And then word came that a new variant is taking hold and spreading at unprecedented rates. And by the day before Christmas Eve, the messages kept coming that one and then another we had hoped to see tonight will not be there, for one among themhad tested positive and their only option is to isolate, regardless of their symptoms.
As of Christmas Eve in the morning we plan to still gather, but distanced from one another and fully masked as we have been for months. We will share battery operated candles instead of wax and perhaps sing fewer verses of our beloved hymns, all with the aim of keeping each other safe. It will look a bit more like it did ‘before,’ but it is all still very much with us, isn’t it, this much too often deadly virus which caught us unawares and continues to take its toll on us.
Perhaps this is so for you as well, that with all of this and more, I find the words I speak tonight are slow coming together. In the end, what is spoken may not be much more than this, but what I have I offer here:
- As I looked ahead to Epiphany and was considering the ‘star at its rising,’ I learned something new this week: the light from the stars takes 10,000 years to travel to us and that most of those stars are 10 billion years old. I stood outside for a moment last night and looked up into the clear December sky and considered how small we are and how short our span of time on this earth is. And I marveled that the God who created ALL of this and more than we can surely imagine, would come to earth as one of us and for a little while walk alongside us, submitting to the experience of being human with all of its hurts and hopes, joys and tragedies alike.
- I picked up the phone yesterday to hear the voice of the one whose barn we use on Christmas Eve for several of our services. It is a favorite of many as we gather near to the animals in their petting ‘zoo’ to hear the Christmas story in a place not much like that first Christmas except maybe in the straw bales we sit on and the smells which emanate from our worship companions: A miniature horse or two. A pig. Some rabbits. A peacock. And the ever-present cats who call that barn home as well. Dean was calling to see if we were still ‘on’ for Christmas Eve. And then he said he had a manger ready. That there is straw in it. But he didn’t have a ‘baby Jesus.’ And without it, he laughed, what would be the point? I assured him we would find one and bring it along and after a few calls and texts later we had one secured.
- That ‘baby Jesus’ actually belongs to a 5th grader who has outgrown it by now. It was delivered yesterday afternoon to the front door of a pastor with whose congregation we share these services. He texted to tell me that ‘baby Jesus’ had been delivered. That it was a little ‘creepy’ as it was so realistic. But that his eighteen-month-old son loves it and was even then wrestling with it. “Just call him Israel,” he typed into his phone. I laughed out loud to read his words and then wondered at how we all ‘wrestle with baby Jesus’ and the meaning of this birth for the world.
- It wasn’t long before the phone rang again. This time it was a colleague pastor from the Presybterian Church. They were in a bind, you see, for they had decided to use the individual communion kits for Christmas Eve. However, when they went to their stash left over from earlier in the pandemic, they discovered that they had spoiled. He wondered if we had some to spare, that they only needed 30. We did. And a few minutes later he swung by and picked them up. And I considered to myself that the gifts of God cannot be hoarded (remembering the Israelites in the wilderness who were allowed only to gather enough manna for the day as it would not last the night.) And I wondered at how this truth still holds this Christmas Eve, that the Gift so generously given is not meant to be kept, but is always to be given away.
- And, finally, this. Late in the day I stopped at the hospital to make a call on one who yet hoped to be home for Christmas Day. As I made my way back down the hallway after a short visit and a prayer, I glanced to my left to see a sight not entirely unexpected, but which made my heart sink. For I had heard the hospital was full to beyond its capacity. And there I saw a patient being treated in an alcove: a place I have paused in a thousand times to make a phone call or to sit with a family as hard decisions are made. And I considered how our health care workers are committed to exactly this: to caring for the most vulnerable among us no matter what. Indeed, on this Christmas Eve I remember that they ‘make room.’ They make room for those who need that healing space no matter, it seems, the cost to them. They make room. In a similar way again we hear the Christmas story and recall that ‘room was finally made’ in a place where animals resided, where the infant child of Mary, God’s Own Son, found his first bed in a manger. And yes, I wonder now, if this is not the first call of Christmas for us all: to make room. Always for the vulnerable ones. Just as our local hospital staff demonstrated for me this week.
Indeed, the gift of Christmas is that in the vastness of the universe God saw the plight of suffering ones on earth (and still does) and came to us, and comes to us as one so human, so utterly vulnerable.
But the wonder of Christmas is when this gift takes hold in us in such a way that we see in those so fragile all around us the very presence of Christ himself. And as we hear the call to somehow ‘make room’ for those as vulnerable as Mary and Joseph and newborn baby Jesus on that first Christmas.
Even while we still ‘wrestle with the meaning of this’ like a certain energetic 18-month-old today wrestles with a stand-in baby Jesus now.
Even as we celebrate the gift, wondering what it means that the gift can’t be hoarded, that it is always meant to be received and given away, else it will never find its true purpose, but will ‘spoil’ even as we think we are keeping it safe, wondering if we will need it later.
Indeed, as our eyes do see, and our hearts do recognize, and as we find ourselves ‘making room’ — not unlike a certain hospital staff in my town and in yours — As Jesus enters in, I expect that we will be blessed with the certainty of God’s great love for us and for us all — the same one who still looks upon even this small corner this suffering world and comes to us once more.
May this gift of Christmas be all of ours this year.
And, oh, may we recognize it, receiving Jesus once more, in ‘making room.’
- Thank you for coming along as words find voice for Christmas Eve this year. I am grateful knowing that so many also step into the midst of God’s Beloved tonight seeking to share the Gift that is ours. May we do so, trusting that Jesus is already there. That Jesus is already here.