The liturgical celebration of the birth of Christ (the Christ Mass, from which we get the term 'Christmas') is rightly cherished as one of the high points of the year in church. We hear the famous nativity story from Luke 2 and sing some of the most beloved hymns in our whole tradition. We offer up our gifts along with our prayers and praises, and the Word becomes flesh again for us on God's altar.
It can be a challenge for preachers to find a surprising or even just worthwhile word to proclaim underneath all of this hallowed tradition. The hymns can do so much of the theological work:
Hail! the heaven-born Prince of peace!
This year I'm introducing a Eucharistic Prayer to the liturgy that also aims at expressing the breadth and depth of the event:
But, above all, you are forever to be adored:
The proper posture, both for the preacher and hearer, is awe and wonder rather than curiosity or mere sentimentality. Heaven and earth joined and mingled; angels addressing shepherds, shepherds addressing God in human form; glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace and goodwill.
A few years ago I wrote a column about Christmas for a (now defunct) newspaper:
For those of us who share — or try to share — Athanasius’s faith in the Incarnation of the Word, the world on Christmas Day can look like a highly charged place. If God’s action is not remote and distant, or localized in a special place, but abroad in the universe through the mysterious union of God and humanity, the whole crazy, kitschy apparatus of Christmas becomes a little easier to appreciate. When we gather around our Nativity scenes with our Norwegian-looking Jesuses and when we consecrate and break and share little pieces of bread that bear the presence of Christ, I remember that the Word did not become beautiful. It became flesh and pitched its tent among us.
I also wrote about one of my favorite Christmas songs ("Sweet Little Jesus Boy") and the Luke nativity story for the same newspaper:
Perhaps the most striking refrain in the whole song is the line on which it ends: “We didn’t know it was you.” The standard manger scene is a busy one, with shepherds and wise men, angels and animals all paying their respects. But again Luke’s Gospel is much more spare. It’s only from Matthew that we hear about all of Jerusalem in an uproar, a prominent star and traveling wise men. The only audience for the newborn Jesus, in Luke’s account, is a group of shepherds directed to the manger by the momentary appearance of the heavenly host. Jesus was very much hidden from the world at the time of his birth, revealed only to a divinely favored group of peasants and his unwed mother.
Many years on Christmas Eve I've started with a poem, since poetry is better suited to the majesty of the night than most prose. Kay Ryan's "Pinhole" is one of my favorites:
It is a busy season, and I hope for everyone reading this a joyous one. But whatever is good and fulfilling or harsh and wanting in your life right now, I hope you will take a few hours to pause and worship on Christmas Eve.
God's Work. Our hands.