St. Philip Lutheran Church
24 December 2020 + Nativity of Our Lord
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
It’s not Christmas until… how would you fill in the blank?
Here’s what a very scientific Facebook poll among my friends this week found out: It’s not Christmas until… the lights and tree are up… we get to sing carols together… I’ve watched my favorite holiday movie (this particular respondent said Muppet Christmas Carol)… the Christmas gospel is read… we send cards to all our friends and family and even the mail carrier… snow (spoken like a true Midwesterner)… Jesus (spoken like a true pastor)… I bake the Christmas stollen or lefse or spritz cookies… we sing “Silent Night” in the glow of candlelight…
It’s not Christmas until… what? For many of us, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without many of these things and more.
There’s a lot of traditions this time of year, as varied and unique as our own particular families and cultures. Memories and nostalgia come flooding back all over again when we unpack that one special ornament or hear that one particular carol…
This year, the nostalgia is perhaps even more poignant, as we grieve the loss of certain traditions and rituals – no brass belting out “Joy to the World,” no candlelight glow in our darkened sanctuaries, no hugging our loved ones, no Christkindlmarket in downtown Chicago, no big family dinners with all the cousins and in-laws…
When I was growing up, it never felt like Christmas until after church on Christmas Eve. Typically, we’d go to one of the late afternoon services while it was still a little bit light out, and it just never felt as “magical” going to a Christmas Eve service during the day.
Only after, as we were leaving, when night had fallen, we would make our way to Grandma’s house for a few cookies and then to Kwong Tung for the traditional family Christmas Eve Chinese supper. After filling ourselves with wonton soup and egg rolls and sweet and sour chicken, we’d begin the drive home, peering out the foggy car windows at our neighbor’s Christmas lights. Then, turning into our subdivision and down our street, we’d be greeted by rows of luminaries – usually emptied milk cartons, weighted with sand or kitty litter and a candle placed in each – lining the streets like an airport runway and lighting the way through our neighborhood.
Then, and only then, did it really feel like Christmas… long after dark…
I hardly think it felt much like Christmas for the shepherds keeping watch over the flock by night. It wasn’t exactly a cozy night on the sofa in the glow of the Christmas tree while sipping hot cocoa. And in the middle of a flock of sheep, it certainly wasn’t the pleasant aroma of a Balsam and Cedar Yankee Candle…
Which makes sense, because, of course, Christmas wasn’t really a thing just yet!
Until… suddenly… the shining light, the glory, the drama, the angels! Out of nowhere, a flash of light and angelic chorus… can you imagine? If you’ve ever left a darkened movie theatre during a matinee screening and abruptly returned to the sunlight, or perhaps endured the rapid-fire flash of a camera during a group photo where, inevitably, someone says “just one more with this camera!” and you’re left seeing spots… Imagine something like that…but probably times a thousand.
And then, presumably in the same sudden instant that the angels had appeared, they were gone. Just like that. Pitch black. The shepherds left fumbling in the dark, trying, for the second time, to readjust their vision… what now?
What now? I confess it doesn’t feel much like Christmas in our COVID-era days. This year, though, I find the shepherds’ experience more relatable.
It certainly didn’t feel like Christmas (“what’s Christmas?”) or cause for celebrating much of anything for the shepherds… stunned, paralyzed, blinded, in the aftermath of the angelic proclamation. But their reaction is telling. I’m sure there was still deep skepticism and probably more questions than answers, but still they move…with haste. They go to Bethlehem. They act on what they have heard.
There, even in the pitch black following the blinding light, even in the uncertainty of the moment, is wonder…curiosity…faith-filled amazement.
In the uncertainty of our present reality and the loss of many beloved traditions, it doesn’t feel much like Christmas.
And yet, it is.
Christmas doesn’t depend on any of our beloved, nostalgic traditions, no matter how meaningful they are or how much we grieve their loss this year. If Dr. Suess has taught us anything, it’s that no Grinch (or virus) can steal Christmas.
It came without ribbons, it came without tags, it came without packages, boxes, or bags… as all the Whos in Whoville flocked into their village square to join hands and sing their song of Christmas joy.
It’s not Christmas until… we receive the gift of the incarnation – the entering of God into our world, taking on human flesh, and dwelling among us. And that’s a gift that can’t be stopped by a virus, or anything else.
Some of our traditions look different this year or have taken a momentary pause, but one thing is certain: It’s Christmas because Christ has come, a light in the darkness, a beacon of hope in the weariness and the isolation, the embodiment of the divine in the midst of the ordinary stuff of life.
Just as on that first Christmas, in the scrambling in the dark, in the shepherds’ confusion and questions and doubts… under the cover of night, in the pitch black… there is the wonder and the mystery of the Word made flesh, Immanuel, God-with-us.
Merry Christmas. Thanks be to God.