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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord – December 24, 2009

What a magnificent night this is, a magical one, and how wonderful to see so many of you here celebrating Christmas. It didn’t necessarily have to be this way. It could have been different. It could have been that the church was only half full or that only a handful of people came tonight. But all of you are here and that is cause for great joy.

Why have you come? No doubt some of us are here because you believe that Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, came down to earth on this day, took on flesh as a child born of a simple, young Jewish girl named Mary and that he came to teach us how to make life on earth even a little bit like life in heaven. Some of you may not be sure about it all. You know what Jesus taught about love and forgiveness and you admire his way of life, but the theology around God taking on flesh and the belief in a virgin birth is not easy for you to accept.

Others are here because deep in their heart they want to believe that there can be “peace on earth,” peace in a world full of war and conflict, that there can be good will among people in a time where open-mindedness and respect for our differences seems barely visible; we want to believe that there can be justice for those who have been forced to live on the margins of life, and recovery for those who in the economic crisis we face have lost jobs, their homes, and all hope. But I strongly suspect that the one common thread among us tonight is that we want to believe in something, something beyond ourselves, something beyond our troubled and unsettled world and that is what appeals to so many people on this holy night where the hopes and fears of all the years are met in the little village of Bethlehem.

So we come to the Christmas Eve service to find the steadiness the world often lacks; to a sacred place where once again we hear a familiar story told, recognize the figures of the crèche, enjoy the carols we so love, and taste the sacramental food God gives us in Holy Bread and Wine—all of which may stir the memories of another time, another Christmas. There is holiness to these memories, a sense of God’s presence in the mangers of our mind and it is these things that change the least over time that often have the capacity to change us the most.

A disadvantage of this season is that it is easy to personalize Christmas—to make it all about me and my expectations of this holiday — my dream of a white Christmas— to want it to be the most wonderful time of the year for me and my family. Sometimes these expectations can become oppressive and the cause of a great deal of stress. We can load so many expectations on Christmas that the joy crumbles under their weight. We can so fear the possible depression of loneliness, fractured family, or lost faith that we may wonder if the better thing is to just to escape and take a holiday where the sun shines.

I was reminded in conversation with a friend this week that there is a much broader scope to Christmas. There are many and varied experiences of this season that are not of the Currier and Ives sort. I think of the family in Norwalk whose house was destroyed by a gas explosion the other night or the man who buried his 36-year-old wife and mother of his two young children yesterday. I think of those who have no place to lay their head tonight or are not sure where or what they will eat tomorrow; or whose Christmas is radically different this year because they have lost their job or are separated from loved ones in a far away land, perhaps fighting a difficult war.

Perhaps the words of the Prophet Isaiah, written thousands of years ago, carry even more meaning for us on this Christmas 2009: “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.” So we long for that light to shine in the darkness of our lives and in the lives of all for whom this holiday season is not so bright and merry.

No matter what your circumstances this Christmas, no matter how happy a season or how difficult a time it is as you try to meet other’s expectations of “obligatory joy,” no matter how deep your belief or doubt about the meaning of this day, my hope is that you might enter this night into the mystery, the mystery of a God so in love with us that this God came down to be one of us and to live among us. So for tonight, let the cynic in you—if there be one—take a holiday, as we all suspend our disbelief, believing if only for tonight that God is born among us and in that birth comes the light we all so desperately need. Hear again, in a climate of fear, especially around money and finances, the words spoken long ago on this night to frightened shepherds: “Do not be afraid!”

If there is one kernel of the mystery of Christmas Eve that can sustain us through the year ahead—a year like all years that is at this point full of uncertainty—it is this: that the deepest meaning of Christmas is not found in just one night or day we observe on the calendar, but in the internal birth of God in us today and every tomorrow that we let God in.

Civil Rights leader, Howard Thurman, set the stage for us when he wrote of Christmas as a season of hope. “When the songs of the angels is stilled,” he said. “When the star of the sky is gone. When the kings and princes are home. When the shepherds are back with their flocks. The work begins…To find the lost. To heal the broken. To feed the hungry. To rebuild the nations. To make music in the heart.”

But for tonight at least let us revel in the light of that star, beneath which it becomes exceedingly clear that God has come among us as a lover and a child; for it is a magical night where in a stable there is gold in the straw and myrrh in the cow dung; where the oxen smell of frankincense and the sheep sing hosannas, and a star reveals to each of us where to look for God—not up in the sky, some distant place so very far away, but right here in the world, the unsettled, messy world, where God so long ago came decked out in flesh and where God continues to dwell with us who carry this mystery in our hearts.

Two thousand years later we can still welcome him, for he speaks through those all around us. He looks at us through the eyes of store clerks and school children. He reaches out to us with the hands of the homeless and the wealthy. He walks with the feet of the soldier and the addict. With the lonely and grieving he longs for a tender embrace. With the heart of all those who are in need, he asks us to give him food and shelter. And it is these simple, yet extraordinary ways, that the Word again becomes flesh and dwells among us and God is born again and again.

May the warmth of this night, the tenderness of the Christmas story, the hope of the angel’s song, and the delight of the shepherds abide with you and fill all your tomorrows. Amen.

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