Christmas Eve – the greatest gift for getting it wrong

For over five centuries, Lutherans have asserted and proclaimed: grace is a gift. Meal time, especially during the holidays, is a great opportunity to experience grace.

Many of us will get together with friends, family, and coworkers for Christmas meals and potlucks. We sit at the same table and eat food that is shared among everyone at table. 

Where’s the grace? (besides the pre-meal prayer)

The grace in that experience, is being together. How often does that happen in today’s world? When family members are separated by vast distances unlike in any other time in human history. When coworkers can suspend their usual activities and work routines to just sit down and eat a meal together. When effort is made to make and/or bring food for all.

The grace is sharing food together despite the conflicts, the dislikes, the divisions and lines drawn between those around the table on account of political opinion, social standing, personality, past hurts.

The grace is found in those moments when, unexpectedly and surprisingly, a kind word is said between combatants, a genuine smile of thanksgiving is offered when ‘gifts’ are exchanged, or tears of forgiveness given and received are expressed.

On the surface, these moments may not change a whole lot, at least not immediately. But repeated often enough – Christmas comes every year – the seed sown deeply in the heart will one day sprout. ‘Mary treasured all these things and pondered them deeply in her heart’,[1]the scripture says. Sometimes, in the face of grace, all we can do is find a moment to appreciate and digest this gift. And let it grow in us. We are, each of us, the innkeeper who will decide whether or not to let Jesus in.

Celtic Thunder, the Irish, male group sings a powerful version of Silent Night that tells the story of Christmas at the Western Front in 1915. German and British soldiers stopped their fighting for a few moments Christmas Eve when one of the German soldiers – a lad of 21 years of age – started singing Silent Night.

Before long, combatants from both sides that had been avowed to killing each other were walking across no-man’s land. For a few moments they left their weapons behind, hugged each other and gave each other gifts of cigarettes and pots of wine.

But alas, the moment of grace passed. And before long they were shooting at each other again. And the 21-year-old soldier who had started the singing, did not make it to the morning.

Grace was given to those boys amidst the battle. In the singing of Silent Night, in the exchange of gifts, in the hugs and laughter, grace was still given.

Grace is a gift not for getting it right, but for getting it wrong.[2]And we human beings, throughout history, can get it awfully wrong. But this does not stop God.

God came into the world not at an ideal time when everyone was getting along. Herod was a paranoid despot about to wreak havoc in the land. In short, there was unrest in Palestine. Beneath the surface of all that might have appeared genteel in the little town of Bethlehem that holy night was broiling a call to arms by discontented zealots against Roman occupation. The military conflict would finally erupt some seventy years after Jesus’ birth with the destruction of Jerusalem.

God chose a particularly dark and disruptive time and place in history to enter in, as a vulnerable little baby boy born to a teenager in a barn for animals. Not a strategy for success, you might think, eh? On earth, nothing was going right.

But the grace of God knows no bounds. The grace of God enters into the thick of it. Not when everyone is getting along. But especially when everyone is getting it wrong.

The message of Christmas, in the end, is one of hope. Because no matter how bad or sad things get, it won’t stop God from prying into our consciences from time to time to tell us that God is never too far away. No matter how bad it gets, God is always with us. Emanuel. God with us.

Once we can accept that God is in all situations – not just the warm fuzzy moments decorated with visions from Hallmark – then everything becomes an occasion where some good can happen. God can and will use even bad situations for good.[3]This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!”[4]

Our task this Christmas – however you are observing it – is to look for and find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything, even and most especially the problematic. Because the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good, however small or short-lived. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot and never will overcome it.”[5]

Amen.


[1]Luke 2:19

[2]Richard Rohr, “Accountability Is Sustainability” Twelve-Step Spirituality: Part One (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org) Friday, December 13, 2019

[3]Richard Rohr, “Incarnation – Like Knows Like” Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation (www.cac.org, Monday, December 23, 2019).

[4]Psalm 118:24

[5]John 1:5,9

Santa is not God – the true gift

During Advent, the church has fasted. Not from food! Rather, we have refrained — tried to, at least, in our liturgies — from singing Christmas Carols. This was part of our preparation as we made room in our hearts by waiting and watching for the coming of Jesus.

But now, the wait is over! Christmas is a time for singing, a time for the carols. It is well to gorge on them now while they are plentiful, because it will be another year before we will sing them again.

Martin Luther, who loved Christmas, claimed that “music is a fair and glorious gift of God.” Music, he said, “makes people kinder, gentler, more staid and reasonable. The devil flees before the sound of music as much as before the Word of God” (from the foreword to the “Wittenburg Gesangbuch” (1524), Martin Luther’s hymnbook).

So, I would like you to ponder with me what is this ‘gift’ of Christmas so well expressed in the music of the season. I invite you to listen to lyrics from a couple of different popular, contemporary Christmas songs — that are normally not sung in church. But each of these songs have something to say to us about the gift of God at Christmas — the Gospel message about the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Let’s see if you can identify them. Listen first to the words that we’ve probably heard in shopping malls since shortly after Halloween. It’s pretty easy to guess this one …

“You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town, yeah
Santa Claus is coming
Santa Claus is coming to town!”

(Answer: Santa Claus is Coming to Town)

How does this popular song reflect (or not) the nature of God’s gift and grace at Christmas? And I’ll give you a hint: God is NOT Santa Claus. Yes, both Santa and Jesus are coming at Christmas to a town near you. But that’s where the similarity stops. Why?

Does God make a list? Does God check it twice? Does God try to figure out who’s naughty and nice, in order to determine who get’s the gift of Jesus’ love and presence?

If you look at all the characters in the New Testament, characters that meet Jesus, starting with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the tax collectors, those fishermen disciples, women, lepers, outcasts …. do they deserve the gift? If Santa was making a list of who’s been naughty or nice, we’d probably have to exclude everyone in the bible!

“They were people who were considered taboo, contagious, disabled, dangerous or excluded for all kinds of reasons” (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas” Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 2008, p.56). They were poor, ordinary folk, whose sin, whose imperfection was visible, apparent. According to the message of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, they would have received a piece of coal in their stocking!

Santa is not God. The greatness of God’s gift is precisely because it is not conditional on our hard work to be ‘nice’. The greatest gift at Christmas is not something for which we must toil or earn by our hard work. But something that is given, that is already there, inside us!

Okay, time for the second song. Hear if you can recognize it by the lyrics; it tells a beautiful story …

“A poor orphan girl named Maria
Was walking to market one day
She stopped for a rest by the roadside
Where a bird with a broken wing lay
A few moments passed till she saw it
For it’s feathers were covered with sand
But soon clean and wrapped it was travelling
In the warmth of Maria’s small hand
She happily gave her last peso
On a cage made of rushes and twine
She fed it loose corn from the market
And watched it grow stronger with time
Now the Christmas Eve service was coming
And the church shone with tinsel and light
And all of the town folks brought presents
To lay by the manger that night
There were diamonds and incense
And perfumes
In packages fit for a king
But for one ragged bird in a small cage
Maria had nothing to bring
She waited till just before midnight
So no one would see her go in
And crying she knelt by the manger
For her gift was unworthy of Him
Then a voice spoke to her through the darkness
Maria, what brings you to me
If the bird in the cage is your offering
Open the door and let me see
Though she trembled, she did as He asked her
And out of the cage the bird flew
Soaring up into the rafters
On a wing that had healed good as new
Just then the midnight bells rang out
And the little bird started to sing
A song that no words could recapture
Whose beauty was fit for a king
Now Maria felt blessed just to listen
To that cascade of notes sweet and long
As her offerings was lifted to heaven
By the very first nightingale’s song.”

(Answer: Garth Brooks, “The Gift”)

The gift is an experience of grace, of something wonderful happening to us and in us and around us that is beyond our own efforts. All we need to do, is bring it forward, and offer what we have that is true to who we are — including our weaknesses, our limitations, our lowliness.

And God makes something beautiful out of our simple offering — the gift of our hearts, our minds, our hands. Like the healing of the bird, and its free song, it is a gift of pure love, a love that is shines unrelenting in the darkness and brokenness of our lives.

Last week at our children’s school concert, as is usual fair at these events, each class and grade goes on stage and presents a seasonal skit or song.

Near the end of the program, the audience was delighted to receive Ottawa singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff on stage with his guitar, surrounded by the grade 2-3 class. They danced and sang a simplified version of Craig’s popular song: “Love is Louder Than All the Noise”.

In the second verse, he writes:
“Was your messy heart chosen
or was it overlooked?
Are you the crazy in the corner,
writing it in your book?
A cynic with a cynic’s hook
waiting for the sky to fall?
Were you to be taken from me
by word by craft or by bomb
I would rage into an army
and bring you back with songs…
We said love is louder
than all this, all this noise.
Love is louder than all this noise.”

In the singing that we enjoy in this festive season, may our hearts, our minds and our hands sing loudest of the love of God. This greatest gift doesn’t come from our belief and ability to impress, nor from the resourcefulness of our own doing, nor from all the glitter and glamour.

The greatest gift of Christmas comes from a simple desire to love, and the openness of heart to be loved.