While there are many awkward things about Christmas falling on a Sunday, I admit that there’s exactly one thing about it that’s small but awesome. Because it means that twice this year, we’ll gather on a Saturday night for a big celebration. Tonight, and then again on Easter Vigil as we begin the big party of Easter. For the Christian faithful around the world, Christmas Eve a holy night. A big night, with high expectations.
Big enough that I feel like it should’ve begun with a big announcement, maybe even a recognizable one, like:
“Live from South Hadley — it’s Saturday night!”
We’ve got all kinds of expectations around Christmas: getting the whole family together, everyone being happy, perfectly placed decorations, warm holiday cheer. And, as often happens with big moments, it rarely pans out exactly perfectly.
I’ve been watching a series called Friday Night Tykes, a reality show about youth football in Texas. In one episode, a team mom goes to great lengths to make the team seeing their jerseys for the first time before the season begins special for all of them. Of course, though, as often happens with kids, the kids aren’t paying attention, they’re cutting up, they’re loud. Diligent, the team mom gives everyone a paper bag with their jersey in it and counts down — 3, 2, 1 —- OPEN!
The boys all open their paper bags. There are some sounds of awe, but mostly there is just little boys yelling. One kid towards the front immediately throws the jersey over his face. Another hits his friend with his. The mom sighs, “This is not how I envisioned this.”
For sure, we as humans are quite used to building up to big moments and then being let down. One of the marks of a kid growing up is that kid’s ability to handle disappointment, because getting let down is a part of life. It happens in sports. It notably happens in politics. And it definitely happens in our personal lives. We’re quite used to being let down at the last minute.
Not only is life full of let downs, but it’s downright scary out there sometimes. Finances, global politics, our health — we live tenuous, scary lives when you really think about it. Like my chaplain colleague said after reading a patient’s chart once: “It’s scary to be alive!”
It’s one of the things that helps us identify with the Peanuts character of Linus. He’s the one that’s always carrying around his security blanket, and no matter what anyone tells him, he refuses to part with it. Charlie Brown tries to talk him out of it. Lucy tries. Every time, he refuses. And who can blame him? It’s scary to be alive!
But my friend Joseph, the San Franciscan Episcopal priest, pointed something out a few weeks ago that has stuck with me when it comes to Christmas. In a world where we are used to being afraid and quite used to being let down at the last minute, Jesus never doesn’t get born. Every single Christmas Eve, Christians gather all over the world to celebrate Christ’s arrival in a manger that night. No, our celebrations may not be everything we hope they will be. Things go wrong. Hot candle wax makes its way to the carpet or (worse) to our vulnerable hands. People forget what they’re supposed to do. But none of this stops the essential good news from being proclaimed all over the world this night: Jesus Christ is born. God has come into the world, into our mess, into our scary lives and our disappointment with the angel’s words: “Fear not.”
Fear not, for God is here. God has come into the world as a baby, and now God is here in each of us and bread and wine. No matter how disappointing anything else about this Christmas may be, Jesus never doesn’t get born.
Now, the truth, in the words of my pastor friend Kathleen, is that preachers in the Western world have long been trying to proclaim the Gospel of Christ’s birth half as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas.
This year, I noticed something that I’d never noticed before. Right at the end, when Charlie Brown is mulling over his disappointment and feeling as if he’s messed up Christmas with his sad little tree and his fumbling, he says, with exasperation (along with many of us on Christmas) “Everything I do is a disaster.” Then he adds, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”
Linus, grasping his security blanket, says, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” Then he walks to center stage, dragging his security blanket behind him, and says, humbly: “Lights please?”
He then goes on to recite what was part of our Luke reading tonight, about the angels telling the shepherds of Christ’s birth. He tells about how the angel appeared. And Linus holds up his blanket as he tells about how the shepherds were afraid. And then something incredible happens that you might not have noticed before.
Linus recites, “And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not!’”
… and he drops his blanket. The blanket that no one could ever get him to part with falls to the floor as he continues, “I bring you tidings of great joy which will be good news to all people. For unto you this day in the city of David is born a Savior.”
No matter how scary life is, no matter how disappointing some parts of Christmas will turn out to be, no matter how much goes wrong this year — as my friend, aptly named Joseph, says, “Jesus never doesn’t get born.”
Unto us this night is born a Savior. And tonight we celebrate with Christians around the world. Fear not.
And yes, parts of your Christmas may not be perfect. But Jesus was literally born in a barn. That first Christmas was far from clean and perfect. But the Savior was still born.
This week, Lynn Willis, spiritual director for the LEAD program of the ELCA, wrote a poem about how perfectly raw and dirty that first Christmas was, with the baby born in a stable:
“May you embrace the raw,
amazing story of the incarnation this year.
With all of its dank and sharp and acidic edges.
And in thanks and praise and wonder know that
Jesus meets us where we are. Emmanuel.”
May you embrace the beauty of Christmas this year, knowing that it doesn’t have to be perfect, because Jesus never doesn’t get born. The world sings with joy, and we join in. Jesus meets us where we are: in our families, in each other, in wine, in bread. Thanks be to God. Amen.