Good evening and welcome! Turn to your neighbor and say “Merry Christmas!”It is good to be here. This is my favorite service of the whole year. There is something very magical about it: the lighting, the company, the memories that this night evokes. Everybody home, together or we are particularly aware of the presence of the absence of a loved one.
I remember the special Christmases and Christmas Eves–the joys, the gifts, the tradition of having to stay on the top step until Mom and Dad and Grandma had taken their time getting ready, getting the paper, dripping the coffee…while my brothers and I waited. And waited. And waited!
I remember the living manger scene that the local Presbyterian church put on every Christmas Eve. It was like the movie “The Titanic” –it had a large cast and you knew how it was going to end but watched anyway. Mary and Joseph would set up a maternity ward in a barn, shepherds would make an appearance, Herod would try to bribe the Wise Men, and every year the Magi would go home by another way.
I have memories that are not so pleasant, but linger now with a glow of a humiliated chuckle …the gift I gave my first real girlfriend on Christmas Eve who, after opening it and thanking me, promptly broke up with me for an older guy named Jimi Hendrix who drove a sports car…the best I could do was my parent’s old blue Volvo station wagon.
I remember the first Christmas away from my family and how much I missed them–trying not to imagine myself among them because it was too painful.
The memory of another Christmas Eve, when we left my older brother in the hospital, to go to a service much like this one. He would soon be dead of cancer.
I remember the memory of my younger brother, Andy, who was fresh home from the Peace Corps, West Africa–he hadn’t been home in three years. He was here his first Christmas Eve back and it was snowing, and the spotlights out front made our world look like one of those shakable snow globes, and when the service was over, and “Silent Night” had been sung, and the sanctuary was empty, even though it was freezing, and almost a white out, he walked home just to be in the elements–to be open to it all–he sort of got knocked head over heels by the moment and a holy snow storm.
My memories, both sad and glad, create a rich narrative, a story line that names and claims me; every year a new nuance, a new twist, a new triumph, a new horror. Christmas Eve brings all of these things together. You know what I mean?
What about you? What do you bring to tonight? You have memories, traditions, joys and sorrows. Perhaps this Christmas Eve finds you in a new home or perhaps you are homeless. Perhaps you have been promoted, perhaps been fired and have no job at all. Perhaps you have a new baby of your own to celebrate, perhaps this is your first Christmas alone. Perhaps even tonight, you bring much…perhaps more than you want to carry, or imagined that you could.
But we are all here, together: friend, family, stranger, wanderer–all drawn here–all with our stories.
Christmas Eve draws me to the mystery of my life and the mystery of God; to the glow of the holy and the mist of reality, to a moment when past and present seem blurred, and heaven and earth and even hell are all brought together. It’s as if all creation, all history, all people lean towards a manger–hushed–hoping to catch a glimpse, feel something, sense something different–the touching of the human and divine.
Christmas says something so startling about God. God leans towards us too. God becomes a child. God is born–becomes limited in some very real sense, like you and I are limited in very real senses.
Like a baby who without a parent doesn’t eat, or clean herself–without others, a baby dies quickly. That God would become this vulnerable and all because of love…God’s story is tied to ours and ours to God’s. God needs us and we need God. Our story lines overlap and intermingle.
I don’t begin to fully understand all the theology–so many questions remain. How, with the birth of the one called the Prince of Peace, can war still exist, and injustice and terror and fear still have their might and their power to distract? How can the institution that bears the name of Jesus get so petty, so distraught over minutiae? Why even bother?
But there is something very compelling to me about a force that radiates our universe with care and vulnerability and love and presence–and it has a face and a name and we experience it and bump into it when we are among others.
Tonight is a night when I feel that I have a foot in two worlds, almost–that which is seen and that which is not seen but longed for. It gets me in the gut, more than the head.
The Celtic tradition calls such times and places that give us an opening into the magnificence and wonder “Thin Places.”
There is a saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the thin places the distance is even smaller. A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God. When the door between the world and the next is cracked open for a moment.
Christmas Eve is a Thin Place for me.
This sanctuary is a Thin Place for me.
The manger is a Thin Place.
“O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,
Above the deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.”
In Bethlehem, in Cleveland Heights, in Shaker and South Euclid, in Bagdad, in Kabul too –an everlasting light shining in the dark streets. On the paths of your lives as well.
Yes, the hopes and fears of all the years meet tonight. Heaven and Earth just inches apart, tonight.
Think about your thin places, the places where hopes and fears, joys and sorrows, heaven and hell touch–because right there, at that jumbled intersection of vulnerability, I think God sneaks in and is born every time.
Consider your deepest joy and your deepest longings and just be hushed and observant. Take it all in, open yourself to the wonder. Don’t judge, or compare. Appreciate your own humanity, your own story, your own memories, and honor them and honor and appreciate the humanity and stories of others.
Consider how much God needs you…how much God leans towards you…
in this “thin place” -this Christmas Eve.
So be it. So be it.