We come together this Christmas Eve – perhaps not from as far away as Nazareth would have been from Bethlehem — but still, from different places, and different contexts. We come seeking many things — peace, comfort, inspiration, justice, hope — as the carol says about that little town of Bethlehem, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee”.
We gather here as did the shepherds in the hills of Judea, hoping beyond hope, and fearing that nothing could or would ever change. We gather as did the people of Israel during the time of the early chapters of Isaiah, hoping that the divisions between the northern and southern kingdoms would cease, and fearing that powerful King Hezekiah would lead a rebellion that would destroy the nation. We gather as did the early followers of the Jesus movement, hoping that they could keep it together until Jesus returned, and fearing that everything would fall apart. We come together, in the middle of the night, both hoping and fearing.
And into our midst comes the news, delivered not by a text or a tweet, not by a royal emissary to the rich and powerful, not by a prophet or newscaster — the news, this good news for all people, is delivered to us by a multitude of angels! (At our 4pm service, it was delivered by a handful of excited children with glittery wings.) Still these messengers are surrounded by light and singing God’s praises!
And this glorious light casts a new perspective on the message. First, we are told something that is hard to believe: that we do not have to be afraid! Throughout history, people have been controlled by a propagation of fear — fear of scarcity, fear of war, fear of loss. Fear and shame keep ordinary people down — ordinary people like shepherds, like an immigrant family in Palestine, like an unwed mother, like you and like me — and we are told by this heavenly chorus, then and now, do not be afraid! But why? For what reason should we abandon our fears, practical and safe as they may seem?
Then — in the midst of a time when the powerful Roman government is exacting its domination over ordinary people through decrees and taxes — then we are told of an important birth, a political birth, the birth of a new king, a Messiah, an anointed one, the Lord. These are radical words, terms used only for emperors, and we are hearing them spoken just to us plain folk, right out here in the open! Surely, they give us more reason to be afraid, not less!
But wait: there is something different about this Lord of which they speak. He is born in a manger! A manger, in the hay, with the animals!? What kind of king is this? One who knows, as we do, the difficulty of being born into poverty, born into uncertainty? One who is wrapped not in velvet or furs, but in strips of cloth, crowded into a room below an overcrowded house, whose nursemaids were the sheep to keep him warm? Can it be that this heavenly king is born to us?
And so we run — we do not walk — run to check out the news, to see if it is real, if it has truly happened. And sure enough, the messengers were reliable, and all that they told us is true! And there in that simple, crowded Palestinian dwelling, the light that once shone around us, now shine within us. It fills us up, and dispels our fears; it warms our hearts, and melts away our feelings of despair and inadequacy. This child, this Messiah, this Lord is born as one of us, into our community. And in his eyes, we see ourselves, as beloved and precious children, children not of a punishing and vindictive God, but a God who loves us beyond measure, whose love has been born into the world.
And the love and light that we feel spills out of us — in dancing and singing. We sing a “new song”, praising God, thundering like the sea, shouting to the trees and the fields — we shout “love is born! Love is born!” We tell the story, over and over again, breathless and excited, and the more we tell it, the greater the love grows, the greater the hope, and the fainter the fears. We shine with the great, holy truth that we are loved, just as we are, humble and hard working, and that the power of love is greater than the power of fear. We remember the young mother, so brave and so faithful, who trusted in God’s promises and endured great trials to bring this holy gift to all of us. Her face glowing and exhausted; her joy was more tempered, inward; for she has known this secret for months, has seen its power and its potential. It has kept her hope alive during dark moments, as it will for us.
Oh my friends — those of you who are here for the first time, those who have returned from your journeys, and those who are gathered here every week — what if, like Mary, we kept this new alive in us all through the year? What if we acted as if it were really, amazingly true?! What could we do together if we did not fear, but believed? What could God’s power, working in us, accomplish in the world?
My prayer for each of you, for St. James Parish, for the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement, and for the whole world, is that we treasure this glorious news in our hearts, knowing that Christ is still alive in us, and that we are loved, truly loved. And from that place of hope — a hope that is for all people, whoever and wherever you are — we will sing a new song together. A song of forgiveness and strength; a dance of optimism and creativity; a story not about all that is wrong with our world, but about what can be right?
My prayer is that each of us — looking into the eyes of one another and of our community members — that each of us sees the light of the Christ child shining and hears the happy news of the angel chorus. Love is born! As the Anglican poet Christina Rossetti, who our presiding Bishop Michael Curry quotes in his Christmas address, wrote: Love shall be our token, Love be yours and love be mine, Love to God and all folks, Love for plea and gift and sign. Do not be afraid! Love shall be your sign! And all God’s people said together, AMEN!