Our Christmas Eve service is remarkably simple. It is modeled after the Lessons and Carols so near and dear to our Anglican friends, but way less refined. Lacking the cathedral spaces, robed choirs, and all that stuff, we get along with a small group of readers rotating through the readings, and singing songs chosen to illuminate the theme of the reading. There is usually one or two “special music” numbers, but mostly it is reading and singing. Since the group probably number about 30 people, even the singing was simple.
But it serves. You can’t go wrong in my book just reading the actual words. Sermons, meditations, devotionals…all that is just fine, but put a good reader behind the book and let everyone listen to what’s actually there on the page….it’s hard to beat.
Most of the passages read this evening were not from the gospels. They were taken from the Pentateuch and the Prophets. Only the last 2 or 3 were actually Gospel accounts. The language of the Prophets is hard to play down. Then you come to the accounts of the Arrival and if you really get what He is laying down, it can blow your socks off.
It stood out to me because I’ve been getting a lot of imagery around the baby. First of all, let me say that babies are overrated -- especially when they first come out. They are all wrinkled up and funny colored, and generally feeling ill-treated and crabby. This whole “holy family tableau” thing with the quiet and gentle glow surrounding the wax figures of Mary and Joseph and the Blessed Christ Child – it just ain’t right. Look, I never met Mary, but it’s pretty hard for me to imagine that even she wasn’t pretty close to hysterical for giving birth to her first baby in a STALL! My wife is a pretty strong woman, but I can only imagine the pyrotechnics that would have been involved in that situation, and I wouldn’t blame her one bit. Maybe the medieval stories about no crying and Mary’s magical holy epidural were true, but somehow it rubs my sensibilities the wrong way. I just can’t buy it. (If you want a slightly more humorous take on that, I refer you to the classic short novel “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”) Life for a refugee family is no piece of cake.
Then there was the whole shepherds watching over their flocks by night scenario. Have you ever seen an angel? Me neither. But why is it, EVERY time one of those guys pops up, the first words out of their mouths are “Don’t be afraid?” I can hazard a guess. It’s probably because they are REALLY, REALLY SCARY.
A friend of mine once posited that Angels probably appeared that night rather like lightning with a voice. Who of us, if a bolt of lightning struck even 50 feet from us wouldn’t have to check our pants afterwards? And then, imagine if the lightning stuck around to have a conversation. Huh. Kind of puts a different perspective on what them shepherds were dealing with.
Angels. Legions of them. Can you imagine what it’s like to have thousands of lightning bolts shouting Good News! At the top of their metaphorical lungs?
And why? Because the Great Miracle, the invasion of creation, and material, and humanity by the Most High God is not something to let pass unremarked, apparently.
When we hear “Peace on Earth” we like think that means “Niceness for Everybody.” This is because of the sops, sentimentalists and schmaltzers who want to take all the rough edges off the story, and go all soft-focus. Reality is too harsh, and any God who would actually get real and dirty this way is too wild. He needs to be tamed. As our Pastor observed this evening it is easy to make nice and feel warm and fuzzy over the baby, but not so easy to get those warm fuzzies over that bloody mess of shredded flesh hanging on the cross. It’s too hard to look at. So the simpering classes only see the baby all clean and dry and happy, and they dray on about how Christmas is about hope, and renewal, and peace winning out over blah blah blah. It is all that, but only because it’s so much more than that.
I suspect (I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure) that what those angels really were getting at was something closer to “The War between God and Man is as good as finished!” They were doing a victory dance in the end zone and trash talking the Enemy. “In Your Face!” they shouted to Death, as they spiked the life ball hard in the real Astroturf.
C-Day was the cosmic D-day. As Athanasius said, “the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world.” We think a hydrogen bomb exploding is powerful. Ohmygoodness yes. But this! This! This is HUGE! And we treat it as if it is just a sweet ending to a syrupy story.
The Immaterial comes to town. He enters not as a visitor, but as one who belongs here. He was not tacked on, but became one of it’s creatures. He moved from incorporeal to very corporeal in all it’s implications, while still maintaining all that He was before and without it. It is a great mystery. It is The Great Miracle. I think there is no better name for it than that.
When you really listen, it’s in the text. If you are like me, though, you have to listen to what is really going on here, and not pay too much attention to the overlay that has been placed on it by our overfamiliarity. When I heard it tonight, it pricked me a little. Not like the Angels appearing, but enough to set me going. The rest of the Christmas deal I can take or leave. But that small significant moment is what I live for.
Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.