A few weeks ago, I was accosted (in a nice Christian way, of course) by two young women in our high school youth group. They had heard that some idiot (that would be me) was planning to tinker with this Christmas Eve service. They were, to put it mildly, upset, to think that anyone would mess with a Christmas tradition that they have known since they were babes in arms.
I assured my young friends that there was nothing to worry about. The format would be different — not lessons and carols, but a full service of Eucharistic celebration – but not to worry. We would be singing lots of carols and we would without fail turn off all the lights, set candles ablaze, and hold them aloft as we sing Silent Night.
You could see the relief on their faces. Contrary to popular notion, the most traditional people of all are not the elderly, but the young. They’re the ones who can’t get to sleep without their favorite blanket arranged just so, or their stuffed animal nuzzled precisely at the right angle. In my experience, it’s not octogenarians who resist change. It’s teenagers.
And so it should be. At a time in their lives when everything is in flux, it is only natural that the young should cling to established rituals and familiar words. Each of us might finish this sentence differently, but I suspect we all could complete it:
It wouldn’t be Christmas without . . .
Without that yellowing ornament made by your then four-year-old out of a clothes pin and a folded-over cupcake paper. You know the one I mean. It has a ball of cotton for hair which makes it look vaguely like a Cossack dancer. Over the years, you’ve accumulated much nicer decorations, some of them quite expensive, but none so precious as that clothes-pin angel with the cupcake paper wings. It takes pride of place on your tree every year.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without that clothespin angel.
Of course there are the obvious items.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without a manger, without a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, without Joseph and Mary. You need shepherds, of course. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them. And a few wise persons will show up eventually. Three at the minimum, I’d say. A few sheep and at least one cow lowing as “the poor baby wakes,” and our list is complete.
Or is it? According to Luke, there is just one thing missing – one thing that accompanies the “good news of great joy for all the people,” and that one thing is . . . fear.
That’s right. Fear. Fear is essential to the Christmas story, and indeed, essential to the gospel itself.
It’s there in the angel’s visit to Mary. “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel tells her, and then announces that her boy will be called the Son of the Most High. And fear is present in the angel’s visit to Joseph, too. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” the angel tells Joseph as his pen is poised to sign the divorce papers.
I suspect that there is not a little fear riding along with that young couple on their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And the fear in the hearts of those shepherds “abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night” – well, that is to be expected. It’s not every night that the sky is filled with “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’”
“Don’t be afraid,” the angel tells those shepherds – and Joseph, and Mary, and you and me. With the birth of this child, God is coming to join you in your fears and in your rejoicing.
Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation. There is so much more to the gospel than the birth of Jesus. It won’t be long before Joseph, Mary, and their baby become refugees, fleeing across the border into Egypt to escape King Herod’s henchmen.
When it’s safe to come home to Nazareth, they live, like everyone else, under the oppression of Rome. This child wrapped tonight in swaddling clothes grows up to shatter racial and religious boundaries, challenge entrenched ideologies, eat and drink with prostitutes and tax collectors, and die on a cross condemned for blasphemy and sedition. Buried in a borrowed tomb, this same Jesus will be raised from the dead by the power of almighty God.
God is in all of this – the birth, the teaching, the life, the death, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, born of Mary, born under the law. Our fears, whatever they be, are met in him tonight – met in Emmanuel, God With Us.
To live the truth of Christmas is to engage in the ministry of that grown-up Christ child. It is to reach out to the poor who cannot get decent healthcare in this land of plenty. It is to welcome, not dehumanize, the refugee. It is to resist the tug of tribalism which is eating away at our national character. It is to be great — great in mercy, great in compassion, great in love for neighbor, and great in zeal for justice.
Some very nasty demons have been stirred up by the hateful rhetoric of the recent campaign. Jesus, you will recall, was in the business of facing down and casting out demons. You and I can fear those demons, or we can face them down and send them packing. That’s what Jesus did, and he told us to do the same.
The hopes and fears of all the years – this year included – are met tonight in the child of Bethlehem, the prophet of Jerusalem, the Lord of Life. To him alone be glory in the highest heaven, and here on earth, where still he is pleased to dwell.