In this pandemic world, my Christmas Eve will not be like any other.
Normally, I would be rushing about, finishing up a Christmas Eve sermon, encompassed by preparation for Christmas services at my Episcopal parish.
It would entail a lot of prep, living with the Nativity story for the season of Advent. I would dig deep, trying to find a transposition of the gist of the Christmas story to the current moment. Looking for a twist, a new angle on the story, I would sit for hours musing about a way to make the familiar story accessible in a fresh way, particularly for those searching in their particular and peculiar darkness.
I would sometimes resort to sitting in the back of the church to watch the children rehearse the infamous Christmas Pageant. On my knees praying for inspiration, I would find myself busting out laughing at the wonderful interplay with Christian education mavens, casting the children and working as simple a choreography as possible to relate the story from the Gospel of Luke.
Recently, I thought up a fiendish plot to press my Christian ed genius, Betty Barstow, to do a new version of the Christmas Pageant, this time, in this dastardly pandemic, using the Gospel of John. There would be only one character, the cheekiest kid in the parish. He or she would come to the center of the stage and simple say, I AM, and stand there holding the space for seven minutes. It would be epic. So much less to worry about. Betty?
The story, the infancy narrative, as it is referred to by scholars, is romantic in conception, but turns tragic as the plot thickens. This cute, cooing baby will turn into someone who has demands for his listeners, not suggestions. This child would develop into a teacher, a rabbi, espousing love and caring for all people, even those folk the society would marginalize and show bias against.
The gentle Jesus, meek and mild, laid in a manger, makes the mistake of growing up. He grows up, develops in the Covenant of his Jewish people, loving God and Neighbor with all one’s heart, mind, and soul. It culminated in his Sermon on the Mount, which we politely domesticate and basically ignore, except for the parts that comfort us. Blessed are the rich and famous….no wait, he didn’t say that.
The Baby Jesus grows up into what some people today are calling RADICAL, and by that, I mean, someone who takes, with ultimate seriousness, the rule of the Kingdom of God, not the current reign of whoever happens to be in political power or office. If you are IN power, that kind of a view seems RADICAL, and not a mere spiritual cheerleader for the status quo, the prescribed order, or as St. Bruce of Hornsby framed it, “the way it is”. The “powers that be” perceive correctly that this dude, this once cute baby, was coming out, making demands, disrupting.
Baby Jesus, all grown up, rolls into Jerusalem at the major festival, Passover, and enters with a crowd size that didn’t require exaggeration by a press secretary. And it obviously got under the skin of the religious and political leaders of his day. Wasn’t this the winsome kid from Nazareth? You remember, the smart kid from Nazareth who knew his Scripture and Tradition when he was a mere lad of twelve. What the hell went wrong? Bad parenting? How did he become so RADICALIZED? What are we to do with him?
The question had changed so radically with him. Back in the day, on that day heralded by a conjunctive Christmas star, the question was “what gift do we bring a Baby King?”. Gold, myrrh, frankincense? And now, the question is “how do we stop him?”.
They figured it out. The religious establishment and political players sought to quiet him as we typically do with a message that annoys. They decided in the temple and in the palace, the places of power: we will snuff the boy out by crucifying him, lynching Palestinian style.
But wait, I can hear you saying. Don’t ruin Christmas for me, Father!
Let’s stay with the soft lights, the sweet hymns, and why not throw in a real Christmas pageant with cute kids, that make the grandparents feel good about the future. And so we do.
Ready on set! Lights, camera, focus on the small part of the action, the feel-good story of a birth in a stable that becomes world changing, with angel wings flapping, shepherds gathering, and even that cultural injection of a little drummer boy drumming. Can you turn it down, please?
I always felt a little sheepish about hyping this cute Baby Jesus, who is so adorable, and comes with a blanket, just like the one in the adorable St. Jude’s Hospital promos. Shouldn’t I tell the folks about the fine print in this contract of laying down one’s life? The hard part of loving those that persecute you? Of turning the cheek when one is struck? That doesn’t sound American. Should I come clean about the end of the story concerning what this Baby will cost, with compounding interest?
No, no, that’s for another day. Let the people be happy…..for a while. They’ll get to Gethsemane and Golgotha soon enough. Trot out the lovable characters, cue Silent Night, and call it a day. Cocktail time, y’all! An acceptable level of numbness.
When I had my live radio call-in show in Texas, I had a person once call on the Sunday night before Christmas. The caller noted that he loved to drive around and see the beautiful Christmas lights. And he went on to say that he had a certain fondness for the manger scenes, they call them “creches” in Paris, Texas. He loved seeing the various characters: shepherds, wise men (early), Joseph, Mary, and that cute little baby. But my caller lamented that one particular manger scene in the front of a Baptist church had a cross behind the manger stall. It troubled my caller to see a reminder of the ignominious death by crucifixion of this infant. The caller said it well in his Texas drawl, “They don’t even let the little feller grow up before putting him up on that Cross!”
I remember chuckling as he said those lines. Not exactly a surprise, because I wrote the lines, and they were adroitly delivered by my producer and friend, Paul Kyser, now a physician in Longview, posing as a character we had created, Buck….from Bullard. We used Buck as a plant, to pose pressing question, disturbing questions, disrupting questions. It was my way to posing the deeper question implied in this story: who is this baby, and what does it mean for me?
This need for “truth in advertising” raised its ugly head here and there throughout my career. It was counter-balanced by my love, my heart for the seeker who is looking, searching for meaning in their life. Christmas Eve is THE event that seems to bring in the crowds, some merely following the cultural Christmas rush, but some come, sincerely seeking an answer to their deepest Questions about life.
The love for the seeker led me to use the cultural shadow of a holiday to push the winsome message of the Christ, sent by a loving God to point us a way through our dark night, point us to the truth wrapped in flesh.. Jesus represented God’s love for the Creation, captured in the image of sending his Son among us, to be like us, to embrace us. This is Good News that has won the hearts of many down through the years. And it’s here, being heralded again, even in a pandemic.
That was the way it happened to me in 1972, going with my girlfriend to the Midnight Christmas Eve service at St. Philips in Atlanta. She and I were refugees, like Mary and Joseph, from the Southside, looking for a place in the night, though she was not with child, thank God.
We entered into the unfamiliar space, with the nose-bleed high worship of the Anglican tradition, music bolstered by members of the Atlanta Symphony. These boys looked like they knew what they were doing. I remember looking at the transcendent architecture, the stained-glass and stone tracery, the measured movement, the reverence of the people, the unfamiliar immediacy of the approaching and receiving communion, the pregnant message of God’s love, all combining to strangely communicate a connection of depth that had eluded me to point. There was a spark of spiritual connection that I could not explain, a depth that defied my chemistry, biology, physics, and logic. But in spite of my questions, I knew that this experience was real. I would have to deal with it.
It was the beginning of a journey that would lead me to a commitment that I could not have imagined on that starlit night. The Mystery of Incarnation grabbed me by the soul and would not let go. What if I hadn’t made the effort to break my familiar pattern of Christmas Eve? What if we had gone to our normal Christmas Eve candle light service? Or stayed home to watch It’s A Wonderful Life? How might my life have been different, better or worse?
I don’t know, but my hunch is that there are people, like me fifty years ago, who are hungry for a connection with something bigger than themselves. In this crazy year of 2020, it may be that the time is ripe, the moment full, for someone to experience the incredible joy and awe implied in this starry night.
It may be in a small gathering of people meeting safely, with masks and a necessary distance. It may even happen under a tent pitched in a storied graveyard, like at Christ Church here on my islasnd. Or, it just might happen through this amazing technology of Zoom that will creatively tell the same old story but in a fresh way that miraculously connects despite cynicism, doubt, disappointment, and boredom.
That is the hope. That was God’s hope in trusting us in this Incarnation, this birth. And it’s our hope as once again, we give it our best shot in telling the story in a winsome way. Blessings on you in this mysterious Christmas season. May your Christmas rush be to that manger, to that Mystery contained in a trinity of words: God with us.