a sermon for Christmas Eve
hat is it about this time of the year that seems to draw people so powerfully? For all of the commercialization, the pressure for families to conform to almost impossible ideals, and the overburdened credit cards, something else is going on during these days around Christmas.
This past week on the local CBC radio morning show a caller declared the day was to be “pay it forward Monday,” and challenged other listeners to commit a random act of kindness. In the “spirit of the season,” the radio hosts jumped on board, and through the rest of the day played the phone messages left by callers telling how they had bought a stranger a cup of coffee or dropped an anonymous gift into a neighbour’s mailbox. By the time the late afternoon show had rolled around, the radio station was even offering prizes for the best random acts of kindness… which seemed to me to be kind of missing the point.
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Rental copies of A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas are flying off the shelves of the video stores, in spite of the fact that most of the people renting them have seen them countless times… or maybe because most of the people renting them have seen them countless times. And of course, most of those Christmas movies have little or nothing to do with the Christian proclamation of the birth of Christ. Seriously, “Fahoo fores dahoo dores” is hardly the Hallelujah chorus.
What is it about this particular night that draws us so powerfully? What deep longing is touched by this feast of Christmas?
Thanks to the song, “Christmas in the Trenches,” you might know something of the stories of the famous Christmas Eve truces that took place along the Western front during the First World War. Beginning in 1914, soldiers from both sides of the battle lines would put down their weapons and venture out into “no man’s land” to exchange greetings, share food and drink, sing carols, and even play games of soccer under the moonlight. From Christmas Eve through to the morning of the 26th, the truce would last. But just through to the morning of the 26th, when the guns would again be picked up and the battles resumed. As the song draws toward its close, the narrator sings,Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more. With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war. But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night “whose family have I fixed within my sights?” (“Christmas in the Trenches,” John McCutcheon)
It would be easy to get a bit cynical here, and observe that other than a twinge of insight—that “on each end of the rifle we’re the same”—nothing was different. For all that these famous Christmas truces might have given these tired and broken men a bit of a reprieve and a sense of humanity in the midst of the madness, the war still raged on. The song might be written off as little more than a sentimental ballad about an even more sentimentalized version of Christmas; by all means feel good, do good, be good for 24 or 36 hours—or even for the better part of a month—but don’t change anything… or maybe, don’t let the gospel we proclaim this night actually challenge or unsettle or change you.
And still, this night, this gospel story, these words we speak and sing, really do draw us and maybe remind us that we are in fact longing for something, even if we don’t quite know what that something is. And that is at least part of what was behind those strange Christmas battlefield truces, even if the peace could only hold for that brief window of time.
There are at least two things that can save us from a sentimentality that just stops at the good feelings and leaves that deeper longing by and large unidentified. One of those things is the movement to Christmas by way of a robust observance of the season of Advent. For the past four weeks, we have been soaked in themes of watchfulness, patient waiting, and deep hopefulness, all of which have reinforced this powerful belief that God is not yet finished with us. God has not finished with us as individuals, and God has not yet brought humanity and the whole of creation to its culmination. And what that means is that our celebrations this night invite us into but one chapter of a much larger story. It is a significant and evocative chapter to be sure, but it is not the whole story.
And the other thing that will keep us from a shallow sentimentality is discipline. For many of us not our favourite of words, “discipline” comes from the same root as the word “disciple,” and to be a disciple is to do this faith for the long haul. What that means is that while we might feel like doing nice things during the season of good cheer, in this faith we are actually challenged to live in particular ways even when it doesn’t come easily or with a quick emotional pay-off. If you speak with the people who run Agape Table, they’ll tell you that in the weeks leading up to Christmas they have more food and more volunteers than they can even manage. As I’ve told you before, the first year that we were gathering here in this building I went to the director of Agape in early December to ask what we could do for them for Christmas, and he basically told me not to worry about doing anything. “We have so much food in the system around Christmas time that we can’t really handle any more. But lets talk about January and February and the rest of the year. “ And so we did, and that was the beginning of one of our community’s simple disciplines, which is to remember to bring fresh produce for Agape Table week in and week out throughout the year. And even that it but a symbolic reminder that discipleship has to be lived out in real and concrete ways.
In the Benedictine tradition, the discipline of an ordered, balanced, and rhythmic life lies at the heart of things. And part of that rhythm—part of that discipline in fact—is to keep the feast. Maybe part of the reason that this time of the year draws people so powerfully is that we do need to keep the feast and to celebrate, no matter how hard things might have been at other points of the year. To keep the feast is to have a taste of the goodness and abundance of life as it should be and shall be in the fullness of time, and it is that deep and peaceable goodness that lies at the heart of our longings.
So, welcome to this festal night, and may you be blessed as you observe the feasts of the coming days in your own homes and lives and circles of friendship. Savour the story told here tonight, and sing out those carols. And know that as lovely as this night can be, it is but a chapter in a much deeper story that speaks to the deepest of longings and the promise of their fulfillment.
Have a happy and blessed Christmas season.