Text: Luke 2:1-20 (Jesus is born)
On Friday evening at a Family Christmas Singsong here at Mill Woods, Wendy Edey told us a story about the carol “Silent Night.” It was local, being about the Christmas Eve services that have been held here at 15 Grand Meadow Crescent since 1992; it was touching in that it reminded us of the emotions — from joy, to sadness, to glee – that we might feel on Christmas Eve; and like any good story, it helped build our sense of community and connection.
Wendy’s story also gave me the inspiration for tonight’s reflection. So, thank you Wendy!
As in many other churches, we always end our Christmas Eve services with a candle-lit rendition of Franz Gruber’s carol “Silent Night.” Today is the 200th anniversary of its first performance in a small town in Austria. This is another reason why Wendy’s reflection on “Silent Night” seemed appropriate for our gathering on Friday.
As you know, Christmas is a powerful time of year. The early church set it at the Winter Solstice, which makes it a celebration of the return of light to a darkened world. Christmas is about birth, which reminds us of how awesome, sacred, and hopeful the birth of any child is. Christmas is a moment when work and school pause, and so it is filled with family gatherings and end-of-year parties. And because Christianity has been the dominant religion in Europe for 1700 years, Christmas carries the weight and blessings of centuries of traditions from all the European countries and the many other corners of the world that were conquered by European powers in the early modern period.
Last night, I took a break from getting ready for this evening’s services to watch TV with Kim, and I stumbled upon a new Genre in Netflix called “It’s Starting to Look a Lot Like Netflix.” I was impressed by the never-ending stream of Christmas movies that Netflix and other producers pump out each year. So, if one becomes bored with old chestnuts like “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” there are scores of newer entries to entice us.
In the end, we didn’t watch a Christmas movie. Instead, we opted to watch the live-action, animated comedy “Paddington” from 2014. We liked it; and it made me think of Linda Paddon, who had first recommended this movie to us. Until Bill and Linda moved to Burnaby in 2016, Linda was the one to create and run the PowerPoint slideshow on Christmas Eve here at Mill Woods United. So, that was another nice reminder of Christmas past.
Christmas Eve is a key moment for clergy; and so, I enjoyed a segment on CBC’s The Sunday Edition yesterday titled “While Shepherds Watch Their Flock: Clergy at Christmas.” It was a humorous look at the many ways that Christmas Eve can go south given the stress put upon this one night by both those who always come to church and those who only do so on Christmas Eve. Perhaps I will play it at our next Worship Committee meeting in January!
This is my ninth Christmas Eve as a full-time preacher. The first was at Knox United in Didsbury Alberta in 2009 where I was student supply minister. For some reason, I decided to preach on reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations that night, which perhaps was not the best time to do so. But in the 40 services that I led in Didsbury in Fall 2009 and Winter and Spring 2010, I learned that the only way I could handle the stress was to go with my intuition no matter how skewed it might later seem.
This might remind some of you of my first Christmas Eve service here in 2014. In that one, I reflected on the U.S. Civil War carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and the centennial of the Christmas Eve Truce of 1914 in France during the first Christmas of World War One. It too was perhaps not the best topic for a Christmas Eve sermon; but I am a sucker for anniversaries.
The second Christmas Eve at which I preached was in 2011 in my post-ordination Settlement Charge in southern Saskatchewan. I served three tiny churches in two towns and one hamlet along the Montana border. My first service was at 5 pm at Rockglen; but I had chosen so many carols to sing that I was late for the second service. This was at 7 pm in the almost-ghost town of Fife Lake. When I arrived, I was astonished to see the tiny United Church filled to its full capacity of 30 people. This was more people than lived in the town! On a typical Sunday, we had a congregation of only four or five – and the women who worshipped with me on Sunday afternoons would kindly cancel the Fife Lake service if they knew there were only going to be three or fewer of them.
I dropped two of the carols in this second service so I wouldn’t be late for the final one at 9 pm at Coronach. This was where I lived in the United Church manse. But despite dropping two carols, we still had a lovely time in Fife Lake singing to the accompaniment of canned tracks on a CD in my boom box. And of course, we ended with “Silent Night” and candle light.
The drive to Coronach on the always-deserted highway takes one up a big hill, and as I climbed it, I could distinctly see The Big Dipper through the windshield of my car. The darkness of this depopulated part of Saskatchewan was one of its many charms.
On Christmas day, I made a Facebook post about Christmas Eve in which I wrote that I had felt like Santa Claus driving along the deserted border between Saskatchewan and Montana and dropping off Christmas Eve services like so many presents.
On all but one of these nine Christmas Eve’s, I have used the reading from Luke that we heard again tonight. The one exception was my last Christmas Eve in Saskatchewan in 2013. For that one, I chose to read the quite different Christmas story from Matthew – the one with the star and the magi from the East – because of how this set up a sermon I preached five days later in Rockglen at a decovenanting service before I moved to Edmonton and Mill Woods United.
This was a bittersweet Christmas Eve because it was the last worship service ever held at the United Church in Fife Lake, which closed after I left. The remaining churches in Coronach and Rockglen merged with a United Church in a fourth and larger town, Assiniboia, which is 50 km north of Rockglen. And now five years later, I have learned that the minister in Assiniboia is retiring in the spring, and so those churches worry they won’t be able to find a replacement.
Tonight, we heard the Christmas story from Luke again. We listen to it every Christmas Eve not because of its theological importance or historical relevance. It is found only in Luke, and it has elements as fanciful as tales about Kris Kringle or about the ghosts of Christmas in Dickens. We listen to this story because it connects us to tradition and because it reminds us of the rebirth of Love that is at the heart of the Way of Jesus. It also stands behind many of the carols that we sing with joy, sadness, and wonder every Christmas Eve.
We sing these carols because we are not just people who revel in the return of light after the solstice. Nor are we just people who spend a significant part of our annual budget on Christmas gifts and parties. Nor are we just people who enjoy a break from the stress of school, work, or the news media. We are also people on a spiritual path who, in the vibrations of singing, sense our sacred connection to ourselves, to family, and to neighbours near and far. In these carols, we remember that Christ is reborn in our hearts on Christmas Eve just as much as at Easter or in any moment of grief or joy in this awesome life of woes and blessings.
And so for the ninth time as a Christmas Eve preacher, I offer a traditional greeting of peace, joy, and love — “Merry Christmas!”