When I was a girl my family always spent Christmas Eve at Aunt Margaret and Uncle Jack’s house. The place was jam-packed with family, neighbors and friends stopping by and I figured that, in the city of Hamilton, Ohio, this was the place to be.
It never occurred to me that there were some people who went to church on Christmas Eve. Of course, since I didn’t grow up in a family that spent time in church ever, that’s not all that surprising, I suppose. But I’ll never forget the first time I experienced a Christmas Eve worship service. I was there because an Episcopal Church hired me to come and play my flute, which was something I continued to do all through high school. That first year, I was stunned. The church was filled with people and it seemed totally weird to me. Like all this time a whole other world had been going on right under my nose and I had no idea it existed. (It’s similar to the way I felt when I went to my first NASCAR race. I had no idea there were so many people so into something that was totally off my radar.)
I had associated Christmas with a lot of different things: shopping, baking, parties, concerts. But never church. I know that may sound strange to some of you because I suspect there are a number of people gathered here tonight who can’t imagine Christmas Eve without attending worship. Or there may be some here tonight who grew up like I did and had no idea until this very moment that some people actually go to church on Christmas Eve.
No matter what your background may be, we’re here in this place tonight. And that’s significant. Especially in 2015. There’s something countercultural about this gathering. Many people in the world around us are like I was as a kid. They have no connection or they’ve severed their connection with the church. They’re home feasting or drinking with friends, or watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on T.V., or assembling bicycles right now—maybe while uttering a few choice words.
But you chose to be here. You’ve taken time out from all the business and busyness of your life, and you chose to worship tonight. You chose to sing carols and hear the ancient story once again. You chose to kneel at the altar and receive Christ’s presence anew in your life. It’s a weirdly wondrous way to spend Christmas Eve.
Now, I know that a lot of preachers are prone to lay a bunch of guilt on the people in the pews for participating in a consumer culture that’s commercialized Christmas. I’m not going to do that for several reasons. First of all, Christmas originally piggybacked on the pagan celebration of Saturnalia so it’s always been a hybrid of the sacred and the not-so-sacred. But more importantly, when the Creator chose to enter creation and live as a creature, any division between sacred and secular world became blurred. Even Walmart is holy ground, yes even today. And finally, there are traditions of Christmas that have little connection to the baby born in a manger, but they’re just plain fun. Like visiting Santa at the mall, hanging stockings from the mantle, and driving around to look at the Christmas lights on display. They’re all expressions of Christmas joy.
Yet, in the midst of all the sparkling lights, and the eggnog, and the presents under the tree, there is a deeper meaning to Christmas. We know that; it’s why we’re here. It’s all rather incredible and it’s hard to get our heads around it in just this brief time we spend together tonight.
If you think the whole season has slipped away from you and you haven’t taken the time to reflect on the wonder of God with us because your December was so overbooked with activities that had little to do with the deeper meaning of Christmas, I’ve got great news for you. This night doesn’t mark the end of the Christmas season. It’s only the beginning. Christmas begins tomorrow and it lasts for 12 days.
Now, contrary to popular opinion, there are not 12 days of Christmas so your true love has time to give you: twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lord a’leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a milking, seven swans a swimming, six geese a laying, five golden rings, four calling bird, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. Can you imagine what a mess that would make in your house by the twelfth day? Thankfully, that’s not the point of the twelve days of Christmas.
The point is that we take time to back off from the demands of the days leading up to Christmas and do what Mary did after she watched the story unfold—she pondered it all in her heart. How do you ponder something in your heart? We associate pondering with the head, don’t we? You ponder something in your head. But Mary pondered it all in her heart.
She wasn’t seeking so much to rationally understand what happened. She was seeking a deeper meaning, one that would transform her life.
The days of Christmas are a holy time, a time that’s been set apart to ponder the mystery of God with us and to allow that truth to transform us. Beginning tonight, I invite you into twelve days of pondering.
Ponder the significance of a child who was born into a brutal world of violence and oppression in a land that was occupied by the greatest power on earth. If ever there was a time that was devoid of hope, this was it. And then, into the darkness of that world, Christ shone with the light of God.
Ponder how, because God became human, all humans bear a spark of the divine image of God within them. Ponder how this birth changes the way we treat one another in our day to day lives. And how we honor and welcome those who may not see things the way we do, those who may worship God by another name, those we’re naturally inclined to fear.
Ponder how significant it is that we’re together in this place on this night. In a world filled with injustice, uncertainty, anger and fear, we’ll light candles in the darkness and we’ll imagine a baby sleeping in his mother’s arms as we sing him a hope-filled lullaby. All is calm, all is bright.