It never fails. Really. People say that the only things you can count on in this world are death and taxes – but that’s just not true.
You can also count on people showing up for Christmas Eve worship.
Now before you get your stockings in a twist, I am not talking about people who show up just for Christmas Eve services. I have no complaint about that at all. No, what I am saying is that there is something about gathering on Christmas Eve that is attractive to people.
Maybe it is the candlelight, and we are all moths drawn to the flame.
Maybe it is the songs – both carols and solos – that we are all waiting to hear.
Perhaps it is just being together, as a family and as a community of faith that drives us to want to be here on Christmas Eve.
I can assure you of this, if I had to pick one worship service to attend every year – if for some reason I could only go to one service of worship – it would be this one.
So, believe me…I am incredibly happy that every single person is here tonight and was thrilled with everyone that I got to see at the earlier service as well.
Yet there is something about worshiping at 11 pm on Christmas Eve that just works for me. (Some think that it is because my family has a tradition of going to Waffle House® in between the early and late services that motivates me. But trust me, it is more than that. Really.)
I think it has something to do with wanting to recreate the experience of that first holy night so long ago. Yes, in a very truthful way we moved our main Christmas worship to Christmas eve a century or so ago because we wanted to give Christmas Day to families and friends. But at the same time, I think we wanted to try and recreate a holy night. We hope for some sort of star to shine bright for us or for the words of an angel to ring in our ears. Or maybe it is because during this hour when our energy is really starting to run low, we know that we are open to experiencing God in some new and powerful way.
So, we come. Expectant as the shepherds, we come.
And maybe that is the real reason you can always count on people to come to Christmas Eve services: they know that they have been invited not just by a church, but by the Creator of the Universe.
Shepherds were invited to the birth of Jesus and shepherds were about as low on the totem pole of human creation that existed at the time. So why can’t we show up to celebrate as well, regardless of how we see ourselves or others see us. I think that is perfectly good theology. The Creator does want you here.
Angels were there as well, and if you don’t feel like one of the ruffians that shepherds were in those days, perhaps you feel at least a little closer to the angels – not angelic – but at least someone willing to serve God as you can, following Jesus, doing your best. So why shouldn’t you feel invited by the Creator? I think that is perfectly good theology as well. The Creator does want you here.
Even preachers have a precedent for attendance from the first Nativity – well, at least according to some. Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem, and we all know that a donkey is just another name for a, well, you know. So even preachers, or anyone we think a little less of in this world because of their obstinance or difference in opinion from us, have a standing invite to this service. I think that is perfectly good theology. The Creator does want me and you to be here.
But maybe we are here tonight because we know just how important this night is in the scheme of things. We realize that on this night long ago God chose to become Human, which started the move towards the cross and the resurrection. Those set loose the power for everything to be reversed for us so that we humans could be filled with the presence of God. Some would call it the circle of life…I like to think of it as the circle of re-birth. We celebrate a birth because we know that somehow this helps leads to our rebirth.
So, because we know how important this night is, we want to be here. We want to say we added something to our celebration of holly and Hallmark, presents and matching pajamas, lights and libations.
So, we go where people have always gone.
Church. On Christmas Eve.
I think a lot of us do show up because we think we know what this is all about. We think we understand the babe in the manger as Lord of Creation. We think we understand the shepherds, the angels, the guy who married a woman already pregnant, and we think we even understand Mary. We think we get all these things.
It is God’s coming to earth – of course I am going to be here to celebrate that! Easy – peasy – God is among us, let’s worship and have good cheer! Our world certainly needs that.
But right there at that moment is where we all rub up against this story in the wrong way. We are told in such a way that you cannot make sense saying that you “understand it all.” One of the last verses we heard in that story was, “But Mary kept these things and pondered them in her heart.”
Folks, I have done my fair share of pondering – which means simply that we think about things that are puzzling to us – and some of you may even claim that I do far too much of my pondering out loud, from the pulpit. The truth is, pondering requires less than full understanding. If you fully understand, there is no need to ponder.
And Mary pondered. The one who knew more about what was going on that night than any other human or animal or angel present found herself surrounded with a baby given by God, a husband who loved her when he could have left her for dead, a birth in a strange town and a strange place, a bunch of lower class shepherds showing up to ogle her first born, talk of angel proclamations – something which with she had personal experience.
All these things – and Mary pondered them.
I believe that the greatest thing the church offers as we come together to worship on Christmas Eve is the opportunity to experience mystery! We can’t completely explain being fully human/fully divine. We can’t truly describe virgin birth, angelic hosts, shepherds who become proclaimers. We can’t explain new stars in the sky and anything else about this holy night.
However, we can invite you to the mystery of it all. We can aid in experiencing the mystery that goes beyond all mysteries. God and humanity created in One. You cannot explain that. But you can ponder the mystery of it.
And if you can ponder it, then perhaps you will decide to also follow that mystery. You can follow like the shepherds did. You can follow the mystery you ponder of the God/Human along whatever path you are walking.
Just don’t try to own the explanation of it.
Let it own you…so you too can have the peace that this holy night brings.