Sermon for Christmas Eve

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many of you know (and I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago) that my favorite piece of Christmas pop culture ephemera is the 1965 CBS special A Charlie Brown Christmas. My wife, quoting something she had read on Twitter, put this peculiar preference into perspective for me this year: “A Charlie Brown Christmas takes the tried and true formula that every child just loves… melancholy plus experimental jazz.” I can take or leave experimental jazz (I don’t think I’m musically refined enough to fully appreciate it, to be honest) but melancholy–now, that’s my jam!

Joking aside, I think this brings up an important point not just about the Feast of the Nativity and the miracle of the Incarnation, but also about the shape of the Christian life in response to the truth of this night. It points to a reality about the human condition–namely, the existence of sadness and darkness and grief, all results of the Fall–in the light of our reasonable and holy hope. And I think it encourages us to take a bit more care in how we talk about that reality, making a distinction between emotional states (which are neither normative nor constitutive of one’s soul) and spiritual qualities which are.

Now that’s all a bit dense, so let me begin unpacking it by calling upon the lazy preacher’s favorite tactic: when in doubt, denounce something. This will be a gentle denunciation, though, (more a quibble than a trumpet blast) because it’s about something which arises from a good intention, but which I think fundamentally misses the mark. I don’t know if this is still “a thing”, but there was a fad some years ago among churches to have something they called a “Blue Christmas” service, usually some days before the feast itself, often on the Winter Solstice–the darkest day of the year. It was intended specifically for people for whom Christmas is a difficult time of year due to some loss or struggle or dysfunction. I’m sure such services were meant to normalize or de-stigmatize difficult emotions around the holidays, presumably whether it be the mild melancholy of A Charlie Brown Christmas or real, debilitating depression or anything in-between. I get that; it seems to come from a place of care and concern and love.

That said, I cannot imagine any amount of contextualization, any number of disclaimers, neither the subtlest preaching nor the canniest liturgical craftsmanship which would sending the unintentional message to many that “real Christmas” is for jolly people and “Blue Christmas” is set aside for the presumably cheerless, who are “thrown a bone” on some other, convenient occasion. Again, I’m sure this is not the intention, and perhaps my profound discomfort with liturgical innovation makes me more sensitive than most, but my “gut reaction” to this sort of thing is that it can be counter-productive.

The truth is, there are doubtless some here tonight who are having the holly-jolliest of Christmases and there are some here tonight who are having the most difficult Christmas of their lives due to some pain or loss, and there are a whole heck of a lot of us somewhere in between. And it is good for us to be in this place together tonight. That is because God’s promise to us is not jollity but joy, not mere cheerfulness but lasting happiness which abides even in seasons of great distress. Because Christ being born in Bethlehem and in our hearts doesn’t mean we’ll be spared trouble or even trauma in this life; rather, it means that amidst all the changes and chances of this life, Christ’s abiding presence can give us a deeper peace. What’s more, being a part of a community where we share in each others’ joys and sorrows means we can all hold each other up, with God’s help, through all those exigencies.

Toxic positivity, the suggestion that one must always be blithesome and pleasant, has no place in the faith of the bible or of any humane worldview. God chose–and this is what tonight is all about–to enter human history in all its messiness and difficulty and sorrow. Can you imagine the scene that night in Bethlehem? Yes, it is a joyful scene, but it is not a particularly mirthful one. The Holy Family are not in the comfort of their home, but in a place meant for livestock. The shepherds don’t break out the champagne when they get there. Our Lady’s response is pensive and prayerful. We might say that the first Christmas was happy, in the truest sense of that word, but it wasn’t merry. (One thing I always loved about her late majesty’s Christmas speeches was her insistence on wishing her subjects a “Happy Christmas” rather than a “Merry Christmas”, I think for precisely this reason.)

And how appropriate is this for the one who would go on to live a life both wondrous and sorrowful? Those with us again tomorrow at 10 a.m. will have the opportunity to sing those wonderful words from a hymn which is a classic but sadly didn’t quite “make the cut” for Christmas Eve “Once in Royal David’s City”: “For he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness.” We have a God who chose to share with us this whole beautiful, tragic, sometimes sweet, sometimes horrific experience of life in a fallen world in order to redeem the same.

So, the truth of the Incarnation doesn’t mean that every day will be sunshine and lollipops and trips to the zoo. The one who took up his cross and bid us follow didn’t promise that. It is, however, the only way to true and lasting joy in this life, that peace which passes understanding, and to eternal bliss in the next. So, whether your heart is heavy or light tonight, whether you’re feeling it or not, whether this is for you the best Christmas ever or the worst, God stands ready to give you his Grace. Christ, the Word of God through whom you were created, provides his very Body and Blood in the Sacrament to keep you in everlasting life. The same Spirit who spoke by the prophets bids you come to be comforted. The one God who came as perfect man to redeem humanity has made you whole. Our faith is built on nothing less than this, and even the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.