What a joy it is to come together on Christmas Eve! We gather as God’s people, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to celebrate the good news of great joy that to us is born this day a Savior, who is the messiah and the Lord.
The details of our celebration, here and in our families, inevitably differ slightly from year to year. But there is something wonderfully comforting about sharing once again the familiar Christmas traditions.
We sing the old familiar hymns, and we pray the old familiar prayers. And we hear again the familiar gospel story of the birth of our Lord.
Joseph and Mary journey to Bethlehem, where Mary gives birth to a son and wraps him in bands of cloth and lays him in a manger because there is no place for them in the inn.
If that were the end of the story, it would be sweet, but perhaps not particularly memorable for anyone other than the holy family themselves. But of course the story keeps going.
Shepherds see a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, giving God glory and promising peace on earth. The shepherds rush to Bethlehem to see the promised child. And Mary treasures everything about this night and holds it in her heart.
Everybody loves the Christmas story, and rightly so. It’s a Christmas tradition, and we gather this evening so that we can hear it again.
But the familiarity of this beloved story can be a problem. Christ’s birth story can become so familiar, so comfortable, that we forget just how radically life-changing Christ’s birth really is.
So this evening, let’s take the story a bit farther, into less familiar territory. Let’s imagine what the next few days must have been like for Mary and Joseph, the days immediately after Christ was born. They were far from home, without a lot of resources, still adjusting to life with each other, and now with a newborn. Even for the holy family, the week after that first Christmas must have been challenging!
I think about the birth of our first child. Carrie and I had been married for several years. We were a good bit older than Mary must have been. We were eager for a child. We thought we were ready. I remember thinking to myself, babies are small, and they sleep a lot. How hard could it be? Famous last words!
Despite my brave talk, I was terrified on Benjamin’s first night. The little man was in the room with us, there in the hospital, and every time he made a squeak, I thought he was dying. Finally we had to ask the nurse to take him away so we could get a little sleep.
After we left the hospital, we couldn’t send little Benjamin away anymore. In the week after our son was born, Carrie and I had to adjust to life as parents on our own. Now, for the record, Benjamin was a good baby, and easy as babies go. Still, Carrie and I had a hard time of it. Everything was different. Suddenly our lives revolved around a seven pound bundle of joy we called the Tyrant Baby.
Being parents changed our relationship with each other, it changed our relationships with our friends. It changed how I thought about my work. It changed how I spent my time. Being a father changed who I was. And it happened all over again when Nicholas was born a couple of years later!
But the changes I experienced after the birth of my children must have been nothing compared to what Mary went through when Jesus was born.
We were as ready as we could be. But just months before the events in our gospel reading, Mary had been unmarried, and definitely with no child on the horizon. An angel told her she was going to give birth, not to just any child, but to God’s Son. That was a shocker! Then poor Mary had to explain the uncomfortable fact of her divine pregnancy to her fiancée, which can’t have been easy. That is all before Jesus is even born.
Then on that first Christmas Eve, Joseph and Mary have a baby, and the shepherds show up, and they confirm what the angel had said to Mary, that their child is Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. That first Christmas must have been great. But that first Christmas also must have been terrifying. I had no idea what to do with my son when he was born. But at least he wasn’t the Messiah!
Luke tells us that Mary pondered all this in her heart. I suspect that is a dramatic understatement. Mary’s life has been turned totally upside down. Going forward, everything will be different for her.
And, because her son was the Messiah, God incarnate, not just different for Mary. On that first Christmas, Mary was one of the very few people who knew what had happened. But—and this is the meaning of Christmas—Mary’s child changes everything for everybody. All of God’s people are different after Christ’s birth than they were before. All of creation is different after Christ’s birth than before.
Even more than Christ’s birth, that difference, the difference that Christ makes in our world and in our lives, is what we celebrate tonight.
Tonight we look back two thousand years to Christ’s birth on that first Christmas. This season most of us also look back to our own past Christmases. I remember how exciting Christmas was for me when I was a child. I remember how excited my own children were, and how fun that was.
But Christmas is not about the past, at least not only about the past. Christmas is about Christ coming into our world to change everything, to make all of creation new, to pour out God’s Spirit on us so that we too might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Christ came in a special way on that night in the manger two thousand years ago, and that good news is what we remember tonight.
But the good news of Christmas keeps going. Christ continues to come into our world and into our lives all the time. Christ is present with us this evening, as we gather in his name, as we hear his holy word, as we celebrate the sacrament of his body and blood. If Christmas is all about Christ coming into our world, then Christmas is not just about the past. Christmas is happening right here and right now because Christ is coming, right here and right now.
And the question for us tonight is the same question Mary had to answer two thousand years ago, when she pondered these things in her heart. What does it mean for us to have Christ in our lives? How are we being called to change and grow? How can we open ourselves more fully to Christ’s presence and to the outpouring of Christ’s Spirit?
For many of us, the next eighteen hours will be filled with a happy chaos. But I invite you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to take a little time over the next few days to ponder in your heart what Christmas means for you, what it means for Christ to come into your world and into your life right now. Because that is what Christmas is all about.
In the name the one who comes into our lives and changes everything. Amen.