At this point, I have had a month to get used to worshipping in a mostly empty Church building, with people I cannot see joining in through the miracle of the internet or else in the parking lot. I am grateful that we can gather this way at least.
But it is still a little rough not being able to gather physically for worship on Christmas Eve. I miss the full house, the murmur of small children in the background, the sound of many voices singing the familiar hymns, and all the rest of it. I miss our normal Sunday services. But tonight I really miss our normal Christmas Eve service.
So I begin by acknowledging that this is not Christmas Eve the way I want it to be.
But in a weird way, whatever disappointments we experience in our celebration of Christmas this year may actually help us to hear in a new way the good news of great joy in our Gospel reading.
Let’s cast our minds back more than two thousand years ago to imagine, as best we can, what Joseph and Mary were going through in the weeks and months leading up to that first Christmas.
It started with an angel appearing to Mary with the startling announcement that she would give birth to the Son of God.
Under the circumstances, this announcement was not exactly good news. Or, rather, it is good news. But it is also hard news.
Mary was probably a teen-ager. Mary was definitely not yet married. It must have been hard to accept the incredible responsibility laid on her, hard to explain to her fiancée that she was carrying God’s child, hard to live with the social consequences of giving birth out of wedlock in a patriarchal age that punished women who were considered sexually suspect even if they had not done anything wrong.
Mary’s first action after hearing the news about her pregnancy was, unsurprisingly, to leave town. Luke tells us she “set out and went with haste” to take shelter with an elderly aunt who lived in the hill country (1:39). Mary remained with her aunt Elizabeth for three months.
But eventually Mary had to return home to face the music.
Back in Nazareth, one of the people Mary had to face, just about the time her pregnancy was beginning to show, was Joseph, the man to whom she was engaged. Joseph was already a relatively old man when he and Mary were betrothed. It is unlikely they knew each other particularly well, especially given the age gap between them.
The Gospel writers don’t give us any detail about what happened next. I am guessing Joseph and Mary had some awkward conversations, Mary explaining that her pregnancy was not what it looked like, and Joseph responding with understandable skepticism.
Finally Joseph has a dream that reassures him about the truth of Mary’s story. Presumably that was a relief. But it still must have been a shock to learn that Mary really was carrying God’s child. And I doubt Joseph was able to convince his family or friends about the whole Son of God thing, so he had to live with the embarrassment and scandal.
That is quite a way to start a life together!
And the challenges keep coming. Just about the time they got things settled between them, but before they were officially married, Joseph and Mary have to leave Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem to register for the Roman census. That is ninety miles, mostly on foot, for a very pregnant woman.
As a descendant of King David, Joseph considered Bethlehem his ancestral home. That is why he and Mary had to go there. But that, too, must have been hard. My wife is actually descended from one of the kings of England. But that doesn’t mean they will roll out the red carpet if she ever visits Windsor Palace. And there is more time between Joseph and King David than there is between Carrie and her royal ancestor.
Given their difficulty in finding a place to stay, we can be pretty sure Joseph didn’t know anybody in Bethlehem and didn’t have the money to make life on the road any easier. When Mary gives birth, they have to lay their newborn son in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.
Things are about to look up on that first Christmas Eve. But before we go there, we should pause to ponder in our hearts what the holy family has gone through.
The whole nine-month ordeal sounds horrible. Joseph and Mary are isolated from their family and friends, partly because of scandal and partly by distance. They are a long way from home without the resources they need to make themselves comfortable. They are trying to get used to each other as husband and wife. They have a new baby to contend with, which is a great joy but also, if my own experience is similar to theirs in any way, is its own challenge. And adding yet another layer of gigantic complexity, their child is God incarnate. What do you do with that?
That was the first Christmas. We remember both Joseph and Mary as great saints, so maybe they were patient through the months leading up to that first Christmas Eve. But I wouldn’t have been. I would have been a miserable wreck.
Then shepherds show up. The shepherds must have been a motley bunch: unwashed, uncouth, probably, at least at first, unwelcome. I know I didn’t need to be entertaining strangers the night my children were born. And I wasn’t the one who gave birth!
But this is where it gets good.
The shepherds show up with good news of great joy for all people, good news that they have heard from angels, good news that has been celebrated ever since, good news that we celebrate this evening. A child is born in the city of David, a savior who is the messiah, who is the Lord. That child is Immanuel, which means God with us (Matthew 1:23).
Given their own earlier revelations, Mary and Joseph already knew that. And, I suspect, given all that they have been through, Joseph and Mary needed a little reminder.
Or maybe they didn’t. But we do. Especially now, on this strange Christmas Eve, we need to hear again, and to hear deeply, the good news of great joy about Jesus’ birth.
We closed our building on March 16, almost exactly nine months ago, that is, almost exactly the amount of time Mary carried Jesus before giving birth on that first Christmas Eve. At the time, I thought we were closing the building for two weeks.
It has been a challenging nine months. The challenges have sometimes gotten me down, and I know I am not alone in that.
And yet the good news of great joy keeps breaking in. The good news of great joy keeps breaking in in unexpected ways and often thanks to very unexpected heralds, modern-day equivalents of the first-century shepherds.
We celebrate that good news tonight. No matter what else is happening, in our world and in our lives, still we say, Christ is born. God is with us. And for that good news, we add, thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia! Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan