Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018
Loosen a little our grip, O Lord, on our words and our ways, our fears and our fretfulness, that finding ourselves found in you, we may venture from the safety of the shore and launch afresh into the waters of grace with Christ, the Morning Star, as our guide. Amen.
When I was in college, I remember attending Christmas Eve services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina. One of the head ushers always stood out on that holy night. And I would have been disappointed if he hadn’t been there. He could be seen marching up and down the aisles in some of the most wonderfully outrageous Christmas trousers you’ve ever seen. It was surely the only time of the year that he would’ve dared to wear such clothing in that church. Of course, he wasn’t alone. There was lots of other playful attire in the pews on people who would normally be dressed rather conservatively, to say the least.
My former boss, who is now the Bishop of Southern Virginia, has a similar, fond memory of a guy who would wear the same socks to one of his former churches every Christmas Eve, showing them off at the door as he greeted the clergy. They were green, with little silver bells all over them, so he would jingle as he walked around. Christmas brought out something playful in him, something of the joy and wonder we see in children and ask God to give to newly baptized Christians.
More than a few of you here tonight understand that sense of playfulness. As usual, our decoy ducks in the fountain in Palmer’s courtyard are all dressed up for the Christmas season with bright red bows around their necks. I’m also sure that there are candy cane neckties, bow ties with lights, Santa pins that play music, and red and green sparkling earrings out there in the darkness, waiting to be noticed with a little grin and a wink. At the last service, two brothers were wearing matching red sweaters with Christmas trees and lights that could blink and sitting together in the first pew, right in front of the pulpit. At this service, one of our ushers is sporting corduroy pants with black Labrador Retrievers adorned with Santa hats on them.
For some people, all of this is a kind of false religion, a form of escape from sadness, sickness, disappointment, and the darkness of the world. For the rest of us, however, it’s a reminder that true joy can be found in the midst of those harsh realities and that, as Isaiah declared, “on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Yes, the darkness is great, but not greater than God.
The light that dispels our night is Jesus, who came from “the realms of glory” as Emmanuel, which means God-with-us. He has come to share our life not as we wish it to be, but as it really is. He’s forgiven us in spite of our failures and our hard-heartedness. Only a love that comes from above, embracing the unlovely, the unlovable, those who are suffering, those who are lonely, and those who’ve been forgotten is able to make real and everlasting the enchantment of this holy night.
And we believe Jesus embodies that love.
Earlier today at the first Eucharist of Christmas, our beloved Associate Rector, the Rev. Liz Parker, came with her boys, who are young adults, and sat near the front on the Nativity side of the church. As many of you know, she was away from Palmer throughout the season of Advent because her husband, the Rev. Andy Parker, was hospitalized multiple times over the last several weeks due to complications from cancer. Andy died a week before Christmas Day, and his funeral will take place later this week, in this church, while it’s still decorated for this holy season.
At the end of November, after having waited with Andy in the emergency room for 11 hours, Liz said she cried out to God as they sat there, praying, “God, where are you? I need to see you here!” And when they finally got moved into a hospital room, Andy’s nurse introduced himself to them, saying, “My name is Emmanuel.” The same Love that came down at Christmas was in the room with them, surrounding them, comforting them, reminding them of Jesus.
The miracle isn’t that we are only able to see the love of Jesus reflected in a nurse named Emmanuel, but that we also see the love of Jesus in the face of a nurse named Mary, a janitor named Ronnie, a teacher named Eleanor, a waiter named Joseph, a priest named Mollie, a doctor named Carlos, a police officer named Yolanda, a UPS driver named Gabe, a stranger sitting next to us in the pew, and a parent named Clyde, Shirley, Dale, or Linda. Those are real people, by the way, and there are real people in your own life who have shown you the love of Jesus when you needed it.
And the promise isn’t that every story will have a magical ending before the dawn of Christmas morning. No, the promise of the gospel is that God came into the world in a very real way and will always and forever embrace us even through — especially through — our darkest night. What makes this night magical is the belief that “God has intervened” and is, as Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has written, “[creating] a new kingdom where no evil and no disappointment can ever enter.”
Whenever I think back to the times that my sons, as babies, fell asleep on my chest, I’m reminded of Mary’s newborn child in the manger and that God chose to appear among us not in a blaze of imperial glory but with a different kind of glory, that of an infant. That’s the mystery of the incarnation, which we celebrate tonight.
It’s the unbelievable fact that God said to his creation: “I love you so very much that I’m willing to become like you. I’m willing to experience what you experience, to feel what you feel, to think what you think, to suffer as you suffer, and, yes, even to laugh as you laugh.” It is through becoming one of us that God draws us and the whole world to himself. It is Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
I close with a lovely meditation on the Nativity that I hope is personally meaningful for each of us in this church tonight and for all of those whom our prayers surround with the love of Jesus. It’s written by the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther, who reminds us to laugh and to trust this newborn child more than we trust ourselves:
Behold Christ lying in the lap of his young mother . . . Look at the Child, knowing nothing. Yet all that is belongs to him, that your conscience should not fear but take comfort in him. Doubt nothing. Watch him springing in the lap of the maiden. Laugh with him. Look upon this Lord of Peace and your spirit will be at peace. See how God invites you in many ways. He places before you a Babe with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing to [men and women] than a babe. Are you affrighted? Then come to him, lying in the lap of the fairest and sweetest maid. You will see how great is the divine goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair. Trust him! Trust him! Here is the Child in whom is salvation. To me there is no greater consolation given to [humanity] than this, that Christ became man, a child, a babe, playing in the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.
To the words of that meditation, I say, “Amen,” and to you,
1 BACK TO POST Revelation 22:16, among the Bible’s last words, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.”
2 BACK TO POST From the baptismal liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer (1979):
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.
3 BACK TO POST Isaiah 9:2 (New International Version 1984).
4 BACK TO POST James Montgomery (1771-1854), 1816:
Angels from the realms of glory
wing your flight o’er all the earth;
ye who sang creation’s story
now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
come and worship, come and worship,
worship Christ, the newborn King.
5 BACK TO POST Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018) 389.
6 BACK TO POST Martin Luther, excerpt from a Christmas sermon in Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by Roland H. Bainton (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997), quoted on the Mockingbird blog, December 24, 2010.