Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
For most of us, Christmas is the emotional center of Christianity. Easter may be “The Queen of Feasts,” but Christmas hits us right here [hitting chest with a fist], tugging at our hearts in so many different and powerful ways, some of them unexpected, catching us off guard. Whether we choose to call it holy, regardless of who we are or where we have been or where we find ourselves now, even if we’re sitting outside on the grass rather than in the pews, this night brings back, unbidden, lots of memories of home.
Perhaps those are happy memories from your childhood — a Christmas tree decorated with silver tinsel or those giant, colorful, old-fashioned lights; wrapped presents that you shook to guess what was inside; that one special toy you held in your hands, which just seemed too good to be true.
I can still remember holding, in the late 1970s, a more-than-one-foot-tall action figure of a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. After putting in batteries, an eerie sweeping “eye” in the helmet could light up bright red. You might have your own version of a memory like that, even if you never share it.
Then there are memories of beautiful carols and candlelight in a church. Later, at home, did you get to place Jesus in the manger in a nativity set? Or were you the kid constantly rearranging the shepherds and their sheep?
Maybe some of you are thinking about how you took for granted the ways you gathered with family and friends a couple of years ago. I know some of us, including me and my family, canceled trips planned for next week, each of us praying for a light to shine on our path and show us the way. Sadly but understandably, relatives have canceled trips to come and see us too.
More than a few of us find our minds flooded with memories of the physical places that we or loved ones have called home — a house we still go back to visit now and then; a bungalow that was sold long ago; a neighborhood that has slowly aged with its residents, where adults rather than children now ride their bikes down the street; a grandparent’s farm; a divorced parent’s apartment; a large back yard where we played with cousins.
Or you might be thinking of experiences that happened in those places — the way your grandmother set the table in the dining room just so before you arrived for a feast, wanting everything to be special for you; that awkward time your Christmas gift for someone was, let’s be honest, a real flop; a parent who was filled with joy simply because you were happily lost in wonder; the warmth of the family you had to choose for yourself, perhaps from people in this church, perhaps people here tonight, when your own family seemed to shut the door on you in one way or another.
When we think of home on this night, we think of nearly as many things as there are people here right now. That word means something different to each of us. And what did it mean to Jesus, who was raised in the village of Nazareth, born on the road under less than ideal circumstances, hit the road as an adult after he was baptized in the River Jordan, named as his family — as his brother and sister and mother — those who do the will of God, and said he, unlike the birds with their nests, had no place to lay his head?
I believe the answer to that question has everything to do with this night, which I do call holy. Many of those around you right now believe that Love came down at Christmas in the birth of Jesus — Love with a capital “L” — for you, for me, for the whole world. And it’s not imprisoned in the past.
That Love was present not only in the events described in the pages of the Gospel of Luke but also in many of the memories of home you’ve brought with you this evening — the wonderful memories of when your life overflowed with abundance, hopeful things that somehow emerged out of the hard times, or maybe new traditions that don’t reflect your bad experiences of the past. Whether you think of home as one place, or many places, or no place at all, what makes it a home, what makes it your home, what makes this church our home is Love with a capital “L,” manifested not in wooden beams, not in bricks and mortar, not in stained glass windows, but in relationships through the years that go back to the manger.
The Love that flows from one generation to another, however it finds a way to do that, even if it comes to you through the cracks and the brokenness of your life, has a divine source. And the babe in a manger, crying out in the darkness, is Emmanuel, God-with-us, even if you don’t believe that to be true. That’s what makes this night truly magical, in the sense of something that’s beautiful and filled with awe, something that continues to have the power to change the world, beginning with your own heart.
How would your life be different if it were true?
The poet Jack Gilbert has a short poem that acknowledges the passing away of things, and our weeping over them as they decline into the earth. But it celebrates whatever among those things is present with us in this moment, “what abounds,” as he puts is. Amazed by that daily, his last line refers to:
My fine house that love is.
I don’t know what he means entirely by that beautiful phrase. But his use of the word love refers to God for me on this night, and on all the other nights of the year. Home is my fine house that Love has built, that God is building, for me and for everyone else created in God’s image. That includes you.
We long for home, we have a yearning for it, because we long to be accepted, embraced, and loved. That’s something each of us wants, even if we’ve never experienced it, or if we think we don’t deserve it. The story of Christmas is about the coming of God to those who least expect it, to those sitting in the shadows, to those who feel left out, to the shepherds you kept rearranging, with their sheep, in that old moss-covered nativity set.
In this place, among this people, on this night called holy, you are accepted and embraced and loved by the same Jesus whose birth we remember each Christmas, including this one. Jesus came to set us free from the things that keep us from accepting, embracing, and loving others. Jesus came to invite us to the feast at this Table, inside the fine house that Love is. There will always, always, always be room here, just for you. So welcome home.
1 BACK TO POST This whole discussion of home and what it means was inspired by an interview with Christian Wiman on the podcast For the Life of the World, “95. Christian Wiman / Finding Home Through Exiles’ Eyes,” November 27, 2021.
2 BACK TO POST Jack Gilbert, “Singing in My Difficult Mountains” in Home: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2021) 9.