Today’s scripture readings:
Here we are. Christmas Eve. Actually, here we are not. I’m standing in the sanctuary at Gloria Dei, all alone, save for the camera and a couple of lights, and this just doesn’t feel right at all. You are not here. I miss the dull roar of the pre-service chatter that usually fills this space as you all are gathering in this room for Christmas Eve worship. I miss seeing the college students who have been gone since summer and are now home for the holidays. I miss the crying babies. I miss singing carols together, hearing the glorious brass accompanying the hymns, hundreds of us blending our voices in four-part harmony as we sing Silent Night by candlelight. I miss sharing the peace, serving communion, and greeting all of you after worship at the back of the church. I miss seeing all your Norwegian sweaters. Most of all, I miss you. I know I speak for all of the pastors and staff at Gloria Dei when I say we miss you all so much. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas Eve when we can’t be together.
In so many ways, for so many of us, this has turned out to be not at all the kind of Christmas we had been hoping for. Our large family gatherings have been canceled. Most of us gather tonight just with our immediate families in the same homes where we have spent day after day together these past nine months, in front of the same screens that have been a source of both miraculous connection and mind-numbing exhaustion. Some of you are spending this Christmas alone, your sense of isolation only exacerbated by the holiday. Maybe you have a few Zoom meetings scheduled with family and friends, but we’ve all learned what a poor substitute that is for the physical connection we share when we are together in person. Some of us are missing family members who have died since last Christmas, heartbroken about funerals we were never able to have, trying to process our grief all by ourselves, without the shared tears and hugs and gestures of consolation that we typically offer one another when we gather as a community.
I am certain that the first Christmas was not at all what Mary and Joseph had been hoping for, either. Unlike all of us who have been forced into our homes, this young couple was forced from their homes, compelled to make a difficult journey in accordance with Caesar’s decree. The holy family understood back then as well as we do today how circumstances beyond our control can thrust us into a strange and uncertain existence. Even in first-century Judea, an animal stable was probably the last place any expecting mother would hope to be when at last the time came to give birth. Nevertheless, there they are. Nobody else was there to support this young mother, inexperienced father, and vulnerable baby on the night Jesus was born. Mary’s mother wasn’t there to hold her hand and encourage her.
It is to a poor couple, ill-prepared for the task, displaced from their home, all alone, and forced to make the best of an impossible situation, that God is born. The ELCA’s Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, put it this way: “Precisely in our distress, in our dislocation, the Lord shows up. Emmanuel—God with us—makes his home in the very places we find foreign or isolating…. There is no God-forsaken place and we are never alone—not in hospital rooms, or sheltering in place, or Zoom calls.” God shows up—God is born—in exactly those places where the situation seems most uncertain, where life is most precarious, where exhaustion has worn us down, where loneliness and despair are creeping in. God is born in the places where we feel most afraid. In the places where God seems farthest off—that is where God is born. God is born and a stable becomes the gateway to the divine. God is born and stinky shepherds become the first to hear the news. God is born, and even in the midst of hardship, we get a glimpse of transcendent beauty.
Samuel Wells, who serves as the vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, recalls a conversation he had with a friend several years ago. The friend asked him, “What would you like written on your tombstone?” What words of wisdom do you want to leave for those who come after you? He says he blurted out a phrase that he had never said aloud before, something that just came into his mind instantaneously. He said he wants his tombstone to say, “If it can’t be happy, make it beautiful.” He says he has continued to reflect on that epitaph since that day it first came to him, that this expression has become his advice “for almost every occasion when friends or congregation members face profound grief, their own mortality, or terrible distress. As a widower plans a funeral, or as a person faces another kind of loss, [he] invariably [returns] to those simple words: ‘I hope that, in the midst of your sorrow and the bleakness of what you’re facing, you can yet find a way to make it beautiful.”
He goes on: “Making it beautiful is about realizing we’re usually operating on a mundane level, where things will seldom make sense and where most things are fragile and contingent. In the face of dismay, the best approach is to go up a level, to a realm of fittingness, recalibrated priorities, and God’s kingdom. But making it beautiful also addresses the powerlessness at the heart of grief. There is, it turns out, something you can do, and that is to take the wisdom, grace, or soul of what’s been lost and portray its transcendent quality in word, deed, or collective gesture.”
It strikes me that on that first Christmas, on a cold night in a dark stable, where a displaced family took their rest on beds of hay and a teenage mother gave birth to her firstborn child, God took an impossible situation and made it beautiful. It was a miserable night that somehow, by God’s grace, was so much more. Somehow, despite the grim circumstances, the young couple had an experience of divine transcendence, of unexpected glory. Shepherds accustomed to being overlooked were visited on a hillside by angels who told them to make haste, go to Bethlehem and get a glimpse of the miraculous thing God was doing in a barn on the edge of town. By some great mystery, animals saw their newborn Lord lying in a manger. The situation was bleak. For Mary and Joseph, it must not have felt very happy. But God infused it with grace. God made it beautiful.
So that’s my prayer for you tonight: If it can’t be happy, that God would make this Christmas beautiful. That God would infuse your gathering, such as it is, with unexpected glory. That you would experience transcendence, and wonder, and deep, abiding joy, in the assurance that Emmauel—God with us—is here. Is there, with you, where you are. Born for you, making a home with you, this day. Jesus Christ, a living, breathing, beautiful sign that God is never far off.
Dear friends, merry Christmas.
Elizabeth Eaton, “We Are Never Alone,” in Living Lutheran, December 2020, https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/2020_Christmas_Message_English.pdf.
Samuel Wells, “Make it Beautiful,” in the Christian Century, December 16, 2020.