Most of us have a favorite Christmas movie. Whether we like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” or “A Christmas Story,” many of us find that until we have watched that special movie, we do not feel like Christmas has really arrived. My personal favorite is “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – the animated one, not the newer one with Jim Carrey. I love the cute little dog that the Grinch dresses up like a reindeer, I love the little girl who sweetly encounters the Grinch dressed as Santa, and I love the songs throughout the movie. But my favorite part is when the Grinch hears the Whos singing on Christmas morning despite their supposedly ruined Christmases and how the Grinch’s heart is warmed and grows in size. Part of what I love about the movie is the movie’s wonderful lesson about the true meaning of Christmas – that material goods and abundance do not make Christmas: only love and community make Christmas. But I think the real reason I love this movie is its familiarity. I like that I can watch the movie every Christmas and the movie never changes. I like that no matter what house I lived in growing up, or where I found myself as an adult, or even how happy or sad I was on a given Christmas, the familiarity of the movie made me feel like I had something to ground me. When all else in my world was changing, the movie never changes.
I think that is why we find ourselves at Church on a Christmas Eve too. Every year we find ourselves sitting in a pew hearing the same story of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, and the baby Jesus. The story is so familiar that we could probably recite the story if pressed. Whether we are a child or an adult, at home or far away, with loved ones or alone, the story never changes. That changelessness, that familiarity is something we eagerly anticipate every Christmas and in large part is why we come to Church this night.
Familiarity is something we all long for at Christmas. When we have lived long enough, we come to know that despite the fact that we celebrate Christmas every year and we try to keep familiar traditions, our celebration is never the same. Invariably someone has passed away and their absence changes our experience; a family member is not present because of a falling out in the past year; the grandchildren become too old to play silly games or make crafts and the mood is different; or any other number of things have changed – divorce, births, illness, job loss, or moves. Even if you still gather with your family or a set of friends, change is inevitable at Christmas. And because we all know how unsettling change can be, we long for something that is unchanging that we can cling to and with which we can ground ourselves.
This Advent we have talked a lot about how much turbulence and change has been happening in our world. We have watched as the world has erupted in violence. The atrocities, suffering, and fighting have been so vivid that many of us have stepped away from watching the news. We have seen unrest in our own country, as issues of race, class, and gender have collided. And in case any of us were tempted to believe that those issues of race, class, and gender are someone else’s issues, we have only to look at as far as Staten Island to know that we are not yet in a place of peace and justice. The noise of unrest is so loud that there are times when instead of listening to the news we turn to music, sports, or any other escape we can think of to run from the reality of our world.
The funny thing is that though we turn to our gospel lesson for comfort and familiarity, the same noise that we find in our lives and in our world is present in our reading tonight too. The very reason that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus end up in a stable is that the Roman Empire has been greedily looking for more ways to bring in money into the empire. And so peoples are being displaced, making their way back to their hometowns so that the empire can determine whether they have collected enough money from the people. The Pax Romana is bearing down upon the people, and this nobody couple from Bethlehem is just one more victim of the injustice of the system.[i]
Perhaps that background noise is part of why we love this story so much. Despite the chaos of that night and of that time, good news comes – to shepherds, to angels, to Mary and Joseph. We savor the familiar words of goodness that override the story: “do not be afraid”; “good news of great joy”; “peace among those whom he favors.” To displaced Mary and Joseph, to disenfranchised shepherds, and to distant little Bethlehem peace, joy, comfort, and hope explode on this very night. We have learned from hearing Scripture Sunday after Sunday that Scripture can often be hard, challenging, and downright condemning. We spend much time throughout the Church year struggling with where God is challenging us to live differently and beckoning us to live more Christ-like lives. But not on this night. On this night, we get assurance, comfort, and joy. We get an innocent baby – in fact a baby that will change the world for good. Like young parents ourselves, we can worry about money, health, and safety later – because on this night of Jesus’ birth, we just want to cling to the Christ Child and all that the child represents.
Now there are times in our lives when clinging to the familiar just for the sake of comfort is a bad thing. Maybe you yourself have been criticized for living in the past, romanticizing what once was, especially at this time of year. But this is one of those rare instances when the Church says that we have permission to live in the past and cling to the familiar. That is because this familiar – this story of Jesus’ birth – is worthy of that kind of devotion. We are not staking our claim on something superficially good when we come to Church this night – we are not clinging to a romanticized past that can never fulfill us. We are clinging to an event that happened a long time ago, but whose significance changed things forever. In this incarnate experience of God, the game changed for all time. God became flesh and dwelled among us, and we are changed for the better.
So tonight, I invite you accept the gift of familiarity and comfort. Let this night warm your heart and soul and cling to the familiar story and all that the story means for us. Hold fast to that comfort, and return to these words whenever you need them. We have 364 other days to worry about what is going on in the world. In fact what happens here in Scripture tonight deeply impacts how we will respond to that world the rest of the year. But that is for another day. Tonight, take the gift of comfort, joy, and hope and let that gift fill you up and strengthen you for the work God has given you. Use that gift as fuel, and then let God’s holy meal fill your belly so that you are strengthened for the work ahead. May God’s peace and joy fill you up and overflow out of you to others. And then be agents of peace through the Prince of Peace who comforts you tonight. Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Something More,” December 18, 2011 as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1612 on December 20, 2014.