Church on Christmas Eve is always a funny thing. For years, I scoured the stores for matching dresses for our girls. I served in churches where people would sport tuxedos and fur coats for the night’s services. Family pictures were regularly taken by the Christmas tree – either at home or at church. Quite frankly, I was a little relieved when I became a priest and never had to worry about a new outfit because no one would see the outfit under my vestments anyway. And then the pandemic hit. Last year, we had to watch Christmas from home – maybe in matching pajamas, but more likely just in a pair of jeans or sweats. A year later, we are all out of the habit of dressing for public, and, if you are here at Hickory Neck, you know jeans are just as acceptable as that fancy dress or jacket in the back of your closet or that some of you are fabulously sporting tonight.
I am not really sure where the notion of dressing up for Christmas came from, except maybe an older tradition of always dressing up for church. But nothing about our Christmas story screams high fashion. Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem under order of the oppressive government and are likely in traveling clothes, dirty and weary from the road. Mary also gives birth this night, so her body is likely sweaty and soiled. Meanwhile, her child is not in a matching layette, but in bands of cloth. Both are likely an exhausted mess. And the shepherds who later come visit are likely not to fresh-smelling themselves, probably in their most utilitarian clothing for tending to sheep in the dark cold of night.
And yet, in these most basic settings, the privilege of the miraculous happens. Mary births not just an ordinary baby, but the Christ Child – the Messiah – as Isaiah says, the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Meanwhile, not only does an angel appear in the blinding glory of God, but also a whole multitude of the heavenly host shows up. All to ordinary people, dressed in ordinary garb, going about doing ordinary things. But as scholar Sarah Henrich says, “Heaven and earth meet in obscure places, not in the halls of power.”[i]
This week I read about such a meeting of the heavenly and earthly in the Washington Post. In November 2020, Kim Morton was sitting at home with her daughter watching a movie in Baltimore County, Maryland, when her neighbor sent her text telling her to look outside. Her neighbor, Matt Riggs, had hung a string of Christmas lights all the way across the street from his house to hers, as he explained, to brighten Kim’s world and to show her that they were always connected, despite the isolation the pandemic had created. Kim had been struggling with anxiety and depression, had lost a loved one, had a lot of work stress, and had started experiencing panic attacks. Matt knew her pain himself, and so decided they both needed a reminder that they are not alone in their pain.
But here’s the funny thing about Matt and Kim’s story. The neighbors saw what Matt did, and they wanted in too. Neighbors across the street from one another started talking and said, “Let’s do it too!” Slowly, but surely, neighbors started reaching out to one another with expressions of connection, love, and quite literally, light. By the time Christmas arrived, 75% of the neighbors had joined in with strings of light crossing the entire drive. And this year, in November 2021, the whole neighborhood held a house-to-house light hanging party. Kim, the initial recipient of the lights said, “It made me look up, literally and figuratively, above all the things that were dragging me down. It was light, pushing back the darkness.”[ii]
Matt and Kim’s story did not happen in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, or even New York City. Their story happened in a little neighborhood, outside of Baltimore, that no one had heard of until the Washington Post came along. And although Matt and Kim never mention Jesus, the truth is that heaven and earth met in an obscure place, shining connection, love, and light. This Christmas, the ordinary, earthy setting of Bethlehem and the shepherd fields are reminders – reminders that we can have all the fancy bow ties and heels we want, but more often, we will see and experience the sacred in the ordinary moments where Jesus shows up and offers us love. The birth of the Christ Child tonight is a reminder that we, like ordinary shepherds can be used to be sharers of the Good News in tiny, ordinary ways – ways that show Christ’s love and light, and in ways that help us experience sacred connection with our neighbors. Amen.
[i] Sarah Henrich, “Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20],” December 24, 2021, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-eve-nativity-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-21-14-15-20-20 on December 22, 2021.
[ii] Sydney Page, “A man strung Christmas lights from his home to his neighbor’s to support her. The whole community followed,” Washington Post, December 21, 2021.