Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
O Holy Night its finally here the night weve prepared for, decorated for, waited for and dressed up for. The night when we hear again the familiar words, sing the familiar songs rest in the security of the familiar message: REJOICE! Look the baby is in the manger the shepherds, the angels and the Star these are the traditions that tell us its Christmas again: and they surround us on this Holy Night in this Holy Season.
Its a time when beloved traditions abound. For most of us, there are a few things that it just wouldnt be Christmas without things that sometimes defy logic or elude explanation. For me, the icon of that reality has become The Santa Candle.
Its a story Ive told before but one which bears retelling. A few years ago, as I was engaged in the task of decking the halls with the familiar stuff of Russell Family Christmases I came across the Santa Candle a jolly, rotund wax figure that had presided for many years from the top of the bookcase in the living room. Every year, someone would ask, Can we light the Santa Candle? And every year I would explain that if we lit the candle, Santas hat would melt into Santas face and there would soon not be much of Santa left for next year. Well, you guessed it: the year before, someone had been unable to resist and Santa was indeed a shadow of his former self. After a moment of irritation at having my well reasoned instructions so blatantly disregarded, I tossed the half-melted candle into the trash bag without much more than a second thought.
And thats where Jamie who prefers to be Jim my then-17-year-old son -- found him. You threw away the SANTA CANDLE? he asked in horror. And dusting him off began to clear a space. Look at him I protested. Hes half melted away!
But paying no attention to his mother, my 62 son carefully placed the Santa Candle on the shelf. He ALWAYS goes on the bookcase! he said. And so, there he sat. And sits today for last Thursday, as we once again went through the annual putting out of the Christmas stuff ritual, Santa once again emerged from the tissue and cardboard and went back up in his traditional spot.
There was in that beat-up, half melted Santa Candle something that spoke to Jamie of what is valuable, dear, worth preserving in a Christmas tradition ... assuring me that the seeds his father and I have tried to sow throughout his childhood have taken root in this almost adult seeds that say family matters, traditions matter, CHRISTMAS matters. And even if we cant see the final flower theyll take as he finds his own path, they give him the foundation to find his own traditions as he grows and matures and changes.
For there are indeed few things more certain in life than change. Our reconfigured family is an outward and visible sign of that, made up as we are of parents and children; ex-spouses and partners; girlfriends and grandmas. Every time we gather I am amazed at the miracle of how traditional this non-traditional family has become for us how blessed we are to have weathered all the changes that have come our way over the years how God has enabled us to stay family through all of it and I am overwhelmed with gratitude. My family may not make James Dobsons list of ones to focus on any more than my melted Santa Candle would make it to Martha Stewarts sideboard but it is mine and God is there and we are blessed.
In this year of September 11th my heart is very aware this night of how precious those blessings are as I think of those who are facing the challenges of changes much greater and harder to reconcile than a melted Santa Candle. Those who will spend a first Christmas without a loved one; those who cant be home for the holidays who are away from all that is familiar: all that makes it Christmas.
For the shadow side of our beloved Christmas traditions is that we risk making them more important than the message they represent. The danger of the Christmas story is that it IS so familiar that we can lose the amazing impact of its glorious message in the frenzy that surrounds the Christmas event. The culture is crazed, the media relentless the pressure to get it right is everywhere from the Martha Stewart specials to the department store ads. My heart ached for the woman who confided, I feel like Ive flunked Christmas overwhelmed by how much there was left to do and how little time there was left to do it.
Its ironic, isnt it, that the very season that offers the message of Peace on Earth, Good Will to All brings instead Stress on Earth, Bad Temper to Many. The challenge is to balance the traditions that manifest the joy of the season with the gift that is the reason for the season: and that gift is of course Love.
Love came down at Christmas
Love was born at Christmas
Stars and angels gave the sign. So did wise men and shepherds then so do presents and mistletoe; homecomings and holly and Santa Candles today. All the things that make Christmas Christmas point us to that gift of love if we let them. Listen to how an un-named author with more creativity than I have put it:
If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love, I'm just another decorator.
If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my neighbor, I'm just another cook.
If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.
If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties and sing in the choir's cantata but lose sight of the Christ in Christmas, I have missed the point.
Love stops the cooking to hug the child.
Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the spouse.
Love is kind, though harried and tired.
Love doesn't envy another's home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.
Love doesn't yell at the kids to get out of the way.
Love doesn't give only to those who are able to give in return but rejoices in giving to those who can't.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust.
But the gift of LOVE will endure.
Love will endure. The promise of new life in the birth of this Christmas baby becomes the hope of life eternal in the resurrection of our Easter Lord. It is love that triumphs over death -- Love that is the Christmas Truth a truth greater than the traditions it inspires: the mystical longing of the creature for the creator the finite for the infinite the human for the divine. It is a longing that transcends culture, religion, language and custom it is a longing that is represented for us as Christians in the baby in the manger the sudden, amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace: a God who loved us enough to become one of us. Yes, we manifest the wonder of Christmas in the gifts given, the meals shared, the gathering of family and loved ones. But the greater wonder is that the God who is love incarnate came down at Christmas to be among us as one of us to show us how to share that love with a world in such desperate need of it.
That, my brothers and sisters, is the work we have been given to do: the work that Howard Thurman called The Work of Christmas.
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To release the prisoner
To teach the nations
To bring Christ to all
To make music in the heart.
In a moment we will be fed by the holy food and drink of new and unending life as we gather about this altar for our eucharistic feast food for the journey for the work of Christmas. And then we will be sent out into this most Holy Night to love and serve the Lord. May the God who calls us to do this work give us the grace to accomplish it and give us always grateful hearts for the privilege of being his people and for the gift of music in our heart for the gift of love!
Thanks be to God. Merry Christmas. Amen.
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