It was Christmas Eve. It was about midnight and we had just finished the third and final service of the evening. My colleague had just preached, Joy to the World had been sung and the benediction given. I was greeting people at the door. A woman walked out, shook my hand and said, “that was the worst Christmas Eve sermon I have ever heard, and you can tell him I said that. People don’t want to hear about war and bad things on Christmas Eve, they want to feel good, not worse.” I stood there, a freshly minted ordained pastor, and said, “Well, I hope things get better from here. Merry Christmas!”
It was Christmas Eve. My friend and colleague had just finished a long night of Christmas Eve services. He came home, had a glass of Merlot, and crawled into bed. An hour later, his 7-year-old was by his bed saying she didn’t feel well, and proceeded to throw up all over their bedspreads. He spent the rest of the night cleaning sheets and hosing off blankets in their front yard. The next day we showed up for work at the same time. “How was your Christmas?” There was no response.
It was Christmas Eve. I wanted to make sure my kids weren’t short-changed because they had a mom who worked on Christmas Eve. I decided to bake a home-made braided roll. I stood in the kitchen in my black suit and high heels and proceeded to roll dough into three strands. Within minutes I was covered in flour. Covered. Later that night, as the choir sang, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella,” I picked dough from underneath my fingernails. The braided roll never made it to the oven.
It was Christmas Eve. My colleague was on the fourth and final service of the evening. He stood behind the Table with the Bread and the Cup. He lifted the Cup and said, “This is the Cup of the New Salvation.” Suddenly, one of his contacts fell out of his eye and landed in the Cup of juice and started to float to the surface. He took his finger and scooped it out, laying it on the Table. “Do this in remembrance of me.”
It was the end of Christmas Eve. Families were mingling about and taking pictures by the tree. We were just turning off the lights, when someone handed me a note, written on the back of a giving envelope. “The church has failed me. You did not visit my mother enough when she was in rehab. You didn’t pray enough for her. Merry Christmas.” Of course, because I take responsibility for everything, I assumed that by “the church,” the writer meant me. The line, “you have failed,” “you have failed,” “you have failed” sang in my head so much louder now than the words, “let heaven and nature sing.” “You have failed.” Merry Christmas.
The truth is we all fail at Christmas. That’s why we come to the manger every year: to remember grace. We go in our complete imperfection. We go as vulnerable as Mary, as stressed as Joseph, as unlikely as the shepherds. We go in our tired, weary, imperfect selves and receive the one thing we need more than anything else, grace, grace, grace.
Every Christmas Eve, pastors try to tell a familiar story in a new way. They try to be traditional and provocative in the same 15 minute sermon. They try to give people what they want, and be true to the Gospel at the same time. They wish, pray, lament and grieve that people will come back the Sunday after Christmas. They wonder if their words make any difference, or if they should just get out of the way of the candles and the singing of O Holy Night. They worry a lot about what people said about the service, as if its one more Christmas show they attended, and you hope it’s as good as the “Holiday Extravaganza” they attended last week.
And suddenly we are no longer singing with the angels, “Glory to God in highest heaven!” We are singing, “Glory to ourselves for putting on such an awesome show!”
Lord, have mercy on us.
We have turned Jesus into a movie star, when he was born right in the manure of it all.
I think we diminish his birth, by denying that truth. We diminish his birth by denying that grace.
He was born in the imperfect, tired, violent, bodily fluid, muck of this world and cried, “peace, peace, peace”.
Thank God. Thank God indeed.