A Joy So Deep

Christmas Eve 2023

Rev’d Dr. Deborah Meister, ODM

What’s your favorite memory of Christmas? The glimmering of the tree on Christmas morn? Tiny children being towed on toboggans? Flying down hills on a sled that seemed to move as swiftly as air? Not so much this year, eh?

This year is kind of gray and drear, and magic is in short supply.  It reminds me of a year when I was a small child; as we headed north, what fell from the sky was not snow, but rain — drenching waves of it falling upon the bare tree-limbs and churning the naked ground into mud. My father tried to prepare me for disappointment, gently urging me to understand that sometimes, Christmas was not snowy and beautiful; that sometimes, magic did not happen; but I held firm to my hope. I held onto my hope as we crossed the border from New York into Vermont, amid the rain. I held onto hope as we drove past our home, sodden. Wanting to let me down gently, my father did not stop the car there. He drove all the way to the ski mountain so I could see for myself the bare slopes, the shuttered lifts, and empty lodge. But as we turned onto the access road, climbing, ever climbing, the miracle happened: at just a little higher up, the cold descended; the rain was transformed into a glistening carpet of snow; the world became enchanted once more. It was the purest magic of Christmas: what was ordinary made beautiful, one more time.

We could use some of that magic this year, for the last few months, hope has been hard to find.  War and corruption shadow our headlines; ancient hatreds infect our towns and campuses; Christmas services have been canceled in the land of Christ’s birth; rising costs are pressing hard choices even upon those of us who are privileged to live in safety and in comfort. This year, Mary and Joseph and baby are not special; everywhere, there are young women bearing children in terrifying conditions, and families fleeing unjust governments, pouring across borders into lands where they may not find a home. It is hard to find magic amid all that; joy itself seems a bit out of tune.

Just as it must have that first year, the year when it all happened anyway.

Like you, I’m guessing, I love the story of Christmas. The gentle girl, the faithful older man, the long journey to Bethlehem; the overwhelmed innkeeper; the birth of the baby among the wondering animals. I am brought to my knees by the old hymn:

O great mystery
And inexplicable wonder
That animals should see the Lord
Lying in the crib.
Blessed is the Virgin whose body
Was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

And then the star, the angels singing, the shepherds arriving, rough and dirty, to kneel, wondering, in the straw.  The birth of hope, singing through the night. But around the edges of that bright scene, we can see how dark that night really was. If you listened to what we read tonight, you heard of empires and taxes and corrupt politicians, of hard journeys on muddy roads and cold days and a young girl giving birth in the most desperate of circumstances.  A world very much like our own. And yet, the prophet proclaims, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.”

I think we tend to imagine Christmas as if it had happened in a different world, a better one — a world with brighter colors and clearer light and braver hearts. But the truth is much more important than that: God sent his Son to save this world, not a better one.  This world, muddy and torn and broken as it is. God came to us through people who were frightened and resentful and lost, just as we sometimes are. God came to give hope, right here amid our troubled lives, because that’s where hope was needed most of all.

And so what I want to say to you tonight is this: God’s love isn’t a good idea, or a nice myth; it’s the plain truth.  Jesus came to save this world because it needed to be saved. He came to save humankind because we were well and truly lost.  You may feel, deep down, that you are not worthy of love; God says, You are, for I have loved you. You may be struggling to find hope; God says, I have laid it into your hands in the face of a child. You may be frightened of the future; God says, It is mine, and always has been.You may believe you are not enough; by God’s grace, you don’t have to be.

Christmas confronts our human ideas of “enough” with is ultimately real. On this holy night, God took on human flesh and blood — real flesh, flesh which could be caressed and torn and bruised, just like ours — to transform our reality by his compassion and grace. So often, we imagine ourselves better than we are —  more loving, more wise, more powerful, more strong. But God comes to us as we are, not as we imagine ourselves to be. God comes to our world as it is, not as we might wish it were. My friend Jo reminds us, “We must honor the awful realities of our own lives and those around us, fighting the need to minimize or pretty things up. God is in us when we are real with ourselves and one another.” Because Christ has come into the midst of our lives, there is no thing on earth which can be separated from his love: not war, not cancer, not fear, not want. God’s love permeates everything that is, and it is on the ground of reality that we will meet him.

Christ’s birth was ordained before the world was made, but from a human perspective, we can see how easily it could all have gone wrong. Mary could have balked, afraid. Joseph could have walked away. The donkey could have slipped. The neighbors could have lashed out in violence at the girl who had brought shame on her household.

The fact that Jesus was born at all is the result of a thousand small choices: Mary’s Yes. Joseph’s kindness. Elizabeth’s willingness to take a pregnant girl into her home. A crescendo of tiny gestures from friends and family and neighbors who chose to meet need with compassion, to do what they could to make a bad situation better.

In these dark times, we gather around the manger to touch the mercy of God. We gaze upon that newborn face because we need to be reminded of joy. We need to see that joy is not an emotion that comes and goes, but the beating heart of the world — a joy so deep that it can stand among all the forces that would reduce us to nothingness, and continue to sustain life and bring love and instil compassion and teach us to dream of a world in which God’s children are cherished, not broken; full, not hungry; joyful, and not afraid. That dream is alive in the trenches of Ukraine; in the rubble of Gaza; in the broken hearts of kibbutzim where people mourn their dead.  It is alive in homes where parents go without so their children can have enough; in men and women who get out of bed each day and tend the sick even though they are on strike; in the courage of ordinary people, just like you, who do the best they can in challenging times, even when it does not seem like nearly enough. That dream steels our spine and kindles our hearts and teaches us to work and to dare. That dream shines more brightly as darkness deepens, for by God’s gift, as long as there are human beings, somewhere, there will be love.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
(Christina Rosetti)

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