Christmas Eve/Christmas Day – December 24, 2010

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Isaiah 9:2-7Psalm 96Titus 2:11-14Luke 2:1-20

By Bruce G. Epperly

The Christmas Eve scriptures had better be joyful to mirror the most joyful day of the year in many congregations and households. While we need to be mindful of those who grieve during the holidays as well those who are without jobs, homes, or hope this season, there is a mood of celebration in today’s scriptures. The mood is not Pollyanna-styled, “Praise the Lord, anyway”, but celebration after a long night’s journey into day. Those who have been fed on a diet on bad news now hear good news for the first time in long while and dare to trust the promise of a radically different future.

We too need the light that comes from experiencing God’s surprising novelty and glory in the midst of our days. Annie Dillard tells of coming upon a “tree with lights” on one of her walks and being utterly transfixed and transformed by the light streaming through its leaves. Christmas awakens us to wonder and beauty in unexpected and expected places. The message of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day should mirror the joy of a surprising encounter with holiness and wholeness when we’ve least expected it and when we’ve almost given up hope.

The Prophet Isaiah proclaims the dawning of a new day. Winter is over and spring is in the air. The people who have lived in darkness – not the darkness identified with race or the verdant earth, but the darkness of sin, captivity, oppression, and hopelessness – find themselves enlightened and enlivened. The smallest beam of light can guide us on our pathway. The birth of a child, perhaps even an infant, gives hope for the days to come. Where once death abounded, now life emerges, and we are reborn. Hope lives again and we are ready to act on it!

The Psalmist invites us to sing a new song. The days of woe and their songs of hopelessness and pain need to be put back on the shelf, replaced by a song of life and birth. Despite the challenges of the day, “how can we keep from singing?” when hear news of God’s new life in our midst. In an interdependent universe, this good news is not just for humankind – it resounds from the heavens to the trees; the oceans and fish proclaim good news, “God is here, God’s reign is coming, God’s judgment will restore order to this good earth.” Salvation embraces all things, not just humankind.

Titus mirrors this same universalism in its proclamation that God’s grace will “bring salvation to all.” No double predestination – or separation of the saved and unsaved – here. We still have choices and shape our lives by our decisions, but fundamental to all life is God’s aim at wholeness and healing, and that aim applies to everyone and not just a chosen few. Grace empowers, inspires, and guides, calling us to live gracefully – God’s call inspires our response and choice to “renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in light of the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.” Titus doesn’t tell us the exact nature of these terms, but in our time, they point to a countercultural Christianity, not a consumer-driven faith or one conformed to the polarization of our cultural and religious wars, but a spirituality that is joy-filled in its simplicity, hospitality, and welcome; indeed, a robust faith inclusive enough to embrace the “enemy.” Upright doesn’t mean uptight! It could mean dancing, singing, welcoming, and celebrating the gift of life and our calling to be God’s partners in bringing beauty to the earth. We can trim the tree of faithful living so God’s light can shine through.

The gospel reading is both realistic and joyful. It reminds us that joy is not just a matter of circumstance or worldly success, but emerges even in the most contrary environments. Jesus was born in occupied territory, no doubt in the context of Joseph’s paying tribute to the oppressor. His birth took place in the humblest environment. Incarnation – God’s vision of possibility – is global, not restricted to the obvious environments or communities. God comes to the weak as well as the strong; to the powerless as well as the powerful; to the foreigner as well as the neighbor.

Revelation occurs in a stable and in the fields. At margins of society, living in the fields without a roof or a bed, the shepherds receive the angelic message. God’s glory – mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating, to quote Rudolf Otto – overwhelms the shepherds in its grandeur such that the angels must comfort them with the words, “Do not be afraid.” God brings “good news to all people,” even shepherds, through this joyful birth.

And the shepherds respond to God’s call – some of them leave their flocks to see this young child. The return is joyful for they have followed the call – they have seen God’s glory in angelic hosts and in a simple stable.

The Christmas mood is one of joy – the joy of seeing the light, of finding God’s path, of experiencing the new and unexpected and discovering that God’s vision of new life embraces everyone. This joy contrasts with the realities of hopelessness and despair, and threat to young life. But, it is a joy that can endure and call us to wholeness amid the very imperfect conditions of our lives. Joy can be born in us – possibility can give birth to novel expressions of healing and wholeness – for God is here, in us, with us, and inspiring us in a forward movement of joyous light-bearing.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.