Christmas Eve 2015
Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Do not be afraid; for see “ I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people¦.
We live in a season of fear. It’s probably not true that the world is any more frightening than it ever has been but it seems quite the fashion these days to speak of all that is cause for fear. Politicians are rising and falling on their ability to contrive soundbites that whip our fears into frenzy which translates into higher poll numbers. We keep saying and hoping that trend will burn itself out but on this, the holiest of nights, the darkness of our fears looms large. And it somehow seems exciting to a growing number to fan the flames of our fears.
The Church has participated in that same selfish manipulation over the years. We have used guilt and the fear of eternal punishment, in the guise of saving souls for Christ, to pad our pocketbooks and protect our institutional lifestyle. I’ve never quite understood it but many of those gifted with evangelical zeal seem to take great delight in the prospect of the fires of hell burning a little brighter with the flesh of those who do not come to the light in just the prescribed way. Maybe you’ve sat in a church at a funeral and gotten the impression that darn near everyone else in the whole wide world was going straight to hell except the one lying in the casket whose soul was saved by the preacher standing above. The Church proclaims a message of salvation but it’s just not quite exciting enough to imagine that God will find a way to bring salvation to all. No, we get a little high from scaring you. The message of grace doesn’t seem to have quite as much cache as a scary bonfire ghost story. Episcopalians may march to a little different drum-tune but maybe at our core, we all might agree with a statement by one of my seminary classmates: Gosh, the idea of going to a heaven where everybody gets in just seems to take all the fun out of it.
Grace doesn’t make for very good headlines. It’s too quiet, too smooth, too easy. When we read statements like that of Julian of Norwich who said around 1400, All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well, we balk. We think she means everything is okay just as it is and we know that can’t be right because there is so much amiss, so much wrong with so very many people, so much wrong with me. Grace is simple and pure but it certainly has nothing to do with everything being alright just the way it is. Grace is a promise that all manner of things shall be made well but we live in an age where the promise is still being carried out. Grace is not just reassurance. Grace is the correction of all that is amiss, bringing the world into justice and mercy, renewing creation and refreshing spirits. Grace is the ultimate reality but it has not reached its fulfillment yet. Better said, grace, as the ultimate reality, has reached its fulfillment but we have not just yet and so we cannot see the fullness of grace, only little glimpses here and there. But those little glimpses are plenty enough. They show what is to come.
So, as you sit in this remarkably holy setting at the end of this particular year in your life, what are your fears? When the angels say, Do not be afraid, which they do over and over again in scripture, my intuition tells me that what they mean is not so much Quit doing that as it is Name your fears and let them be healed. The holy angels do not whip our fears into frenzy to increase their own standing or manipulate our fears for personal gain or ask us to deny our very reality; the holy angels come to help us release our fears so that we may be healed and made ready for a journey.
What are your fears? What is your reality this holy night? Maybe you’re afraid of a terrorist attack. Or some random gun violence incident, a shootout at the mall between the good guys and the bad guys where you’re caught in the crossfire. Maybe you’re afraid of an opposing political ideology or what your own ideology is developing into. But probably your fears are more subtle and more complicated. Maybe you’re afraid of taking a risk, afraid of failing, afraid of actually succeeding finally. Maybe you’re afraid of an intimacy being offered to you, your own feelings in your heart which are bubbling up in a new way. Maybe you’re afraid of everything changing all around you, or staying exactly the same and being trapped for the rest of your life. Maybe you’re afraid of never finding your purpose. Or actually finding it and then having to do something about it. Maybe you’re afraid that this is all there is. Or maybe this is all you really want and you know it cannot last.
There’s a great teaching we apply to grieving: Feel what you feel and watch what happens. That teaching works with fears too and really everything else. But that takes some pretty conscious work and, if people are anything, we are lazy. The various fears we experience are actually very wonderful reminders to us that things are not fine the way they are. Our fears help us see what needs changing. Our fears are often the first step in realizing there is something greater than me. That, in itself, is a faith statement. When I can acknowledge that something is greater than me “ a pain, a struggle, a problem – my heart is being prepared to see that there is something even greater than that. The great enemy of faith isn’t atheism or agnosticism. The great enemy of faith is narcissism, the inability to move beyond me, me, me. The enemy, as usual, is us. Fear can move our attention a little higher. Fear is a step toward faith, a step toward seeing a little glimpse of grace. So we acknowledge our fears to make way for grace.
But grace is so quiet it may well go unnoticed. While the shepherds are brought from fear to the manger, nobody else notices. Grace eases into our world. It rarely bangs its way around. It is born into our hearts to grow. It doesn’t just plop down on the couch beside us. Grace transforms our world; it does not replace it.
This midnight service for me has been a constant on my spiritual path. Even before I could stay awake through the whole service my parents took my sister and me with them on Christmas Eve. As I began to pay attention, it somehow made great sense to me that the entire liturgy proclaimed the great Light of the world while it was so very dark outside. The truth of this dark world that parents tell their teenagers is Nothing good happens after midnight. Right on top of that dark truth, you and I, right about midnight, will receive the blessed sacrament which says the greatest good has been born into this dark world. Indeed the Greatest Good has always been and ever shall be in this world. We will return to our dark and dangerous worlds with that great goodness growing to fulfillment. It doesn’t change that dark world immediately but the hope it gives allows us to deal with the darkness and imagine that one day the great promise will be more obvious. The shepherds were called to the manger to see the Christ. They came to know the Christ as they returned to their ordinary lives.
One of my childhood memories of this midnight service is that, on the way home one year, as we sat at a stop light in our Pontiac station wagon, a man in a Corvette Stingray collided into the back of our car. That man’s evening celebration had obviously revolved around something other than midnight Communion. No one was hurt but the image stics with me. No matter how flashy an exterior we may seek to construct, there is brokenness beneath that only God can heal. Tonight we proclaim that the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has been born and that it will grow to fulfillment in our hearts and in our world if we let it. But for that to happen, you have to go back into the darkness. There, on your journey, you will find the Light of the world. Here, in this holy place, we proclaim the Christ. Out there, in that dark but equally holy world, the Incarnate Christ will meet you.