By: David H. May, Rector
Merry Christmas, everyone.
It is so good to be together in this beautiful place with friends and family, with people you’ve known for ever and a day, and with people you’ve never seen before. And every one of you with your own story and with all of its twists and turns that have brought each of us and all of us together tonight. This is probably the first time ever that this particular group of us have ever been together in exactly this way. And I suspect it is also the very last time that we will ever be together like this. So give thanks for this time that we get to be together.
And it is good for us to be here in our church. It is warm and neat as a pin. The lights of the candles are glowing. The altar guild has shined and pressed and arranged everything for us tonight to be a feast for our eyes. The choir is rehearsed and has tuned their voices to their hearts to inspire our own hearts to sing out with them and with the angels.
In this warm comforting happy place, this night, we are here for something so important. We are joining together on this night with the Church all over the world to hear again the story of the birth of Jesus. It is the story that tells all that we can say that is most true about God and what is also most true about each of us. On this night, a night just like this, heaven and earth are joined and the heart of God and God’s desire and purpose for this world find perfect expression in the face of a new born baby. And with this birth is the holy promise that God has, and is, and will be working his purposes out, and at every moment that purpose is to heal the whole human family. The whole human family. Grace by grace. Christ is born for this, even on this very night, God is working his purposes out. So, we are here ‘go even unto Bethlehem to see this great thing’.
Remember this, and let it tune your soul to remember that for us to go even to Bethlehem we will go from the warmth of this place and seek the place where he is born in this world out beyond this place beneath the dark skies. The light shining at his birth can be seen in the dark night sky out beyond these four walls.
Out there, heaven and earth are still being made one in him, out there the star that leads us to his face is shining.
Here is a Christmas story of a few lives that came together only once and how the starlight that leads even unto Bethlehem shined.
One Christmas Eve, years ago now, I left the church after the 8 o’clock service and drove to the VA hospital to take Christmas communion to a man named Jim Blount now gone to glory. Jim was a giant of saint of God, sober by the grace of God through Alcoholics Anonymous 43 years. Who knows how many nights Jim had gotten out of bed in the night to go help a suffering brother or sister and bring light and hope into a dark, dark place. Jim was a man of very few words. Very few. And he was very reticent to express anything that you would call an emotion. A handshake was about as much intimacy as Jim could muster.
That night we read Luke’s story of Jesus birth and shared the bread of heaven and the cup of life. As I was leaving a little later, Jim said, ‘David’. I turned and he said, ‘merry Christmas’. And his eyes revealed so much about his heart and soul that his words could not. I can’t describe everything he was trying to say with that simple greeting. I had too much respect for him to say anything more than, ‘thank you, Jim – merry Christmas to you.’
What a gift he gave; what a gift he was in this world. What I didn’t know was that was one of Jim’s last gifts to give. He died a few hours later, early, early on Christmas morning.
But all I knew as I drove for home was that his merry Christmas was a lighting shining in the dark. God had led us even unto Bethlehem to see this great thing. I stopped at the 7-11 at the far end of Carytown for a celebration Big-Gulp to sip as I drove home on the nearly empty streets.
As I filled my cup, a young woman who worked there whom I’d never met came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, merry Christmas, are you a priest?” I said, merry Christmas, yes ma’am, I am, and she said suddenly with voice becoming a thin, urgent, ragged whisper, and her eyes growing wide and wild and all-at-once streaming with giant tears, “I have to tell you something! I have to!” A smartly dressed woman nearby glanced over at us with something like annoyance and alarm. Two young men in line at the cash register buying big bottles of beer looked over at us with a world-weary glance. The manager behind the counter, a man I knew from previous visits was a devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christian scowled and said, ‘Angela, Angela’ at her.
And then it all came spilling out of this young woman. She quickly told her story as she gulped for air of many years ago when she was 12 and how something awful had happened to her. Something she had never spoken of to anyone. Something that had broken her heart and her trust in anyone or anything and how she felt like she spent her life living in the shadows. She ended saying, ‘I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I’m doing this. It’s Christmas and I’ve ruined it. I’ve ruined everything. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for everything.’ I said, ‘please, please, it wasn’t your fault. And, Angela, this is exactly what Christmas is for.’
The next thing I knew, the smartly dressed woman had put her hand on Angela’s shoulder. And then this poor young woman turned and grabbed onto her like she was grabbing a lifeline and her whole small body shook and shook with sobs. I saw the two guys with big bottles of beer, standing by the door, staring at us. Not suspiciously or angrily; but both of them with something softer, like compassion. That they had stopped and somehow consented to be a part of that small group of people, that they hadn’t already gone on and cracked into their beer but were watching still, not knowing what to do but not leaving either said something great and beautiful in that moment. The store manager came from behind the counter and took the young woman gently and said, ‘come on Angela. You come sit down with me.’
I held the door for the smartly dressed woman. Outside, she turned up her collar against the cold and turned and said, ‘well.’ That’s all. She just stood there for a bit and then said, again, ‘well. Well, merry Christmas.’ She walked to her car, opened the door and then stopped and looked back. She was going to say something, you could see that. But something stopped her and she just stood there looking. Finally she said, ‘merry Christmas’ and then got into her car and drove off.
That was the first and last time that that little group of souls were ever gathered together, maybe just so, at just that moment to see heaven and earth meet and to hear the angels of heaven sing. Because that’s what I saw that night. That we had gone ‘even unto Bethlehem’ and seen the perfect love of God in human flesh and to know that Christ was born for this, for this: for Angela (which of course means angel), for the smartly dressed woman, for the two young men, for the store manager and for you – to heal the whole human family, grace by grace.
I’m so glad we are all here together for this one time to hear the angels sing, Christ the Lord is born, and join in with them with our own happy song. This night together tunes our souls for the world out beyond the glow of this church. We will go even unto Bethlehem, beneath the dark night sky, where the light of heaven shines down on the place where heaven and earth meet and the hope of the world is born for us and for us all. Grace by grace.
Merry Christmas everyone.