Thursday, December 24, 2020
My very first Christmas Eve at St. Francis was, perhaps, the most momentous. Some of you were there. Do you remember? I think it was 2001. The Church was brand-spankin’ new. The previous rector, Richard Mayberry, loved to swing a little incense for this principal service of the church year. While the beautiful strains of the pre-service concert drifted to the robing room, a few of us were preparing the incense holder with lighted charcoals. Tufts of smoke lifted off the black discs. Heat began to emanate from them.
Suddenly, emergency lights in the room began flashing. A high pitched alarm sounded. The smoke from the charcoals had triggered the fire alarm! Those enjoying the peace and warmth of the sanctuary and the pre-service concert snapped to attention, shocked out of their reverie by the piercing alarm. Yet, as quickly as the sound and light commenced it ceased. One of the ushers had deftly--and quickly--silenced the alarm. Peace returned to the sanctuary. The choir resumed its anthem. Thank God! Emergency averted!
Or so we thought.
Unbeknownst to us was the fact that, even though the alarm was silenced, the directive to the local fire department to come quickly wasn’t! As the grand processional began--acolytes bearing crosses and candles, choir belting out O Come All Ye Faithful,and clergy in tow--flashing red lights raced up the driveway and illuminated the worship service through the clear side windows in a way that no one could ever have imagined. Long story short, we avoided stopping the service and--I shudder to consider it even today--evacuating everyone into the December night thanks to the persistence of one of the ushers. It was just a false alarm. However, the vision of fire engines on Christmas Eve still dance in my head.
While 2001 may have been a false alarm, 2020 feels as if there is a global four alarm fire, 24/7, impacting everything, including Christmas. This is the real deal. No flame or fire. Just a virus that accomplished what the initial false alarm could not: evacuate the sanctuary on Christmas Eve. Indeed, we are very much out in the December night tonight. Alone in the dark and soft light of our own homes, rather than congregating in the soothing light of the sanctuary. The possibility of a fire could not empty this sanctuary for Christmas. The reality of a virus has. The room rests eerily silent and empty. You are present from home, and we are still in the dark waiting for the light to return. Waiting for the green light that will allow us all to gather together again. And we will. We will gather together. In time. As our Jewish brothers and sisters say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Indeed, next year! And what a service that will be!
Nevertheless, this waiting and anticipating has surely strained our patience, tested our resolve, moved us to the breaking point probably not just a time or two.
Thus, what we observe this night--the birth of a child in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago--may seem more anachronistic than previous years. Why this night? Why this child? Why this way? Well, perhaps, there is no better year to understand and recognize the reason that God enters into our world, our reality, our lives in the innocent and vulnerable cry of a baby in the backwater town of ancient Palestine to an unwed mother and ersatz father. There is no royal declaration of God entering in. There are no coronations. The initial event was so uneventful that we do not even know when it really happened. Yet that night, that birth, that child bear markers of the divine fully revealed in Jesus: love embodied in vulnerability, hope present in the midst of weakness, and abundance emerging from the very heart of need. Why this night? Why this child? Why this way? Precisely because that is where we reside so often in life. We are vulnerable, weak, and in need. We are in the dark, our patience is strained, our resolve tested, and our breaking point closer than we like to admit.
The high irony of this night--the Feast of the Incarnation--is that while we cannot be together, the very story that we tell is of how God so passionately and ardently desires to be with us that God becomes one of us and one with us. Indeed, Christianity’s compelling storyline is the incarnation. Emmanuel. God with us. And, perhaps, nothing makes this more clear than COVID-19. As we long to be together, with others, sharing the fullness of life--joy and sorrow, achievements and failures, milestones and eccentricities--we consider this night a God who also longs to be with us, sharing in that very life. God quarantined, if you will, until the fullness of time, the moment was ripe, and the stars aligned. And then, God coming to us in the guise that we do not always appreciate or recognize. Indeed, God coming in the very thing that we sometimes run from--our humanity. Yet, this is the very thing that the divine robes itself in. God engaged with us as the grip of a newborn’s hand. God open to us as an infant to the embrace of its mother. God aware of us as the cry of a babe piercing the night sky. God present to and for you. God as close as your flesh.
And God inviting you to participate in the world from the perspective that God not only hallowed time and space by entering into it, but that God also continues to bless time and space with the spirit of the incarnate one changing, transforming, restoring and reconciling us and all creation into the fullness of God. God present in the false alarm of our escapades--setting the fire alarm off on a Christmas Eve. God also present in the true emergencies--of COVID and more. God never apart. God always with us. For God does not desire to be separated again. God longs for us to be one. Of course, we recognize that we have not arrived at this place yet. Too many real and false alarms make us sure of that. But we are on the way, and we are invited to participate in God’s work of seeking love and justice and hope in the world. Invited to be a community and individuals who bear the marks of what God reveals: love embodied in vulnerability, hope present in the midst of weakness, and abundance within need. We are invited to be a community and individuals who have moved from being fear-driven to being love-drawn. We are invited to be a community and individuals who recognize this night, this child, this way as our way, our truth, and our life.