Feast Day: Christmas (at Midnight)
Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
“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.” (Isaiah 9:2)
On Tuesday, May 8th, 1945 the headline on the front cover of The Daily Mail read: “VE-DAY—IT’S ALL OVER.” The subheading was, “All quiet till 9 p.m.—then the London crowds went mad in the West End.” It was Victory in Europe Day, marking the unconditional surrender of all German troops in Europe to the Allies. Winston Churchill made the announcement to the people of England that morning: “Our hostilities will end officially at one minute after mid-night tonight, Tuesday the 8th of May…We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. Today is Victory in Europe Day…Long live the cause of freedom.” Celebrations promptly erupted throughout the world from Moscow to Los Angeles. In London more than one million people took to the streets for celebrations that lasted nearly two days.
Perhaps you’re wondering what I’m on about and what exactly this has to do with Christmas. Here is the point: Just as V-Day marks the announcement of an event that changed the course of world history and brought great joy to a great many people, so Christmas marks the announcement of a person and an event that changed the course of world history and brought great joy to a great many people. The person that is at the centre of Christmas is of course Jesus Christ and the event is God’s coming among us in the flesh of this newborn babe. This evening I want us, like the shepherds tending their flock, to make haste and gather around the Holy Family, to behold the child lying in the manger, to hear the announcement of his birth, and to contemplate and treasure these words in our hearts that a new life of faith, hope, and love might be born in us.
All of the readings from the Bible that we heard this evening help to illuminate the reality of Christmas. Saint Luke as we heard, situates the story in human history: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Odd details perhaps, except for the fact that they are not. Saint Luke is believed to have been a physician by trade and Biblical scholars note that his level of education is evident even in the eloquence and mastery of his writing. Luke begins his account of the gospel by telling the reader that, after carefully examining all of the facts for a long time, he is sitting down to write an “orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” based upon information that was handed on to him and others by those who “from the beginning were eyewitnesses.” And what is the purpose of his writing? “So that you may know the truth concerning these things.”
Let me just pause at this moment and say that if you are here this evening and you are not really sure what you believe about all of this, Luke is writing to you. He is writing for those that are not entirely sure but are open to and hungry for the truth. If that’s you, I am so glad you’re here and I pray that the word of God would continue to illumine your heart and mind to the beauty and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
So, after setting the context for us Luke then very quickly tells us the facts. A man named Joseph returned to his hometown of Bethlehem with the woman to whom he was engaged, Mary. Now Mary was expecting a child, a child that was not Joseph’s and Luke tells us that, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for him in the inn.”
All seemingly pretty ordinary. Except that it is not. For the next thing that Luke tells us is that there were some poor shepherds living in the fields nearby keeping watch over their flock. And in the middle of the night they get a message from God via an angel, the appearance of which terrifies them.
However, the message that the angel bears is anything but terrifying. The headline on the front cover reads, if you will: “Fear not! Good news of great joy for all people! To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And just what is the sign of this event, what is the sign of God’s coming to rescue all people? A child, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.
The subheading read: “All quiet till 2 a.m.—then a crowd of angels went mad in the fields west of Bethlehem.” Or, as Luke tells it: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”
Glory to God and peace on earth. Peace. The message of Christmas is that God himself has come to us in the flesh of Jesus Christ to touch this broken world and to touch our broken lives and to heal them with his love and mercy. All of the misery and pain we feel when we look at a bent-out-of-shape world, will somehow turn to joy as this One straightens it out. The disorder we feel in our own lives, as we examine ourselves and realize our disappointments, our unfulfilled longings and desires, our own failures even, our sin—that this child will somehow bring all of that back into order. That all those who have been bound and terrorized by enemy forces will be liberated and set free. Long live the cause of freedom, indeed!
All of that and more is what Christmas announces. Saint Paul put it this way in one of the other readings we heard: “For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all,” (Titus 2:11). Christmas announces that the grace of God has appeared to all people. I love the image that the prophet Isaiah gave us that we heard as well: “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,” (9:2).
This is what Christmas announces, and it announces it as a matter of fact. None of this depends in any way on you or I. It does not matter if you believe it. It does not matter if you accept it. It does not matter if you are even aware of it. The proclamation is the same: God has been gracious to all. The sun has risen, light has shone, it is a new day.
And Luke wants us to know that all of this has happened in Jesus Christ. In the flesh of Jesus Christ, God has come to be with us. In the flesh of Jesus Christ, God has taken everything about what it means to be human and joined it to himself, infused it with his light and love. In the flesh of Jesus Christ, God has taken all of your pain, all of your sorrow, all of your weakness, all of your sin, and not yours only but that of the whole world, and he has entered into it and suffered it so that he might heal it. In the flesh of Jesus Christ God has, if you will, gone deep into enemy territory and made peace for every one of us and for you.
At the end of our reading from Saint Luke, he gives us another important detail. The shepherds indeed found Joseph and Mary and told them everything that the angel had made known to them. Everyone was filled with wonder. “But Mary,” Luke tells us, “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Christmas is the announcement of a person and an event, of Jesus Christ and his coming to us. And the witness of Holy Scripture is that in this person and event God himself is with us, setting us free from everything that ensnares us so that we might live anew with him and come to know him as our Father. That God has done just this and done it for you, is good news. Whoever you are, wherever you are, in Jesus Christ the light has dawned.
But it does not stop there. God does not just write a few headlines for us to read and then move on from the next day. What God has done for you he wants to do in you. Christmas beckons us to respond in faith. Christmas invites us to receive God’s love for us and to offer it back to him in loving obedience.
So my prayer for you as you leave this place shortly, is that you keep these words in your heart and think about them, as did Mary. And that just as God generated new life in Mary’s womb, he would begin to generate a new life of faith, hope, and love in you as you come to know the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth…Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad,” (Psalm 96:1, 11). Amen.