Sermon; Christmas Eve 2020
As I was starting to think about this service, I began thinking about worship services in general in the church; in particular Christmas and Easter. These two services have been, without a doubt, the two most popular services over the years. Every year on these two days most churches can expect two to three times as many people from a normal Sunday service. But these two services, although equally popular, and both requiring an additional level of preparation, have a much different feel to them.
Easter is morning. It is light breaking through the darkness. It is life over death. It is jubilant, triumphant, and celebratory.
Christmas Eve, on the other hand, is more subdued. It is candlelight. It is intimate. It is celebratory in a “Silent Night” sort of way. So even though this service is normally one of our two biggest services of the year, it has a small gathering, intimate feel to it. And that is how it should be. Because even though births are shared with family and friends, and now worldwide with our online postings, at the time of the actual birth only a few people are physically present. It is an intimate affair.
So it seems appropriate that we are gathered together to celebrate the birth of Christ in our various, small, intimate gatherings. Here at Saint John's we have nine people present. In your homes you probably have fewer than that. All of us together make up the larger gathering. And we are all connected together by this annual event, regardless of whether or not we are all physically present in the church building.
I would imagine, though, that you might be feeling a bit vulnerable, or maybe a bit anxious. After all, this Christmas is not what we're used to. 2020 has taken all aspects of normalcy and not only upended them, but in some cases burned them to the ground. As far as the church is concerned, we feel vulnerable and wonder if our church can continue to be our spiritual home. We feel anxious about the future and wonder if church as we knew it will exist in the future, or will it change into something totally new and different? We wonder if these are the birth pangs Paul wrote about.
There's no doubt that we are living in a vulnerable, anxious time. Physically we are vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus that has killed more than 318,000 Americans so far – approximately the equivalent of 870 747's crashing since March. We are vulnerable to employment layoffs and housing evictions. Living with that level of vulnerability leads to heightened levels of anxiety.
These are hard things to deal with, and they are made that much harder, I think, when we as a people aren't used to being weak and/or vulnerable. As a nation, we are used to being the strongest nation on the planet. As a people, we love the idea or ideology of being independent, strong-willed people. We have many myths and anecdotes about the strong individuals who built this country. This, I think, is why some people refuse to wear masks – because they see them as signs of weakness. And there is a movement among some Christians to recover a masculine Christianity, or Christian manliness, in an attempt to make Christianity strong again. We seem to, if not despise the weak, have an aversion to showing our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
But the strength of Christianity doesn't rest on physical power, control, domination, or other attributes we typically apply to “strong.” The strength of Christianity actually lies in its ability to be vulnerable.
Mary was a vulnerable, young woman when Gabriel came to her and said, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” Young, betrothed but not yet married, pregnant by a means other than Joseph, the law said she could be stoned. Mary was very much in a weak and vulnerable position.
Later in the story Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for the census. Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90 miles, roughly the distance between here and Lancaster on US-30. They made this trip on foot. Or on a donkey. While Mary was nine months pregnant. Arriving in Bethlehem only to find no room in the inn. Mary and Joseph were weak and vulnerable.
God incarnate was then born in the person of Jesus, in a manger, where the animals were kept. Anyone who has experienced birth knows it's not anything like the sweet angelic images we are given in songs and porcelain creche sets. Giving birth is hard work. It's painful. It's messy. Words are said. And when it's over, the parents hold in their arms a tiny, vulnerable human who may very well die if neglected in any way. As any parent knows, that vulnerability lasts for years, sometimes decades.
Although not a Christmas story, think about the terror Mary and Joseph felt in their hearts and pit of their stomachs when they discovered a young, vulnerable, pre-teen Jesus missing from their caravan. And think about how relieved they were to find him three days later in the temple.
This is God incarnate. Born a vulnerable baby to a vulnerable mother. This is God incarnate, weak and vulnerable, and relying on that young woman to protect him, nurture him, and feed him. This is how God came into the world, not as a strong, conquering hero, but as a weak, vulnerable infant needing a mother's care and protection.
This, I think, is the Christmas story we need to hear this year. We proclaim that the Church is the body of Christ. You and I are members of that body. On this day we are reminded of the vulnerability of that body.
As the Church we need to remember that we are vulnerable. As humans, we need to remember that we are vulnerable.
We are vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus. We are vulnerable to economic downturns, housing and healthcare crises, food shortages, and any number of things. And we need to remember that on this night we celebrate and give thanks for a vulnerable woman giving birth to a weak and vulnerable baby boy in a back room meant to house the animals.
This birth we celebrate tonight is also the birth of our faith. It is a faith of the weak and vulnerable for the weak and vulnerable. This is where Jesus began and that weakness and vulnerability never left him. In his adult ministry he will reach out to the weak and vulnerable. He will show his disciples how to care for the weak and vulnerable. He will appear weak and vulnerable at his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
It turns out that weakness and vulnerability are the backbone of our faith. As we gather together separated by distance, let us never forget that.
The strength of our faith is to care for the weak and vulnerable. We show strength when we stand with the marginalized. We show strength when we protect the weak. We show strength when we protect the vulnerable. We show strength when we admit to our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
As Joseph protected Mary and Mary protected her baby, let us also be honest in our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and let us work to protect and care for the weak and vulnerable in our parish and our neighborhoods. For that might just be the best Christmas gift we can give.
In that vulnerable and anxious time when a young woman gave birth to a weak and vulnerable baby boy, those around were told that God was with them.
In our own vulnerable and anxious time, may we look back to the birth of a weak and vulnerable baby boy and know that now, as then, God is with us.
Amen and Merry Christmas