December 24, 2023 — Christmas Eve — The Rev Canon Britt Olson

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Christmas Eve Service, 7 pm in the St. Luke’s Chapel

It is both a joy and a privilege to be with you in this special chapel on this holy night.  I remember Christmas Eve in 2020 when we pre-recorded the service with less than 5 people present next door.  Some of you may recall last year when we thought it might be the final Christmas in the Chapel prior to our redevelopment project.  Or you may think of the year it really snowed on Christmas Eve when the organist couldn’t make it and those who braved the weather struggled to get up the stairs.  Each year Christmas brings both joy and sorrow, comfort and struggle.  

Because I’m a clergy person of a certain generation, I still have an active Facebook account.  Right now it’s filled with announcements of Christmas services and images of the season.  Many are lovely and designed to be attractive to folks who rarely attend church.  Others are more controversial and include a Black Madonna and Child or a homeless Holy Family on an urban street.  Many have posted a photo of the crèche at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem where the baby Jesus in a keffiyah lies amidst broken bricks and cement.

The most controversial image this year is of the Holy Family surrounded by the danger and destruction of war.  They kneel amidst the rubble while behind them buildings are burning and in the distance, there is the light of the star.  No titles identify the location, but one can view imagine it as Ukraine or Gaza.

This image has provoked fierce comments from those who assert that Jesus was Jewish and to show the Holy Family in a setting that may be interpreted as Palestinian is inappropriate, inaccurate and anti-Semitic.  They are certain that if Jesus were alive now, he would be a victim of Hamas and Mary would be dishonored.  From there the online interaction deteriorates and has to be closed down with no one feeling uplifted or in the “Christmas spirit.”

We prefer our Christmas story to be sweet, inspirational, full of peace, love and joy.  We’d all like a break from war, violence, politics and division.  We wish we could come together without familial conflict or disagreement.  If you’re like me, you love being in this 100 year-old building, which doesn’t have any technology for livestreaming or even functional bathrooms but does have an aura of holiness and mystery.  We look forward to dimming the lights and singing “Silent Night” by candlelight.

We need a break from the horrors of this world and a reminder that there is still a place for awe, wonder and mystery.  We rejoice at the news of a pregnancy and give thanks for every birth, especially the annual celebration of the birth of the Christ child.  I particularly like the image of lion and the lamb lying down together.  I’m obsessed by videos of unlikely animal friendships, particularly ones between the predator and their usual prey.  It’s nice to sing the song about the “friendly beasts.” 

This is the night we hear the solemn words from the Gospel of John, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  This isn’t Luke’s story of a manger, peasant mother and Joseph the carpenter, but rather the strains of poetry and proclamation, fulfillment and promise.  This is a call to worship, “O come let us adore him.”  The words, music and holiness of this night transport us and we are both humbled and exalted at the same time.

So what are we to make of the images that startle, shock and even appall us; images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in scenes of struggle and unspeakable horror?  How did “Light from light eternal” become the nightmare we see every day in the homeless poor on the streets, the weary refugees far from home and the families huddled amidst the ruin of war?  How do we reconcile the wonder and comfort of this holy night with the stark reality of pain and suffering?

We don’t.  We can’t.  No matter how intelligent or advanced we are, we continue to fail at the very basics of communal life: housing and feeding everyone in our community; providing access to health care; removing the horrific effects of centuries of systemic racism.  No matter how rich or powerful we become, we are unable to solve conflict in the Holy Land, rescue Ukraine or bring peace to the warring factions in Sudan. 

Even as we sit in our warm pews in this sweet little chapel, underneath us is our Edible Hope Kitchen, where over one hundred people come every weekday for a hot beverage, home-cooked meal and community.  Just 3 weeks ago the dining room and kitchen were under 5 inches of water, including some which came up from the overflowing sewer.  These are the hard realities of living in a world full of tragedy, catastrophe and human failure.  We can’t fix it all.  No amount of hard work, intelligence or strength makes us able to save ourselves and others.

And that is the point of Christmas.  Christmas celebrates Christ with us, the Feast of the Incarnation.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  God’s response to the terror and tragedy of life was not to rain down hell fire from heaven or to force us into obedience.  God didn’t enlist us into an army or assimilate us into the Borg!  God didn’t remove our unique characteristics or end our divisions by making us all alike.

God has chosen instead to be present with us, to enter our lives in weakness and humility at a time of great danger.  Jesus was born in an occupied country, to a poor woman and a man who chose to be father to an illegitimate child.  He wasn’t born at home, but in a stable and early on fled with Joseph and his mother when they were on the run from political violence. 

Jesus grew up to teach us and show us the way of love for all people.  He offered to break open our hearts of stone and give us a heart of flesh.  He brought forgiveness of sin and the opportunity to get up and begin again.  He endured the cruelty of the cross and death itself and in that, opened the way to eternal life.  He has promised to return again to restore this world and to bring peace and righteousness.

You can see Jesus in the faces of the unsheltered, the displaced person, the refugee family, those suffering conflict and the oppressed.  You can even steal a glance at your neighbor during the singing of Silent Night and catch a glimpse of Jesus in them.  God is willing to enter all of humanity, including every human heart.    

When the Edible Hope Kitchen flooded, it was a disaster, a crisis for our guests who rely on us.  We were unable to feed our hungry neighbors or to offer a warm space for people to come in out of the elements.  As we looked ahead to Christmas Day, we realized that everything would be shut and there would be nowhere for them to go. 

Our community sprang into action.  Everyone from our staff and volunteers to the fire department, the sewer company, the insurance investigator, our contractor and generous donors stepped in.  Within two weeks we had new walls and flooring, a cleared sewer and the resources to recover from the damage.  We’ll be open on Christmas Day and expect the dining room to be full of friends and neighbors of all kinds.  The miracle that is Christmas will be God in the flesh of everyday humanity, sharing faith, hope and love.

Maybe your Christmas this year is complicated with both joy and sorrow, comfort and suffering, hope and despair.  Tonight, once again, as Savior is born for us, not in some far distant land or even in this small chapel, but in the midst of our humanity.  Jesus comes to both saint and sinner, in our good times and bad.  God is with us when we feel happy or languish in depression.  Jesus is familiar with desperate and dangerous situations and does not turn away from the cup of anguish.  He has become one of us to redeem all of us.  He feeds us his body and blood, the bread of life and cup of salvation.  “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”


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