The audio recording of my Christmas Eve sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
Can I let you in on a little secret? Just between you and me, I really don’t like the hymn Silent Night. Well, that’s not entirely true. I don’t really like the hymn Silent Night the way it normally gets sung in Episcopal Churches. Y’know, like a funeral dirge? In the parish I grew up in, both Christmas Eve services ended with the whole congregation singing Silent Night. Everybody would kneel, the lights would dim, and the organist would plod through it like we were marching to to Jesus’ tomb on Good Friday. Do you know what Silent Night is supposed to be about? Do you know what Christmas is supposed to be about? The most joyful thing that has ever happened in the history of the world, ever! Christmas is about God’s light shining in the darkness, no matter what.
When the Son of God came to the earth, it was a pretty dark time to be a Jew. Certainly, there have been worse times: the Holocaust, the company Exile in Babylon, the 40 years wandering in the wilderness, but when the Romans are occupying your land and next door to the great Temple of God, have built a palace for the Governor that stands just a few inches taller than your most sacred building, just because they can, things aren’t exactly great. Luke wants us to understand just how difficult life is under Roman rule, and so he sets the scene for us. The Emperor Augustus had declared that the whole world should be counted and taxed. In order to do so, and just because he could do such things, Augustus decided that everyone should have to return to their ancestral hometown. Such was the power of Rome. They could pretty much tell you to do anything, and you had to do it. And so because the Emperor said so, young Mary, great with a child who happened to be the Son of God, joined her new husband, Joseph, on the 100-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Upon reaching Joseph’s family’s hometown, Luke tells us that there wasn’t room for them. Whether there was no room in the inn because there were just too many decedents of David in for the census, or there was just too much discomfort with the fact that Joseph and Mary hadn’t been married long enough for her to be that pregnant, we will never know. Either way, the nights that they had to share a barn floor with sheep, goats, and whatever other critters might be living in the hay-lined bed, must have been really, really dark. Physically dark. Emotionally dark. Probably even spiritually dark. And then, to add injury to insult, the time came for Mary to give birth, and her first born Son, a gift from God for the whole world, was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, a fancy word for a feed trough.
Perhaps the only place darker than the barn where the holy family was staying was the field where the shepherds watched their flocks by night. The shepherds didn’t have to make the journey to be counted and taxed because they didn’t really count as people. Women and shepherds were the two types of people not allowed to testify in court. Shepherds were considered so unclean, that most towns had laws forbidding them from entering the city gates. In the black of the night, the shepherds faithfully attended to their thankless job when suddenly, the sky was as bright as the noonday. In the darkest of the darkest places, the glory of the Lord shone bright. An angel had come to share good news of great joy for all people, that a Savior had been born; that love’s pure light was entering into the darkness of life.
Just as quickly as the night shone bright, it was dark again, and the shepherds, still trembling with a mixture of fear and excitement, decided to run to find the baby, saying to each other, “let’s go see if any of this is true.” Leaving their flocks behind, they ran, down the hill, through the gates they probably weren’t allowed to enter, and searched the city streets for the barn where they can find the babe, wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger. They search, and they scoured, and finally they saw the Christ child, just as the angels had predicted. They saw with their eyes, and the word Luke uses seems to also mean that in seeing, they believed. The Shepherds, experienced something amazing in the fields, and they came to Bethlehem to experience the Good News for themselves. With their own eyes, they saw the Good News for all people, a Savior born for all humanity, the love of God made human flesh, and with joy in their hearts, they returned to the fields glorifying, singing, and praising God.
The message of Christmas is that God loves us so completely that he enters into the darkest places with the light of his love. This is the best news of all time, which makes the story of the first Christmas the most joyful thing that has ever happened in the history of the world, ever. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another night that God considered deserving of an angel choir. Christmas is the singularly most joy-filled day of the year, which is why I think, when we get to it, we ought to sing Silent Night standing up, in the blazing brightness of the light of God’s radiant glory, with all the joy we can muster. Joseph Mohr, the author of Silent Night, knew the joy of Christmas, and wrote it into his song of praise. He wrote of the brightness of God shining in the darkness, the glory of the Lord streaming from heaven, the angel choir singing alleluia; all because Christ, the Savior is born. Franz Gruber, who wrote the tune for Silent Night, also knew the joy of Christmas. He took Mohr’s words of hope and composed a melody in D-Major, the so-called Key of Triumph and Alleluias, for the guitar, in a dance-like 6/8 time signature. We have an Episcopal Priest, John Freeman Young, to blame for the B minor lullaby that we know hear every Christmas. The reality is that Silent Night is a song of glory and praise, the likes of which I imagine the shepherds sang as they left the manger side that first Christmas night.
I know that the world is still a dark place most of the time. There is sadness. There is fear. There is anguish all around. But this is not new, and if God’s pure love could shine brightly on that first Christmas night, then there is no reason why the Good News of Jesus Christ can’t continue to shine in the midst of our self-made darkness. There is no reason why the annual singing of Silent Night can’t be an opportunity to share the Good News of Christmas: that God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son to be born in human flesh; to come to know our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears, our life and even our death that we might know God more fully. Silent Night tells the story of joy for all people, that no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter whom you love, God’s redeeming grace is available for you.
Let’s sing out with joy this year. Let’s blow the roof of this place. Let’s join with the heavenly hosts and sing alleluia, glory, and praise on this most joyful night, giving thanks that in Jesus, God shows us that he loves us more than we can ever know. Christ, the Savor is born dear friends, and it is a Merry Christmas indeed! Amen.