Three different celebrations all at the same time...

As I get ready to lead the community in worship tomorrow night for Christmas Eve I am acutely aware that there are at least three different Christmas celebrations all taking place at the same time. First, and most obvious, has precious little to do with Jesus or even church, right? This is the feast of reunion when family and friends from far away reconnect and embrace. It is a joyous time for those with loved ones but anguishing for those who are alone. This feast usually includes lots of food and gifts - laughter and emotion - and I love parts of it. I cherish seeing my children and their new husbands, I love to feast on great food and laugh over family stories... but I am ever more aware of how depressing and haunting this feast can be for those on the outside looking in. And to forget them is to bring curse instead of blessing into the congregations.

The second feast is the feast of the innocent. It is nostalgic and sentimental: it is rooted in childhood and is a place many adults want to reclaim - if it was once a good time - or flee from and bury if it was troubled. This, too, has precious little to do with the Incarnation and causes trouble when expectations can not be met: the preacher didn't help me feel jolly, the music wasn't like I remembered, something at dinner was different, somebody was missing (or even dead), I couldn't feel like I did when I was little and still waited for Santa Claus.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Santa Claus and given my Scots-Irish roots (and a little single malt assistance) can be as sentimental and nostalgic as they come. (In fact, I still find time during the Christmas season to put on quiet Celtic songs, turn on the tree lights and take off my eyeglasses to relive those childlike times of mystical delight.) But all of those expectations are freakin' deadly, wastefully expensive and too emotionally heavy for me, for those I love and for those coming into our congregations. So I have come to treat this type of feast as something best saved for late night moments by myself. There is nothing holy about dumping the past on those we love.

Now, the flip - or shadow side - to this feast of innocence is when the wounds of the world become overwhelming for you can't see the light because of the darkness: homelessness, war, fear, economic collapse and so much more. Some in the church want to bring comfort and joy to everyone they meet - especially the most broken - during Christmas. And when they run out of time, money and patience, they feel guilty for they have become a human "doing" rather than a human being. So, this feast has its limitations, too. I can remember feeling like such a failure because I ran out of time and didn't get to visit everyone who was in need - or wanted a visit - or some church leader told me I NEEDED to visit. God it was oppressive - and stayed oppressive until I began to see that I couldn't bring healing to others - man, I could barely make a change in my OWN life. So... I had to let the public expression of this feast go, too.

Which brings me to the only way I currently know how to share Christmas in a church: the feast of the Incarnation. This is a quiet invitation to discover where God's surprise is being born within and among us. It is always in the most unlikely places and is always shocking simple. It isn't about doing, but being alert enough to receive - humble enough to return thanks - quiet enough to feel gratitude. Which is why I love midnight Holy Communion in candle light the best; a few souls gathered around a simple table sharing blessings in community and trusting that God's presence is sufficient even when the evidence is not yet clear. It is radical and healing and filled with hope all at once. There is always room at the table for one more and always enough grace to go around.

I used to experience this on Christmas morning when I would meet those without families for 9:00 am Eucharist. No musicians - just our simple voices - no printed bulletins - just some carols and scripture - and shared bread and wine. It was always enough for such is the blessing of the feast of Incarnation - may it nourish us as we enter the flurry we know as Christmas Eve.

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