Christmas Eve un-homily...

NOTE: On Christmas Eve, in addition to our first unrehearsed children's pageant (which I hope to have video of to post), we will also celebrate a lessons and carols candlelight eucharist. Here are my un-sermon notes for that sacred night. Join us, of course, at either 4:00 pm or 7:30 pm on December 24th.

Most preachers – and most congregations – don’t want to hear a traditional sermon on Christmas Eve. It is a unique and sacred time in our faith and we yearn to treat it with tenderness and deep reverence. That is one of the reasons why we host a Lessons and Carols celebration tonight – it helps each of us hear the story of God’s love made flesh in Jesus Christ in our own way – so I am with those who say let’s have no traditional sermons on this holy night.

But let’s also be explicitly clear why we say this – and do what we do because there are a host of good and bad reasons:

• Some people don’t want to hear a sermon tonight because they think they already know everything there is to know about Christmas: but that is arrogance and sin speaking through them. How in the world could we ever think that we could totally comprehend and contain the miracle of the incarnation in our generation? We’re talking about the word made flesh within and among us and that is always more than the human mind can imagine.

• Other folk have experienced a life-time of bad preaching on Christmas Eve and simply want a break. Too many times we preachers try to include every important theological insight that has ever been discerned about the Lord’s birth into our Christmas Eve homilies until they become too long, too boring and too irrelevant.

• And let’s face it, sometimes we come to worship on Christmas Eve hurting and wounded and broken and alone and all we want to hear are the sweet carols and the assurance that in spite of all the evidence in our lives, God really is taking up residence with us.

Please believe me, I understand that there are a ton of good – and bad – reasons not to preach on Christmas Eve. So, some of you are wondering, what the devil am I doing right now if NOT preaching, right? Well, I hope I am offering a context for you to hear the lessons and the carols that will follow. You see, most people who come to Christmas Eve worship don’t really understand why we do what we do – and that means they don’t experience the fullness of this type of worship.

• “Why do you read all those little portions of the Bible – and sing all those songs?” some people ask me.

• Others assume that this type of worship has been happening for 500 – or 2000 – years and believe it is the only way to really celebrate Christmas Eve and are offended if they discern any changes or innovations.

• And still others wonder why we use the ancient words and traditional carols instead of new and more relevant music that speaks to those of the 21st century?

Well, here’s the real deal about why we worship in this manner on Christmas Eve.

• This style of worship is only 130 years old. It began in the small English town of Truro when the Anglican bishop of that town realized that the traditional, big and bold and even ostentatious Christmas Eve celebration that was usually performed in their Cathedral couldn’t take place on this night. Because, you see, they had to worship in a small wooden chapel. Their new cathedral had not yet been completed so they needed something new and appropriate for a more humble dwelling.

• So, given the challenge of the moment, Bishop Edward Benson came up with something new: a worship celebration that would begin at 10 pm – mostly to keep the men from staying in the pubs – and used the town’s favorite carols mixed with readings from the Old and New Testaments.

• The lessons were selected to mirror the story often told right before Easter at the Vigil how God worked through time and history to bring Christ into the world – and advance the cause of forgiveness and healing.

So this was originally designed to be an informal and innovative time of worship that was distinct and separate from business as usual. What’s more, it was to be filled with carols rather than hymns – and I need to ask you if you know the difference – because most of us don’t? Do you know what makes a carol different form a hymn?

• Hymns are written to teach a theological truth – they are didactic – and filled with theological language. But carols – from the word koros which means a circle of dancers – tell stories. They are narrative rather than instructive, ok?

• Someone has said that carols are more like stained glass windows in a church – they tell the story of important events in the life of God’s people – unlike a book of theology that seeks to explain.

• What’s more, because carols came from the folk culture – originally the pagan songs of the season – they were often more lively and more fun, too. They were certainly better known than most hymns.

What I am trying to say is that this wonderful service of lessons and carols that we often treat with such piety and reverence was once a radical innovation that was intended to be informal and playful, ok? What’s more, it used the music of the people in ways that helped the story be told without ever trying to explain it.

And that, dear friends, is why we don’t preach on Christmas Eve: we have simply been invited to hear the ancient story of how God works through time and ordinary people to bring us hope and healing and forgiveness in our generation. The poet, Mary McDevitt, put it like this:

If this Christmas finds you burdened with no happy, joyous smile;
Maybe Mary being weary might rest with you awhile.
If in her shelter-seeking from inn to crowded inn
She meets but greed and battle, hatred, death and sin.
But finds a humble welcome in the dwelling of your heart
Though it bring you pain and sorrow could you ask her to depart?
When submitting, you accept her burden with a prayer…
Oh the glory of your joy to find the Christ child is born there.

Beloved, let us journey with our sister Mary with fresh ears and eyes and hearts.


Black Pete said…
Sermons speak to the intellect-- liturgical theatre (like a pageant, etc) speaks to the heart. Christmas is a time to speak to the heart.

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