Christmas Eve Service
December 24th, 2009
We are gathered here tonight to remember the central reason for our celebration at Christmas – the birth of Jesus Christ. We have been hearing the story of the events of that first Christmas from the Gospel readings this evening, in just a little while we will pass the light from this candle here to your candles, filling this room all the way to the back. And of course we are singing all the great Christmas carols, the songs we love to sing at this time of year. And let me comment on this last one. For it is altogether fitting that at this time, as we celebrate the birth of Christ, we do so with singing.
One of the things that is most central to our celebration of Christmas is music – the music of Christmas. In fact, music is one of the most distinctive things about the celebration of Christmas period – no other holiday I could think of, whether of a religious origin or not, is so associated with music. (You know, all those Thanksgiving carols that you just can’t get out of your head?) Round about late August the malls start playing Christmas songs, a little after Halloween a couple of radio stations switch their format to all Christmas all the time, and many of us start playing our favorite Christmas albums after the turkey is put away on Thanksgiving afternoon. Christmas carols are a part of the celebration from childhood on – many of us have childhood memories of singing in Church services like this one here – perhaps memories of singing in this very church some years ago.
Really, people have been singing carols at Christmas for hundreds and hundreds of years now in the Church. The first carol on record dates to the fourth century, sung in Rome and written by Ambrose of Milan. However, if you want to go all the way back, singing is intimately connected to the very first Christmas of all, the original Christmas events.
The first two chapters of Luke – which are so familiar and from which we have heard several selections here tonight – are filled with wonder and awe. They are also bursting with so much joy that the characters in the story are continually breaking into song. This is history, written to be taken as such, with dates and places and politicians and tough circumstances, all this. This is history, not a fantasy-land. And yet, history of a ground-breaking, monumental sort; events so great, so wonderful, so fundamentally good, that everyone involved needs more than just the facts to describe what is happening. They need a kind of music, they need poetry, they need to sing.
When I was in seminary, one of my professors, Dr. McDonough, pointed out off-handedly that these first couple of chapters in Luke that tell the story of the birth of Christ are so bursting with wonder and joy that they are kind of like a musical. Right in the middle of events throughout those first two chapters, people keep wandering off and breaking out into singing.
Take Luke chapter one, for instance. The virgin Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she shall be with child and bear the son of God. Mary in reverence and humility accepts God’s calling, and then soon afterward bursts into song. Almost 10 verses of singing, wonder-filled poetry, praising God.
Later in chapter one, Mary’s relative Zechariah, also caught up in these extraordinary events, bursts into his own song, spilling out prophesy and poetry, singing to God, and stunning his neighbors. His song 12 verses long.
Then there’s chapter two. The angel choir breaks the quiet of the night in the Judean countryside, scaring half to death some shepherds (and possibly some sheep), announcing to these working men good news for all people and then serenading them across the quiet hills, with what must have been the most lovely sounds they had ever heard. A whole choir of angels breaking in to the next musical number.
And so it continues: with shepherds skipping away glorifying and praising God, no doubt with a song on their lips. And then Mary and Joseph take the baby to present him to the Lord and there a man named Simeon grabs the baby in his arms and sings over him. Everyone is singing, it’s bursting out – even the baby John the Baptist IN THE WOMB gets into the act – He leaps in the womb the text says – I think he’s kicking up his tiny infant feet; he’s dancing. Well, maybe not – but filled with joy to be sure. Leaping with joy.
This is history, no doubt. Caesar rules, taxes are collected, work continues. There are hard circumstances here, and though we hear it every year, we do well not to forget that the facts on the page are actually fairly stark – a woman, pregnant out of wedlock, now wandering far from home, with no place to settle for the night; a woman late in her pregnancy, forced to give birth in a stall, placing her child in a feeding trough. Hard circumstances to be sure. And yet here in the midst these people behold events so wonderful, so monumental, so fundamentally good, that those who see and believe are filled with joy. Yes, great joy. Yes, they believe here is good, good news, that shall be for all people.
Well, look at the songs. Look at what they are singing.
Look at Mary’s Song: She sings because God has not forgotten His people.
Mary sings, “His [God’s] mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation…He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” [Luke 1:50, 54-55] Here is proof that God in His mercy does not forget His people. Here is the Promised One, the PROOF that God has not (and WILL NOT) ever forget His promises to save or ever forget the people He calls His own. He came to save them, and we remember tonight, He will come again. And so Mary sings with joy
Look at the angel’s Song: They sing because God in His love has mercy on the world
We just heard their song from Luke chapter 2 – “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’” Think of this – humanity, the earth, on whom His favor – not his anger – His favor rests. The angels sing, glorifying God, because here is proof that God in His love offers mercy to the world. For indeed, God so loved the world, so loved it, so loved us, that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life.
And so they burst into singing with joy because here is a sure sign that God comes to the world in mercy, in peace, with a blessing, not a curse, because He loves the world.
Or finally, look at Zechariah’s Song: He sings because here in these events is a sign that salvation from sin and death has come.
Zechariah sings that God is giving “his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins”; He sings that “because of the tender mercy of our God…the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death” [Luke 1:76-79] Zechariah sees that here is coming the Light of the world that will conquer the darkness: that will dispel the darkness of sin and the shadow of death. For by His life and death and resurrection, this Jesus will pay the penalty, so that the most vile sins can be forgiven and death will become a shadow that cannot hold those who trust in Christ. Here in Jesus is a Savior who comes to the earth, proof that God has not forgotten humanity, that there is hope for forgiveness and life, and that this hope is for all people, for all who put their trust in Him.
This is what these people saw, what Mary and Elizabeth and Zechariah and the Shepherds and Simeon – this is what they saw, this is what they believed. And so they were filled with wonder and awe. And so they were filled with joy, and burst into song.
So tonight it is fitting that we are here, and that we sing together and that we remember together. Because we too are called upon to see Jesus tonight; we too are called upon to believe this good news of great, great joy. That the Lord has come. That God has not forgotten us and that He has made a way to save us.
This means, that what we are celebrating tonight is most centrally not light and warmth and family and friends and candles and anticipation of presents in the morning – as good as all those things are. The reason we gather, the reason we sing is Jesus our Lord, and all the wonder and all of the joy that comes from celebrating and worshiping and knowing Him. The mystery of His humility, the glory of His salvation, the wonders of His love.
And so, for those of us who are happy. For those of us who’s celebrations will indeed be graced with family and laughter and good things – let us remember, the Source of all good gifts. Let us give thanks with a glad heart, and remember that any pure joy we have here is not only a gift from God – which it surely is – but also a small taste of the wonders of Jesus and His love, which is a gift more lasting, more faithful, and more ultimately satisfying as to outshine any other gift. Let us make Jesus central to our happiness and let our celebrations be fulfilled in worship.
And for those of us who are sad, whose celebrations will be marked by remembrance of those lost, or haunted by loneliness, or regret, or disappointment – let us remember especially at this time of year that God has not forgotten you, that it is because of the love of God for you that Jesus came, in order that He might die and rise to meet our greatest need, in order to shine into the greatest darkness of our lives His light of mercy and peace and life and even joy. Remember Him. Call out to Him in your need.
Because the coming of Jesus really is why we sing at Christmas. Not because it’s the most wonderful time of the year – though it is good. We sing, just like those at the first Christmas, because we see and we believe that God has done something in history so great, so wonderful, so fundamentally good, that poetry and singing and celebration is the only right response. God has not forgotten us, in fact He loves us, and He has sent His only Son to save us from sin and death.
May we all know the light and the life and the Joy of Christ as we celebrate this Christmas.