Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Friday, December 25, 2020

YEAR B 2020 christmas eve

Christmas Eve, 2020
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Christmas Traditions.  Christmas traditions are a big part of the holiday for everyone.  There are lots of traditions that lots of people do, like putting Christmas trees in our houses, and lights on our gutters.  And there are lots of traditions that only some people do, like going to church, or watching the Hallmark Channel.  And then, there are a few traditions that only a few people do, like the family I know in Michigan who hides a pickle in their tree every year.  You do you.  There is no accounting for traditions, and no limit to how much they can expand either.  As we say in church circles, if you do something two years in a row, it’s a tradition.

As it turns out, many of our most common traditions have little to do with the birth of Jesus.  Way back in the year 320AD, after converting to Christianity, Constantine tried to unite the Roman Empire into common practices, based on the Christian calendar.  Rather than try to stamp out pagan holidays, he decreed that Christmas would be moved to a time near the winter solstice.  In this way, all the citizens of the massive Roman Empire would celebrate at the same time.  And so, the birth of Jesus coincides with the resurrection of Osiris, the birth of the son of Isis, the feast days for Apollo and Dionysus, and the Roman festival of Saturnalia, plus a whole lot more.

And then, we get all their traditions brought along into our typical Christmas celebrations.  We get feasting, gift giving, and “good will” from the Romans, mistletoe from the Druids, holly from pagan practice, ivy from Bacchus, and all things yule from the Norse.  The word, “Wassail” means “be whole,” and comes to us from the Anglo-Saxon pagans, who threw spiced cider on apple trees to appease the gods of fruit.  This practice then led to a procession around the neighborhood, going door to door singing songs . . . which sounds a lot like caroling.  

But chiefly, all through the middle ages, the main thing was the parties and the feasting.  The twelve days of Christmas brought the entire known world together for feasting and drinking and carousing.  Shops were closed, and people just plain celebrated for a couple weeks every year.  Constantine had decided that if people were going to party, they should party for Jesus.  But along come the Puritan reformers who said, “no no no, people should never party for any reason.”  So, starting in the 1600’s, shops were forced to be open on Christmas and churches were forced to be closed.  No singing, no dancing, no feasting or gift giving.  Advent became Lent version 2.0.

This solemn drab holiday season continues for a couple centuries until . . . Charles Dickens invents Christmas!  Or, reinvents Christmas.  Obviously it wasn’t just Charles Dickens, but he’s the name we know.  And so, in the 1800’s, Christmas comes roaring back, with all the pagan accouterments of the middle ages.  We get the holly and the ivy, the big feasts, the gift giving, the bonfires, the spiced cider, the mistletoe, the singing from door to door, and—because it’s the 1800’s—the top-hats, the horse-drawn sleigh, and someone had to invent Christmas cards, because they didn’t have the internet.  When you think of your idealized Christmas, you’re probably picturing a scene out of Dickens, right?  This is why.  Because celebrating Christmas came back in the 1800s.

So, I give you all that setup just to bring us back to where we started:   Christmas Traditions.  As you see, most of them have little connection to the birth of Jesus.  And that’s okay.  Christmas traditions are still important, however we get them.  Whether we know where they came from or not, whether we embrace them or run away from them.  And if we don’t have our own traditions, then by golly we will appropriate some traditions from the Celts, Druids, and Vikings!

We need traditions.  We need them because of what they do for us.  Traditions give us the security and predictability of repetition.  And the Liturgy works like this as well.  The Liturgy gives us structure.  Even the so-called non-liturgical churches have a liturgy.  The song goes here, the sermon goes there, the offering goes here.  We don’t want things changing all the time.  And over the long haul, life works like this too.  The whole point of a Christmas tradition is to do what we did last year.  Or do it the way we’ve always done it.  Or do it the way my family did it when I was growing up.  (Which is why marriage counselors say that if a couple can get through their first Christmas together, they can get through almost anything.)

And . . . the loss of so many Christmas traditions is why Christmas is so hard for us this year.  Most of the things we think of as traditional are not happening this year.  Here at St. Timothy’s, we didn’t decorate the church like usual; we didn’t host the Candlelight Walk; our small but mighty choir will not be belting out descants that make the rector cry.  And in our personal lives, this is the time of year when we normally visit with family, and try to figure out how to sort out all those holiday party invitations.  

This is a hard Christmas for everyone.  Shop owners are barely hanging on, families are reduced to watching siblings open presents on zoom, some grandparents are spending their first Christmas alone.  And for a lot of people, there will be an empty seat at the table for the first time in decades.  Tomorrow morning is not going to be easy.  For any of us.  But especially for those who mourn.  Traditions and expectations have been busted up and shattered every where we look.

Christmas is so much about the traditions.  And many of those traditions have been taken away from us.  Without these traditions, is it really even Christmas?  It takes some effort, doesn’t it?  Because, when it comes down to it, Christmas is about more than just Jesus.  That’s just the truth of it.

But let’s set aside the specific traditions for a moment, since we can’t have all of those this year, and let’s just ask ourselves this question:   

Why do we want Christmas in the first place?  Like, what is it about this particular church holiday that makes it so important to have traditions and rituals to mark it?  It’s obviously second nature to us, since it all came rushing back once Dickens opened the gate.  Clearly, we have a deep-seated desire to feast, and give gifts, and be with family, and sing carols.  But why at this time of the year?

Well—at least here in the northern hemisphere—this is the darkest time of year.  It’s cold and dark and lonely.  And, if you think about it, all our Christmas traditions are aimed at countering all that.  All the flowers have died, so we bring huge trees into our homes.  It’s cold outside, so we light fires and drink warm beverages.  It’s dark out, so we put Christmas lights on anything that doesn’t move.  (And on some things that do move.)  It’s lonely, so we gather with friends and family to remind ourselves that we are not alone.

God knows that we need feasting with family and friends.  God knows that we need to gather and sing carols together.  God knows we need the twinkling lights and the beautiful decorations.  God knows those descants make the rector cry.  And God knows we are missing all those things terribly.

And God gives us Jesus, as the light of the world, as the hope of salvation.  The traditions we are missing are important; but they’re important because they are connected to Jesus, even if they didn’t start out that way.

The traditions give us hope.  Something to look forward to each year.  But all of those things point to this baby Jesus, whose birth we celebrate tonight.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  We heard the angel say,  Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  When John the Baptist sent his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Jesus answers, Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.

In a word, it all points to hope.  Hope.  All of those traditions and rituals and yearly reminders point to hope.  Those traditions are good, because they remind us of Jesus.  And in normal times, each and every one of those traditions brings us hope.  Even that whacky thing about hiding a pickle ornament . . . everybody hopes to be the one to find it.  We do all this decorating and socializing and present giving because of hope.  Which points us to the greatest hope of all, found in that stable behind the inn in Bethlehem.

In this most unusual year, we are missing a lot of our traditions, which remind us of the hope we have in Jesus.  But no matter what you have had to give up or put off this year, no matter what has been taken away from you this year, I pray that God moves your attention toward hope.  Because, sometimes, hope is all we have.  The hope that a new-born baby will change the world.  The greatest hope of all: the good news of great joy for all the people.  The sure hope that God has not given up on this world, that God has not given up on you, that God has not given up on Christmas.  May God continue to point you toward that hope. 

Merry Christmas, and God bless us everyone.


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