Christmas Eve 2012, St Nicholas
I’m trying to think if anything is more exciting than tonight, than Christmas Eve, than this very night. Over the last weeks there has been a gradual sense of things getting more and more and more and more exciting, of everything pointing to this one day. It’s like being on a rollercoaster which is going faster and faster which we can’t stop and we can’t get off until the end of the ride, which is Christmas Day.
Which part of the Christmas preparation is your favourite?
Which bit means Christmas for you?
Shops put up their lights and play Christmas songs.
Then comes writing the letter to send to the North Pole.
The excitement of opening the doors on the Advent calendar and seeing what picture it’s been hiding.
Then comes present wrapping, and choosing the tree, and decorating the house,
and hanging up the cards.
Then comes the Christmas turkey dinner at school, gobbled up by everyone.
Then comes the School Nativity play, which comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes- this year I’ve been to a traditional one and to one built around the legendary French detective Inspector Clue-no, to one in a school hall and to one in a school car park transformed by fairy lights into a wonderland. And collecting the turkey, and peeling the potatoes, and making the stuffing, and putting the sausages in their blankets:
And then comes coming to Church, singing the well-known carols, listening again to the stories we’ve grown up with of shepherds and angels and kings and a baby born in the night-time far from home, in a stable.
In the 2 months leading up to Christmas there is a crescendo of excitement pointing towards tonight, building and building and building. And with it comes an emotional intensity as well- because even after we’ve spent so much time thinking about Christmas, about what might be inside our presents, about what we need to prepare to feed everyone beautifully, about how to make Christmas great for others, we will still have to worry about who might be grumpy on Christmas Day, who will argue, who won’t like their presents, and say so, who will have become a vegetarian on the way to your house....
What I’m saying is this: for weeks on end we plan and work and plan and work and plan and work and plan a bit more. All around us are signs of other people planning and working too, and decorations outside our neighbours, and lights in the Market Place. And the more we spend and the more we invest and the more we do the more the pressure builds.
Three things strike me about this cycle. One is that perfect Christmases only happen on supermarket adverts. We need to be honest about that. Everything will not come effortlessly together without stress or tension. We will have to bite our tongue and we will have to swallow hard and we will have to do things we don’t really want to, like the dishes. We can only do our best. Perfect Christmases only happen in supermarket adverts.
The second is this- we’re here tonight, we’ve made room in our hearts for Jesus to come in. That matters very much indeed.
The third is this- with all of our busyness and planning and spending we are a long way from Bethlehem 2012 years ago. I wonder, perhaps, if every card we feel that we ought to send and every present we ought to buy and every thing we need to do because others expect it covers a bit more of the baby in the manger and hides him from our eyes. I’m not anti-card or anti-present at all (and if you’ve got me a present then please feel free to still give it to me!) but there is a difference between what we really, really want to do for Christmas and what we feel we ought to do. And there is a difference between what we need for Christmas to be Christmas, and all of the other stuff which crowds in.
Would we feel closer to Jesus at Christmas, would we get more out of Christmas, would we pray better and worship better, if Christmas occurred at random intervals chosen by a strange man sitting in a shed in Mablethorpe who threw darts at a calendar and then announced the date over the radio on the morning? What would be better about our Christmas if we had eight hours notice rather than eight weeks? Would we get closer to the manger without all of the tinsel and boxes which threaten to block Jesus from view?
Because that is what the first Christmas was like. The Shepherds did not have weeks to get ready. Out of nowhere on a normal evening, suddenly, everywhere, angels. The shepherds, employed to protect their sheep by staring down lions and chasing off wolves, fell to the floor in a foetal position, hiding their eyes from the light of the angels, burrowing into the ground. And then the angels spoke to them, and sang to them, and told them not to be afraid, and told them that a Messiah was born to them, and told them to hurry and see.
Which is what they did- they rose from the floor, and looked at each other, and without saying a world, bounded and sprinted from the hillside down into town, and found the stable, and tiptoed in, and gazed on his sleeping face in amazement, not just at a baby, amazing though they are, but on this baby, announced to them by angels.
The creator of the universe new born. The untouchable God with them in flesh, blood pulsing, breath rising, eyelids twitching, legs moving, God with us. God’s inconceivable majesty conceived and delivered. And delivered to them, in their own world- that they should be the ones God invited to witness and to worship. It is no wonder they trod gently, silently, into the Stable, scarcely daring to breathe, their hearts racing, doffing their caps and bending low in wonder, overwhelmed by privilege.
The story is told of an elderly and very grumpy Spanish monk who never had a good word to say to anyone, who rarely spoke at all. But one Christmas night a young novice walked into the Church to get everything ready for Christmas Day and he found, to his utter astonishment, the elderly monk dancing down the aisle with a look of such unalloyed joy on his face, cradling and lullabying the infant Jesus from the Nativity Set in his tender hands.
What we need at Christmas is that monk’s understanding of what this gift means for us and for our world. What we need at Christmas is the unexpected wonder which turned the world of the Shepherds on its head. What we need at Christmas is a clear sense that we have done everything we can to get ready, that what isn’t done is not that vital, and that tonight and tomorrow are all about rushing with the Shepherds to see this thing that God has done, that tonight and tomorrow are all about dancing and circling with the Infant Jesus held tight in our arms, our faces transformed by our encounter with God who is with us, not just for Christmas but for life, and for eternity.
I hope and pray that everything goes well tomorrow, that the oven comes on, that the potatoes crisp up, that you’ve chosen just the right presents. I really hope so. But even more than that I hope and pray this Christmas that you catch something of that unnamed Monk’s devotion to the Christ child, and something of the unexpected joy of the Shepherds, that you come face to face with God, and know and see and grasp exactly how precious you are in his eyes. Amen.