Text: Luke 2:1-20 (the birth of Jesus)
Christmas is a good time, I think, to look back on the year past and toward the year ahead; and this Christmas Eve, I am struck that one week from tomorrow will be the first day not only of a new year, but of a new decade.
Those of us 30 years of age and older will undoubtedly remember New Year’s Eve twenty years ago when 1999 turned to 2000. Sometimes it can feel like yesterday, although a lot has happened in our lives in the twenty years since.
As for 2019, each of us will have unique memories from it of joy and pain or of success and failure. I hope we will remain awake to the blessings that graced us through the ups and downs of 2019 and feel confident that the Love that supported us this year will stay with us through all our tomorrows.
The past year at Mill Woods United has left me feeling encouraged. For one, it looks like we will end 2019 with a small financial surplus . . . although perhaps I shouldn’t mention this before the offering! New people have joined the community. Georgia Englot’s children’s program on Sunday mornings keeps growing. The choir under Bryan LeGrow continues to amaze us with its heart and skill. And our work of outreach, justice-making, and learning, and our times of fun and friendship, create deep connections, sustain our faith, and keep our hearts and minds focused on hope and love. I feel blessed to be part of Mill Woods United, a spiritual community where you can explore your purpose and place.
That last sentence echoes a new vision statement that the congregation approved last March. I appreciated the discussions that led to that decision and to the work we have been doing to live into it. However, Christmas might seem to present a hiccup or two to our evolution as an expansive spiritual community.
Mill Woods United is rooted in 2000 years of Christian traditions and 100 years of United Church of Canada traditions even as we strive to move beyond them in order to join with others in this intercultural neighbourhood and to work for a world that is universal and not tribal, a world centred on sacred values more than on ancient beliefs.
But what about the Christmas story we read from Luke tonight and the different one from Matthew to which the children’s story “The Tiniest Christmas Star” alluded? By honouring them as we do tonight, are we not retreating into our tribe instead of reaching beyond it? And what about the words of the Christmas carols? We never hear theology more traditional than we do tonight. We have already sung the phrase “far as the curse is found,” and before we leave we will sing “God of God, light of light, lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb.” These are the kind of phrases we steer clear of during the rest of the year.
Of course, words can be changed, and this year we have used some new lyrics for old hymns even as we rely more and more on the newer songbook “More Voices.” We will have one taste of this practice tonight when we sing the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” This December, we sang the fourth verse of this carol when the offering was brought forward. Tonight, we will sing it along with three other verses. For the first verse as for the fourth, we will use Christina Rossetti’s original words, ones that contain all her expressive power.
But we won’t sing her second and third verses. Rossetti’s second verse begins “Heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.” Instead, we are going to use alternative words by Rev. Gretta Vosper from Toronto. I imagine that next Christmas Eve we will continue to adjust the lyrics of some carols with alternatives written by people like the late Rev. Bob Hetherington, who finished his career in Edmonton 16 years ago at Southminster-Steinhauer United.
On the other hand, I am charmed and warmed by the two contradictory birth stories found in Luke and Matthew and by the evocative words of many Christmas carols. They might not make literal sense or express my theology clearly. But part of their power comes from how odd and old they sound.
This issue reminds of a famous Christmas editorial from 1897 published in the New York Sun. Titled, “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” the writer affirmed that “as long as love and generosity and devotion exist” so will Santa Claus and the strange and wonderful stories about him.
For those of us for whom God is Love, a similar idea might apply. I may not view the details of Luke or Matthew’s stories of the birth of Jesus as history and yet still follow a Christ-like path of ministry, death, and rebirth. I may not feel the same way about Santa Claus as I did when I was a child and yet still revel in the spirit of peace, goodwill, and boundless love that is Christmas at its best.
So on this Night Before Christmas and using the words of a Nineteenth century poem of that name about Santa Claus, I pray that tonight we may go to sleep nestled all snug in our beds with visions of sugar plums — and flying reindeer and singing angels – dancing in our heads.
And in the inimitable words of the old flying elf himself, I now end by saying, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”