A Sermon for Christmas Eve

A Sermon for Christmas Eve

As far as I can tell, this sermon has never been published. It was preached in this version at Christ Church, Sheffield MA (now Christ Trinity Church)

Christ Church, Sheffield Massachusetts

LAST MONTH OF THE YEAR 2007

Sermon by Fleming Rutledge                                              Christmas Eve 2007

…They say to you, “Consult the mediums and the wizards…should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living?” [1] …Surely for this word [of death] which they speak there is no dawn. They will… [look] upward [to the stars],  and they will look [downward] to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.

But there will be no gloom for her that was in anguish…The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.                                                  (Isaiah 8:19-9:2)

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When I was a child at Christmas, I was keenly aware that there was this thing called “the midnight service.” One of my parents would go to it while the other one stayed at home with me and my sister. It was clearly understood that when we got old enough, we too would be allowed to go to the midnight service. It was a very big deal. I will never forget the thrill of going to that service as a young teenager. It began at 11, so that every one was receiving communion at midnight. It was a rite of passage; faith in Santa Claus was taken up into faith in the Lord Jesus. Those who attended were all adults and older children, plus a significant number of college students—many of whom were a bit inebriated, but never mind—there was a glamour and excitement about it all that remains with me to this day.[2]

I hope you are glad to be here tonight. I hope some of that midnight thrill remains for you. Here in the Berkshires where it is wintry outside, it is all the more wonderful to be together in the church on Christmas Eve.

But for what purpose do we come together? What brings us here? Is it mostly sentiment, nostalgia, and wishful thinking?

Last week in The New York Times Book Review section on children’s Christmas books, a reviewer had this to say:

In terms of plain narrative, the Nativity story is hard to beat. It has pretty much everything: a journey, a baby, a mass murderer, music, animals, refugees, the kindness of strangers, and big, big special effects.[3]

But then, this admirable reviewer goes on to complain about “sappy,” sentimental versions of the biblical story, with all the added paraphernalia of baby angels and little drummer boys. She thinks the story from St. Matthew and St. Luke stands best by itself, and surely we must agree. King Herod needs to be in there somewhere, to remind us of the nature of the world that the son of God was born into.

There is a great deal to be learned from the words of the genuine Christmas carols. Everybody loves the tunes, but the words can sometimes be genuine revelations. One of my favorite discs is Home For Christmas, a crossover album by the distinguished classical singer Anne Sophie von Otter. Ms. von Otter is Swedish, and her disc is redolent with the atmosphere of a snowbound land where “the great darkness of the Northern winter” reigns for eighteen hours a day.[4]

The highlight on the disc, for me, is “O Holy Night.” We think of this number as the soprano showpiece par excellence, but this version is something else again. She sings it in the original French, and the words are dramatically different from our familiar English ones. Ours begins, “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining/ it is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.” This puts us in a mellow mood. The original French words, however, are utterly different. Listen to this; it begins this way:

“Minuit, Chrétien, c’est l’heure solennelle…” This means, “Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour…”

You’ll agree, I think, that this is a startling contrast to the sweet and gentle “O holy night.” Moreover, the French words when sung sound even more portentous than they do when  spoken;  the cadence of the four-syllable word “sol-en-nel-le” evokes the tolling of the bell, as if the day of judgment were about to strike. Ms. von Otter deliberately darkens her voice and refuses to give us any of the flamboyant high notes that we have learned to expect and wait for.

The disc overall has the character of darkness. One of the traditional Swedish songs has the recurrent refrain, “No daylight is yet to be seen…” She sings the American song,  “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” but she sings it with an ironic twist, especially when she gets to the line “from now on your troubles will be out of sight.” You can tell she doesn’t believe a word of it. For this word which they speak there is no dawn. Something more is needed in our world than wishes. The people look upward to the stars for inspiration, the people look downward to Mother Earth for reassurance, but for this word which they speak there is no dawn. Something more is needed here than horoscopes and nature rituals.

The New Yorker magazine had a startling cover two weeks ago. At first glance I thought it had something to do with the Three Wise Men because there was a midnight sky full of stars, one very big star, and a yellow desert. On second glance I saw that it had nothing to do with the Wise Men at all. It was a picture of a helicopter, dramatically lit from below by a garish yellow light that could be fires, or an explosion. What I thought was a big star was actually the rotor. The picture shows the two gunners and the pilot of the copter looking out grimly from their posts. Inside there is an equally grim-looking  passenger. It’s Santa Claus. He’s in a war zone. He can’t use his sleigh. He has to be transported by a helicopter.

This is the world into which our Saviour was born. For this word which they speak there is no dawn. Something more is needed here than sentiment.

On the radio one time I heard a breathtaking African-American spiritual that I had never heard before. It had a question-and-answer format, or, rather, call-and-response:

What month was my Jesus born in? Last month of the year.
What month? January? No…February? No… March? No…
Last month of the year…
Born of the virgin Mary.

What does this suggest to you? I think it means that the tide of human possibility was running out. Month after month, we thought that we could fix whatever was wrong. New resolutions, new products, new leaders, new technology, new strategies, new medicines, new regimes—surely we can fix it. Month after month the statistics tell the story: better lives for rich Arab sheiks, worse lives for Chinese peasants. Better lives for Scandinavian welfare recipients, worse lives for Congolese children. Better conditions for Baghdad, worse for Kabul and Islamabad. Put your finger in the dike here, a leak springs over there. We look to the stars, we look to the earth, but for this word which we speak there is no dawn. Human potential has been explored to the nth power and it is a dead end.

What month was my Jesus born in? Last month of the year.
What month?
Last month of the year…
Born of the Virgin Mary.

What does this suggest? When the tide of human possibility has run out, divine intervention take its place. On the stroke of midnight when the executioner is due at the prison door, there is a blaze of light. At the farthest extremity of human hope, the Lord God Almighty slips into the world in disguise. Last month of the year; born of the Virgin Mary. It is no accident that these words appear: the Virgin Mary. The singer wants us to know that a miracle has occurred. The early Christians recognized that Isaiah’s prophecies meant that something had happened that had its source in another sphere of power. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.[5] 

Notice the words of the hymn that we sang, “In the bleak midwinter.” Christina Rossetti wrote this; she was a very interesting woman from a fascinating family. She was of Italian parentage but was herself English, a devout Anglo-Catholic Christian. She wrote the words of this hymn in 1872. Listen to the first two verses:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…
[Barren, fruitless, sterile, closed in, shut down, locked. It’s midnight.]
Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
[the people look to the stars, they look down to the earth, but from these sources there is no dawn]
Heaven and earth shall flee away, when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter [last month of the year], a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

And so the prophet Isaiah declares:  The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

Is there anything true in all of this? The Spectator, an English magazine, recently asked a whole assortment of prominent people whether they believed in the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. One of them was a very well-known clergyman in the Church of England. He said categorically that he didn’t believe it. He explained that it was “probably legendary.” Another English intellectual said contemptuously, “you are going to have a hard time finding any educated person who believes it.”

But lying at the heart of the entire Jewish-Christian enterprise are the words at the end of our Scripture lesson from Isaiah: The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. If we do not believe that God does things, performs things, accomplishes things according to his purpose, then the whole story collapses. This is what faith knows: heaven cannot hold our God, nor earth sustain him. In the last month of the year “a stable place sufficed [for the birth of] the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.” When the very last human hope is gone, the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

Back to the midnight service. Most of us here tonight are far past the age of wishing we could be with the grown-ups. We are the grown-ups. We don’t necessarily like that. We would rather be back in January, or February, with our futures lying open before us. Listen: at this point in my life I’d settle for October.

At precisely this point in our lives, whoever we are and wherever we are in our struggles, whatever our disappointments and failures, whatever our anxieties and fears,  this Word arrives. In the last month of the year, at the last tick of the clock, at the bottom of the world’s midnight the message comes: our future is in God through the Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, “God of God, light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not created.” These heavens and this earth will flee away and as the book of Revelation promises, we will receive a new heaven and a new earth.

There will be no gloom for her that was in anguish…The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

[1] This part of the Hebrew text is uncertain in its details but the central meaning is clear enough.  I have used NRSV for the second half of  vs. 19.

[2] Unfortunately, this thrill has been lost in recent decades. All over America, parents now take their children to services at five p.m.—services which tend to be “dumbed down” or chaotic or both—and consequently, attendance at the far more awe-inspiring “midnight” services has shrunk dramatically. The loss of the college-age students at the later service is especially to be deplored.

[3] Sarah Ellis, reviewing Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus, The New York Times Book Review, 12/16/07.

[4] The phrase is from Ms. Von Otter’s program notes.

[5] To prepare for this sermon I read The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, by Brevard Childs.

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