In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his espoused wife, who was great with child. And while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said to them, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace toward men.”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go even unto to Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord has made known unto us.” And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; as it had been told them.
On Christmas Eve, we’re always very happy to see people who are not always here on regular Sundays. Of course we wish everyone was in church on every Sunday of the year, but how sad it would be if the services on Christmas Eve were not attended by people who, in spite of everything, are still drawn to our worship tonight because they want to celebrate Christmas, even if the real meaning of the holy season has become weak and distant. That lingering feeling of wanting to be here is often nostalgia, but it is not only nostalgia. There is always that tiny spark that might burst into the flames of faith. Every preacher on Christmas Eve wants to be granted the gift of the Holy Spirit to say something that will ignite, or re-ignite, that spark of faith, for as Jesus himself said, “All things are possible with God.” And so, the very warmest of welcomes to every single person here tonight.
The articles that appear in the newspapers are always fascinating this time of year. I always find something in them that charges me up for the preaching of the gospel. Take for instance a piece from The New York Times a few days ago. It was based on a recent survey of Americans. The jist of it was that most Americans still celebrate Christmas in some fashion, but attendance at church services at Christmastime is falling off. The people doing this survey figured that it must be because people no longer believe that the biblical story accurately related historical facts. So the people doing the survey asked the respondents about their belief in four parts of the biblical story. Did they believe:
(We’ll pass over the fact that 3 and 4 are in reverse order!) The results, the survey announced, represented a “seismic change” from a so-called “theological standpoint.” Because far fewer people were willing to say that they believed these things were “accurate history,” the researchers in their wisdom declared that there was a “small but significant decline” in the number of Christians “who believe in the Christmas narrative contained in the Bible.”
But these researchers are wooden-headed. They haven’t got any literary sense. They don’t understand that some—not all, but some—of the biblical narratives are grounded in a form of truth that transcends literal historical truth. The people doing the survey are asking all the wrong questions. I always think of my teacher, Raymond Brown, probably the most famous New Testament scholar of his generation, and the author of a 600-page book, The Birth of the Messiah. He said that every Christmas he would get phone calls from newspaper reporters asking for a few words about “what really happened.” Fr. Brown would reply, with little success, that they would do well to ask about the real inner message of the stories.
The newspapers never let me down. Just yesterday there was a really surprising article about the astronomical observatory at the Vatican. Did you know that the Vatican had a serious observatory? La Specola Vaticana. It’s been doing respected long-term work in astrophysics since the 16th century.
The director of La Specola Vaticana is a Jesuit, Guy Consolmagno. He sees his mission as multifaceted: convincing the world that faith and science coexist and complement one another; demonstrating that the Catholic Church is not anti-science; and sharing his love of science as an extension of his faith. Just like Professor Brown, he gets calls from reporters every Christmas. They always have the same question: Was there really a star? What kind of star? Brother Consolmagno rolls his eyes, one imagines. Why do they always focus on what’s not important? He says that this sort of speculation “has nothing to do with our work as scientists at the Vatican Observatory. Too often people get distracted by the Star and forget to look at the Child!”
“What child is this?” We’re singing a lot of the classic hymns tonight. I think we need to pay closer attention to the words. They are so rich with biblical and theological meaning. This is the night of all nights to look in the right direction. What child is this? “This, this is Christ the King.” What a staggering leap this is. We are so used to it, we don’t even think about it, but these are some of the highest titles given in the Bible and the church to this baby who grows up to be Jesus. He is “Lord at his birth” (“Silent Night”). This is what the story is telling us. He is King of kings and Lord of lords, as we sing in the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But the truly staggering thing about this King of kings is that he has divested himself of all his divine glory and prerogatives to come into the world as a human infant born in ignominious circumstances to a poor family—“Son of God, love’s pure light.”
None of this would matter in any ultimate sense if there were not some further message embedded in the story. We sang Adeste Fidelis just now, “O Come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” The hymn was written in Latin in the early 1700s, but it could have been written more than a thousand years ago because its second verse is pure classical Christology—the definitive definition of who Jesus is. “God of God, Light of light, very God of very God, only-begotten Son of the Father.” This is remarkable for its explicit spelling out of the Nicene Creed: “of one substance with the Father.”
What child is this? “Silent night, holy night…Jesus, Lord at thy birth.” It’s an American church tradition to sing that a bit sentimentally, with the dimming of lights and a meditative atmosphere. The words, however, convey theological truth. This is “the dawn of redeeming grace…Christ, the Savior, is born.” The word Savior points ahead, like many medieval pictures of the Nativity, to the Cross. One of the most remarkable paintings to be seen anywhere is the Annunciation triptych at the Cloisters in New York. Over the angel’s head as he makes the announcement to Mary, is a recognizably human embryo. It’s the yet unborn Savior, and he is already carrying his Cross.
“What child is this? No hymn writer has ever given a more rapturous answer to this than the great Charles Wesley. We’ll be singing “Hark! the herald angels sing” in a few moments. Wesley was one of those blessed people who know the entire Bible by heart. All of his hymns are full of biblical phrases. Here’s the second verse:
Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity….
“Late in time” is a reflection of the New Testament cosmology that depicts the world as having been fallen away from its Creator for a very long time. It is late (the Advent theme)—salvation is just around the corner but it comes so inconspicuously that we might miss it if we were not directed to “behold him come, offspring of the virgin’s womb.” Do we have to believe that Mary was a virgin? Well…I read something funny (sort of) the other day in a letter to a church magazine. It was written by a man with an edgy sense of humor. Reflecting on the current crisis between men and women, he wrote that people who were trying to explain away the virgin birth were the kinds of people who always thought that nothing could be accomplished in this world unless a man did it.
In any case, Karl Barth, the greatest of all 20th century theologians, wrote very simply that the Church’s ancient affirmation of the virginal conception is “the doctrine on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas.”
Moving to the third verse and combining it with the second, “Mild he lays his glory by…Veiled in flesh the Godhead see…” This is a direct reference to the incarnation, God coming among us hidden in human form. As St Paul writes, “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of a human being.” God has done this uninvited, unlooked for, in a hiding place where the only witnesses are the most crude and lowly people of those days: shepherds. Some of the Old Master painters got this right: their shepherds are not little porcelain figures. They are dirty, unkempt, clearly the lowest rung of the work force. These are the people God chose to reveal himself to, and in the lowliest of surroundings.
Now for the third verse of the great Wesley hymn. It’s amazing. It’s based on the very last page of the Old Testament. The prophet Malachi says: “For you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” (Malachi 4:2) This is the very last prophecy in the Old Testament, the passage that connects the Old Testament with the New. Wesley has connected the two brilliantly:
Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.
The last words of the Old Testament contain a promise. God will act. He will come in a form we do not expect. Matthew and Luke have both posted guards at the entrances to their Gospels: “Danger: God at work.” Are these purely literary devices, these nativity stories? Did it “really happen”? If not, what do we need to know?
Years ago when I served at a church in New York City, I used to hang around with some urbane literary types, most of them disdainful of religion. I have never forgotten one conversation I had. The man in question, knowing I was a priest of the church, made a confession to me. He told me very sheepishly that he had done something behind his wife’s back. Apparently she had long since banished every hint of religion from their household. She held Christian faith in contempt, as a relic of a superstitious and unenlightened era. Church, of course, was out of the question. Her husband told me that he found himself so longing to hear the story from St. Luke that he smuggled a small King James Bible into the bathroom, locked the door, and read it to himself. That’s a true story. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Do you think that his wife would have required him to take “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” into the bathroom? Or “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”? Or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? It’s something to think about, isn’t it? The only Christmas story that has something transcendent about it is Luke’s. That’s why it continues to have a hold on people. God is in this story. Something greater than the birth of a baby is here. This is a story about something mysterious, something ultimate.
Dear people of God: here we are on Christmas Eve. This is the moment. The presents are wrapped, the cards are sent, the roast is in the oven, the stillness of the night descends upon us in this little church. This is the time to hear the message of the angels, that God has come to dwell with us. Do not be distracted by the Star! Do not neglect to look at the Child!
“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in him, tonight.”
“Silent Night” sounds more beautiful in the original German, and is more robust, less treacly (although the English translations—dozens of them!—can be wildly off. This one is prosaic but more theological.) The Waverly Consort recording, “A Carol Album,” has a wonderful version that comes close to the way it would have sounded when first sung in the little country church in Austria.