But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth 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 heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” – Luke 2:10-14 (NRSV)
One Christmas Eve, the senior pastor at my church did a first-person presentation dressed like an angel – basically the same costume the kids wore for the pageant – and descended from heaven on a scissors lift. I don’t remember anything else about the sermon or the service itself, although I’m sure we sang “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night” with candles.
This is a pastor’s life.
Every Christmas Eve we hear the same story from Luke 2. I’m not complaining, I can’t imagine Christmas Eve without it. It is, however, a challenge. What new thing can I say about a passage most of you can tell by heart? Like me, you’ve been to a lifetime of Christmas Eve services already. I’ve preached seven Christmas Eve services. I mostly remember what I preached each year, but I can’t say I remember each one clearly. If that’s true for me, who wrote and spoke them, how much more so for you.
Christmas Eve has been the same and different over the years. For me, when I was a child, we spent Christmas Eve at one grandparents, then drove a few hours to be at the other grandparents on Christmas Day. My own nuclear family Christmas had happened some days earlier. I remember reminding Santa Claus to come early because we’d be in Iowa on Christmas Day.
When I was in college, we still went to my grandparents for these Christmases — and added my parents and Dave’s parents, too. Four Christmas celebrations. Eventually this was too much driving in unreliable Midwest winter – and then we had kids. As I remembered all the travelling on Christmas, and though my Mom reminded me how much fun I had with cousins and having three different celebrations, Dave and I want to do something different with our family. I think it was about when Youngest was born and Eldest was three, Dave and I decided we were reserving from dinner time on Christmas Eve until 10:00 am on Christmas Day as time for our family for four to be together.
This worked for a while because my brother’s in-laws spent this same time together as well – Christmas meant both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for them. We lived in Milwaukee by then, so it was only a short Christmas Day drive to be with Dave’s family. Sometime later, when Mom and Dad came back from Iowa, my extended family would all gather in Antigo. This eventually became New Year’s Eve.
And then I became a pastor.
Suddenly Christmas Eve was a workday. The first Christmas, before I was actually ordained, I had three services spread out between 4:00 and 10:00 pm. Because we wouldn’t have the evening together, we began our family Christmas Eve time earlier. I think this is how we started the tradition of the boys opening a present every hour.
We don’t give big presents, so this worked fine. All day Christmas Eve, we played games or watched Christmas movies and on the hour, one of the boys would pick a Scripture to read and then open a present. We still do this. Of all this Christmas traditions we’ve done over the years, I think this is one of the boys’ favorites.
Our Christmas traditions were easy to maintain when I came to Heritage. With one service early in the evening, my family had time before and after for own Christmas time. We still sort of do that, but Eldest’s Bowl games got in the way. Two years, he was able to come home for about two days but flew out before Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning, we flew to San Francisco. One year he was home on Christmas Eve, and we all flew out Christmas morning.
This year, no Bowl game. Both boys are home from college, and we will have a tradition Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As odd as it is, this Christmas is the most normal Christmas we’ve had in years. Who would have thought anything in 2020 might actually be called normal?
Although it’s still not normal, is it?
Even though my family of four is home, we don’t know for sure we’ll be able to see my parents for New Year’s Eve. Like many of you, they stayed home for Thanksgiving because of COVID. We won’t be going to my sister-in-law’s after this worship service to spend time with Dave’s family. We don’t know when we’ll see Dave’s Mom in person again. This reality is multiplied by each one of us. We’re all thinking right now of those we haven’t seen or hugged, maybe since March. There are also the friends we won’t see because parties aren’t safe either.
Some of us are in quarantine because we’ve been exposed to someone with COVID, or we’re waiting for results from our nose swab, or we have underlying health concerns that keep us from going anywhere. We might be weighing the cost of whether we spend time with family or friends that are outside our normal bubble.
This is not a normal Christmas.
Like Easter, because of all the broken traditions of our normal celebrations, this might be the Christmas we always remember. Of course prior years don’t compare to this year, but as I reflected on my Christmases past, there have been other years of broken traditions or family I wasn’t able to see. As I mentioned, the first year Eldest was in college, he wasn’t home for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
And it’s not just Christmas traditions that have been broken but ten months of missing celebrations, places we couldn’t go, people we can’t see, and even the inability to grieve properly. This is not the Christmas we have been dreaming about.
At our Service of Advent Longing, we reflected on our Christmas dreams: the journey to Bethlehem, the shepherds watching over their flocks, the angelsong, and the first cry of life as the Christ child is born. These are our dreams of hope, peace, joy, and love. But it’s been more difficult to dream these dreams this year.
Instead of a journey – or a visit to family – our Christmas dream has been exchanged for sheltering in place. Instead of the shepherds’ wonder and the choirs of heaven, our dream of Good News of great joy has been lost in all that has been unfulfilled. Instead of our dream of togetherness and unity as we sing of peace of earth and goodwill to all, we have the reality of division and fear. Our Christmas dreams have not been good ones this year.
And yet, we are still people who dream.
We dream because we know this isn’t how all this should be. We know because we have had Christmases before. They weren’t all perfect, but they have been the basis of our traditions. And the reality our faith.
We hear in the Christmas story that the angels sang together and rejoiced. The shepherds go in search of the gift of great joy. Joseph and Mary hospitably open their barn “home.” It seems perfect.
However, Joseph and Mary were not with their family and friends – and couldn’t even text, Zoom, or FaceTime to tell them about Jesus. They didn’t know when they were going to be able to go home again. Their reality also included a brutal Roman occupation and a census that was only going to result in more taxes. This was not a “perfect” Christmas.
Even so, it was a dream realized — the promise of love and grace fulfilled. It is from all of this that our faith and our traditions were birthed.
For every one of our Christmas traditions, there is a year they were broken. This year is not the first time — and honestly, it will not be the last. And yet, we continued on with our traditions. We have continued to plan, year after year, for Christmas. We haven’t given up on it. Not because our greatest dream is to achieve Christmas perfection, but because even in its brokenness, Christmas is still a dream realized — the promise of love and grace fulfilled.Our greatest dream isn't to achieve Christmas perfection, because even in its brokenness, Christmas is still a dream realized — the promise of love and grace fulfilled. #Christmas #Joy Click To Tweet
In our broken Christmas this year, it could be that we’ll
- receive the Good News of great joy in a deeper way;
- remember our Christmas traditions all the more because we can’t have them all;
- cherish our family and friends more deeply — both the ones we can spend time with and those we can’t;
- realize that it doesn’t take a lot for Christmas to be.
And maybe, even though we would never have chosen it and would never choose it again, it could be that we’ll find that this year is the perfect Christmas. Because as imperfect and broken as it is, Christ still comes into the world. There is still hope for peace. There is still Good News of great joy for all people. Because Christmas is not some impossible dream but the reality of Immanuel, God with us. God with us, no matter what.
Like you, I dream that we get to do all of our traditions next year. I dream of a Christmas that’s normal. Maybe even one I might forget because it simply mixes together with all the Christmases past. But mostly my Christmas dream is a prayer. May we all remember this Christmas both for what we’ve lost and what we still have. May we experience the promise of love and grace fulfilled at that first cry of life. May we realize that hope, peace, and joy are within us and can’t be stolen by anything that’s happening around us.
For we are the people who dream because we are the ones who know that our Christmas dreams do indeed come true. Amen and Merry Christmas.