One of the most beloved Christmas stories is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s often said that Charles Dickens invented modern Christmas. It has been made into films and plays. It has been rewritten and adapted—This past week Corrie and I watched Spirited starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. We’ll probably watch Scrooged starring Bill Murray before the holidays are over. We probably won’t watch A Muppet Christmas Carol, even though my social media feeds insist that not only is it the best adaptation of Dickens’ story, it’s the bese Christmas movie of all.
As I was watching Spirited it occurred to me that I am haunted by Christmases past this year. I’m probably haunted by past Christmases every year, but this year the ghosts of past Christmases seem especially potent.
Tonight is the first time we gather here on Christmas Eve since 2019; our traditional customs and rituals, our lives and world, disrupted by pandemic. I was asked more than once in the past few days, “We will have services?” “Are there contingency plans?” The concerns were real, of course but driven, not by the continued pandemic, but by the speculation and worry about the weather. We hardly remember that years ago, we wouldn’t have had a second thought about coming out to Christmas Eve services in sub-zero temperatures.
As we gather this evening in this beloved, beautiful space, lovingly decorated by our Altar Guild, surrounded by the sights and sounds of Christmas, we embrace the familiar even as we are mindful of the time that has past, of all that has happened. There are ghosts among us: loved ones who are no longer among us; there is all that we’ve suffered, individually, communally, globally over the last nearly three years.
There are those who are suffering now: the people of Ukraine, subjected to missiles and drones destroying their homes and culture, leaving them cold and dark. There are refugees and asylum seekers on our borders; people staying in homeless shelters or seeking what shelter they can find, as Mary and Joseph did so long ago in Bethlehem. And tonight, especially, we think all of those still suffering from the impact of the storm and the frigid temperatures in our nation.
Ghosts of Christmases past. Among them, for me especially, I’m haunted by the images that haunted me every Christmas at Grace up to 2020. For thirty-five years, from 1984 until March 2020, we worshiped in this beautiful space on Christmas Eve while on the opposite side of the courtyard, men huddled on cots, trying to sleep and rest in a crowded basement. The irony of it all was never far from my mind. We, hearing again the story of a pregnant mother and her fiancé seeking shelter in a distant town. We, celebrating the coming of the Christ child, the incarnation, God made man, coming from warm, inviting spaces, returning to celebrations with family and friends; while a few hundred feet away, men were spending the night as they had spent so many nights before and would again and again. And of course, they are not here now, but they are in this city and throughout the world, homeless men and women, homeless families without shelter tonight.
The starkness of that reality is also only a memory, a ghost, let’s say; but even so, for some of us, perhaps many of us, the reality of our lives and our world, the suffering and trauma, may only be masked by the celebration of this evening. Some of us will return to dark and empty homes. Some of us will be mourning lost loved ones; some of us will be facing the realities and pain of broken relationships. Ghosts of Christmases past. Ghosts of Christmases longed for but not experienced. Ghosts of Christmas suffering.
Yet we are here, and in spite of our worries and troubles, we sing familiar carols, we hear the familiar story. In spite of the cold outside, we are here, surrounded by warmth—not just of the heating system. We are embraced in the warmth of community, of joy, of excitement, of wonder. We celebrate Christ’s coming into the world.
To enter into the story, to hear it read once again, to sing the familiar carols, to be surrounded by the beautiful decorations, connects us with our own stories, and helps us once again to experience the light and love of Christmas.
The story connects with us because of its familiarity. We have heard it so many times—in the language of the King James Version—swaddling clothes, sore afraid; in modern translations, in countless reinterpretations and retellings, on tv, in artistic depictions, Christmas pageants like the one we saw this past Sunday at Grace.
It is a familiar story in other ways, some we may not acknowledge. A couple forced to travel by occupying powers; a young girl giving birth in uncomfortable, perhaps even inhumane conditions. A story told about people in a small town far removed from the centers of power, and money, and culture.
Tonight we feel the vast chasm between the world we want and the world we have; the world we had and the world in which we live. But that is nothing new.
The vast chasm between what is and it is meant to be, what will be, is at the very heart of Christmas. It reveals itself in so many ways—in God coming to us in the person of an infant, the power of God becoming the powerlessness, the weakness and vulnerability of Jesus. God coming to us, not in majesty and power but in the silence and darkness of a night; God coming to us not in the center of the world, in Rome, or New York, or Hollywood, but in a little town on the edge of empire.
In that act, in the manger in Bethlehem, God comes to us, revealing who God is, and revealing also who we are meant to be, what the world is meant to be.
Jesus comes to us, a frail, vulnerable, weak baby, meeting us in our own weakness, vulnerability, and suffering. God comes down to us, in the darkness and silence of our lives, in the world’s suffering. And as God comes to us, in the silence, we see the world God is bringing into being, the world transformed by the coming of Christ. We see ourselves, transformed by God’s grace and love.
Love came down to us at Christmas, God emptied Godself, taking on human form, becoming one of us, so that we might see and know what love is; so that we might see and know love, so that we might be love in the world. As we go out into the world on this cold night, may our hearts be warmed by God’s love, and may we share that love with the world.