A Christmas message.
Christmas is always a funny mix of old and new. We love and look forward to our familiar traditions year after year. We get out our decorations, we wear our holiday clothes. We may go to Christmas events in the community like YuleTide or Newfields and of course our Candlelight service is always a favorite evening of the season. We surround ourselves with our favorite people. We listen to Christmas songs and hymns. We bake familiar Christmas cookies and treats—things we don’t make at other times of year. We love what we love at Christmastime. And part of what makes each of those things so special are the memories that are attached to them—the smiles of family members, the laughter around the table, the sense of peace and joy and connection, just being together with those we love.
But in reality, even though we are doing those familiar, traditional things from year to year, every year Christmas is new. We, for starters, are all a year older than we were last year. Our children and grandchildren are older too. We have had many experiences between then and now—and those experiences have changed us, hopefully for the better. We approach this new holiday with a mix of hope and anticipation and uncertainty. We never know exactly what will unfold, but we trust that Light and Love and Peace will be the overarching stars of the day.
In our New Testament reading we heard the familiar story of the shepherds, watching over their flocks by night. The shepherds were doing what they traditionally did, night after night, as they guarded and protected their flocks. They might have been sitting by a fire, with their sheep gathered around. Perhaps one was playing a flute softly in the cool evening air. Nothing particularly remarkable—a familiar landscape, a trusted group of friends, the flock of sheep they cared for, and a sense of ease and rest.
That is, until an angel “came upon them,” as the scripture says, and the air was full of the glory of the Lord. The angel tells them a remarkable story—remarkable news!—of a Savior born in a small town not far away. And the angel said, “and this shall be a sign unto you—” which obviously meant they, themselves—simple shepherds—were supposed to go and see this child. Unthinkable! Remarkable!
We would understand if the shepherds were baffled about why the angels would tell them this news. Why not tell kings? Or leaders of the synagogue? Why humble, ordinary, traditional shepherds on a hillside at night? And yet the shepherds looked at one another and said, in agreement, ‘Yes, let’s go and see this thing the Lord has made known to us,” and they set off quickly—they made haste, the King James Version says, and they found Mary, Joseph, and the baby, just as the angel said they would.
In ways not so very different from the shepherds, we too are each uniquely invited, uniquely drawn through the Christmas season to peer once again into the manger and see what we find there. We may be seeking different things—hope, rest, connection, forgiveness, healing, joy, peace. We may be nudged toward the manger in different ways; not necessarily with a choir of angels in the sky, but perhaps with a new idea, a quiet yearning, or a renewed curiosity in our hearts.
We may approach the manger as a group, like the shepherds did, but what we experience there, peering into the light of divine love, the transcendent eternal bliss of God’s peace, is an experience for each one of us alone. How God touches our individual hearts—uniquely, purposefully—is a precious gift meant just for us. When we step back from the manger scene and smile and nod at Mary and prepare to leave, we know that we’ve been changed, made new once again, with our hearts refreshed, realigned, reborn.
Because our inner life shapes our experience in the outer one, what we see when we draw close and peer into the manger depends on the state of our heart and the presence of our minds when we look there. The shepherds felt awe, the wise men felt reverence. If King Herod had come to see the baby, he would have seen a child that was a threat to his power—not the presence of goodness and innocence and the hope for a better world.
Similarly, if we are used to making our way through the Christmas season as a series of tasks we have to cross off our list or expectations we have to meet, we run the risk of missing some of the greatest gifts of Christmas—the joy of welcome, the peace of acceptance, the light of awareness, the renewed hope that goodness, now, will be born into our lives and in our world and that it will guide our growing and learning from this point on. That it will change us, like it changed the shepherds, as they stepped away from that heavenly scene.
But before that can happen, if we would be different from the Herod’s of this world, we must make room for that pure goodness within us and truly value it, making room for it in our lives. We need to choose to believe that goodness exists in others, too, and that we can find it if we look for it. We can choose to nurture goodness in ourselves and in each other as we would tenderly care for a newborn baby, protecting and feeding and loving it, encouraging it to grow. Perhaps that work can be born inus this Christmas.
A cynical world view says life is a struggle and people only care about themselves—and if that’s the state of our hearts, that is what we’ll see, even when we’re looking into the eyes of perfect love. But the good news of Christmas shows that any moment, no matter how solid and familiar and unchanging it may seem, something new can be born. A glimmer, a possibility, a tiny cooing in a manger, tells us that new possibilities are everywhere, in everything, if we have the hearts and minds to recognize and celebrate them.
This Christmas, I hope we can thoroughly enjoy the mix of the old and the new, the familiar and the unfolding, as we come and see once again the birth of perfect love among us. It will change and bless us, lift and inspire us, embrace and renew us, if we let it. And like the shepherds, we will go on our way, glorifying and praising God, sprinkling the bits of starlight we’ve found into the waiting world.
And in closing, a poem by Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas.”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
May it be so. Amen.