One of my favorite Christmas hymns is based on a French poem written in 1843, O Holy Night. The poem was written in celebration of the completed renovations of the Church organ in the Poet’s hometown. He was not particularly religious, but the poem he wrote captures the essence of the feast we celebrate tonight.
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices!
O night divine! O night when Christ was born.
O night, O holy night, O night divine.
Tonight, the fulfillment of a long wait is realized. Tonight, our hymns switch from “Come, thou long-expected Jesus” to Joy to the world. At the start of the Advent season, the world aches for a Messiah: now those who walked in darkness see a great light, for a child is born.
Christmas is not merely the anniversary celebration of the birth of Jesus; it is the active remembering of what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and the promise of the coming completion of the reign of God. At Christmas, we proclaim not only the birth of Jesus but the birth of a new creation. Despite what the newspapers say, the way is made clear. The chasm between God and humanity is bridged because of the birth of Christ. And God’s reign of justice and peace has already begun.
Tonight, we hear the message of a world-transforming reign of righteousness and justice that is a radical prophetic claim. The main actors in this narrative are the shepherds, the unlikely messengers, but God does not always do things the way we think he is going to. God chose the shepherds to deliver his message; the lowly were to be the first to preach the good news that the Savior was born. God often chooses the least likely to deliver his message of hope and good news. God picked another lowly person in Mary Magdalene, who delivered the message of Christ’s Resurrection to the Apostles. Mary was the first evangelist!
God chose to take on humanity and be born of a woman, not in some palace but in a space borrowed from others with nothing but a manger and hay to lay his head upon. God chose to be born to a race of people in physical bondage in an economically depressed place to reverse the course of history; he has exalted the lowly and removed the powerful from their thrones.
Long ago, in the beginning, we read the story of humanity’s creation and how God walked with humanity in paradise. At some point, humanity disobeyed its creator, and that relationship was cut off, and humanity was cast out. After that, God continued to send messengers of hope seeking reconciliation with his creation, but we turned a deaf ear. But when Christ was born, that chasm was removed, and once again, God walked with his creation. God became flesh and dwelt among us. God became human that we might become like God. This idea, this incarnation, amazes me that God would humble himself and take on our existence not to punish us but as an expression of the love that he has for each one of us. God no longer sent prophets to tell us how much he loves us; God came in the flesh of Jesus Christ to show us just how much he loves us.
Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, says, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) In other words, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God!
The message of tonight, the message of the Gospel, is that God loves each of us just the way we are. The birth of Christ ushered in a new way, a new of thinking, a new way of acting, and a new way of believing, and a radical form of love. Through the centuries, the Church has not always been good at proclaiming the good news, but we are getting better at it. The good news is that God loves each of us and forgives us unconditionally.
We have lit one candle on our advent wreath during the four preceding weeks, and tonight we light the center candle, the one we call the Christ candle. Light is a powerful force in the darkness, and tonight we are called to be that light. We are to take not only the light but the warmth that the small flame gives off; that warmth is the love of God for each and every one of us. We cannot simply take that light with us; we have to take it with us and share it with others so that the light spreads and the warmth of God’s love spreads to everyone.