Isaiah 52:7-10; Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20
Those words ended every Christmas Eve service at Westminster during the last half of the 20th century. It was a tradition begun by Dr. Arnold Lowe in the early 1940s. The words made clear that the pageantry of this night had finished and what Howard Thurman called the work of Christmas had begun. That work has been to defy the unkindness and injustice of every age.
But first we have to tell the story, and any good Christmas pageant tells it in a way that invites us in. It happened again last week, right here in the sanctuary, when the children of the church reminded us that the birth of Jesus offers a doorway into wonder.
Shouldn’t this night do that for all of us?
The kids were decked out in shepherds’ robes and sheep costumes, angel wings, and the splendid garb of wise ones from east. There were seven Magi – one of them wearing a Groucho Marx disguise – and the eight shepherds outnumbered the six sheep. Mary and Joseph sat proudly with sweet little baby Jesus, being coached from a pew by his other mom on how to comfort him when he started tuning up.
It was a most wonderful telling of the story. The children played their parts well – the angels shouted their Glorias from the highest heavens. The shepherds were dutifully afraid at the sound but soon got over it and went to find the child, bringing their sheep along to see the baby. Gospel writer Luke forgot that detail, and he also skipped the part where the angels came down from the balcony to follow the shepherds to the manger. They wanted to see this one whose birth they had sung.
The Magi soon slipped out of Matthew’s gospel and joined them all, showing up a little early with their gifts, but by this point no one was quibbling over the chronology. Right on cue an eight-year-old King Herod expressed loud displeasure at the threat the baby represented.
Having marveled suitably at the child and his parents, the shepherds returned to their fields, the angels fluttered off to sing another day, and the Magi went home by a different route. The work of Christmas had begun, and all of us in the room felt a stirring in our hearts.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Isaiah was right.Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. We had just witnessed the birth of hope. Not only in the manger, and not only in the lives of the children, but in our lives, and in this tired, tension-filled, fearful world.
British composer Anne Quigley’s simple hymn captures the yearning we feel at Christmas: There is a longing in our hearts for you to reveal yourself to us. There is a longing in our hearts for love we only find in you, our God.
The narrative we celebrate this night is about so much more than what happened long ago in a little town in ancient Palestine. If Christmas is to have any impact, any meaning, any chance at all, we need to walk through the doorway and into the story with the shepherds and angels, the magi and children, and all who open themselves to the possibility that there is more to life than meets the eye and bruises the heart.
We – you and I – can too easily become a hindrance to the good news of great joy for all the people. Our need for certainty and control gets in the way. Our antipathy toward that which we cannot explain creates an obstacle. Our refusal to trust in something beyond ourselves is a serious stumbling block.
We need imagination to make it to the manger. Our insistence that all mystery be clarified causes us to lose our way – and sometimes even our faith – on the road to Bethlehem.
“Imagination is not simply about making things up,” Anglican priest Malcolm Guite says. “It’s about synthesizing everything… Imagination is a way of knowing…It’s about seeing the whole.”
It used to be common for people to describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Given the latest surveys of American views on religion it’s becoming more like “skeptical and not spiritual, let alone religious.” The Christmas story invites us to imagine something else – to imagine another way of seeing things. It suggests that life is more than our own limited view of the world, that love gives us courage to face any circumstance, and that hope is born when and where it is least expected.
“We don’t have to choose between science and religion,” the Rev. Guite says, “Between reason and imagination…C.S. Lewis…said that reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.” (Tish Harrington Warren: Putting the Poetry Back in Christmas; NY Times, Dec. 11, 2022)
The Christmas story, especially when told by children, brings us to the doorway into wonder, and then invites us to take a step through it. We hear that invitation in the carols of this night. We see it in the beauty of a congregation gathered. We sense it in the light that shines in the darkness. Christmas refuses to be intimidated or cowed by our reluctance to live into that which we cannot see or adequately describe.
Love and hope are not measurable, but they are among the most powerful forces on earth. The light will not be cut off. The joy will not be suppressed. The world will be changed. That’s the lesson of every Christmas pageant – we never know exactly how it will turn out, but we can always count on love and hope finding their way into the world in the life of the child born in Bethlehem.
That tiny Herod had it right. What the angels sang, what the shepherds saw, what the Magi understood, what you and I have come to celebrate this night, doesthreaten to undo the cruelty and brokenness and violence of our world. The baby in the manger is the rising dawn after the anxious night, the great light Isaiah saw coming.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood, he said, shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
- K. Chesterton called it the “submerged sunrise of wonder.” Without it Christmas stops tonight – and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, and all the days that follow will not escape the dreary despair that has settled on the world and in our hearts.
Fear not, the angel said, for I bring you good news of great joy. That news was a mere hope for centuries, held by generations of God’s people. It sustained them through the long night. But now the Light has come. Now the Transcendent has become the Immanent. Now hope has entered the story.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.
Tonight, let’s use our imagination and go with the children into the pageant, to hear the angels and watch the shepherds, to journey with the magi and find the child, and share the astonishment at this good news for all the people – and then let’s go do the work of Christmas!
To God be the glory.