My mother died last year shortly before Christmas. It was a gentle death and so for her perhaps the best of Christmases. I recall, however, that during my childhood and early adult years, she was always hoping for the perfect Christmas Eve. It was a misplaced hope from the beginning. Sometimes the failure exceeded human control—the lemon pies didn’t set up, the meat was tough, the turkey dry. On one occasion the culprit was my father having stayed too long at a local watering hole. Sometimes it was my brother Porter who was the spoiler—high on drugs one Christmas, in prison for two, and dead on a third. One year it was her son, Mark, who played the troubler of Israel—declaring himself an agnostic and having no interest in attending the midnight service. So far as I know my mother’s perfect Christmas Eve never came in this mortal life.
Perfection in this world is hard to come by. And when it does occasionally show up—such as when a major league pitcher throws a no hitter retiring 27 batters in a row—it is only in one small compartment of life. That same man who delivered perfection on the mound may go home and end the evening in a conflict with his wife. The actor who delivers a perfect performance on film may not keep her marriage together or her children happy. We humans are a troubled and troubling lot. Nature’s riddle, wrote a sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, God’s problem children. As the Bible tellingly puts it: What we don’t want to do we do, and what we want to do we don’t do.
If our holiday observance is only about dinners and presents, eggnog and rum, nostalgia and home, than like my mother’s hope for a perfect Christmas Eve it is a futile effort. But, No! That is not the case: there are three ways we can make Christmas Eve if not perfect then at least good. These come down to us from the pages of the Bible.
First, a good Christmas Eve is when God’s Savior is received. Hear the words of the Angelic messenger: “Do not be afraid.” Though sin, guilt and shame lurk in the closets and storage rooms of our lives, though insecurities and imperfections are at every turn, and debts and failures abound—“…unto you is born a Savior….” The One born in Bethlehem, who lived a perfect life in obedience to his Father dying a shameful death bearing the sins of the world, and rose from the tomb in the power of the Spirit, is alive today. He speaks a word to each of us: “Behold I stand at the door and knock and if anyone hears my voice I will come into him and sup with him and he with me.” When we open to him, accepting his forgiveness, his perfection is draped over us and our true dignity is restored. In the words of a famous carol, “When charity stands watching/and faith holds wide the door/the dark night wakes, the glory breaks/and Christmas comes once more.”
Secondly, Christmas Eve is made good when God’s Truth is pondered and treasured. “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” What a gracious gift of God—to treasure and ponder the work and ways of God. Consider this, that when you were conceived in your mother’s womb someone who had never existed before came into being. Yet, when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary no new person came into being. Rather the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God entered into a world that was created through him, and by him, and for him. He was united to manhood forever. “God from all eternity willed to become man in Jesus Christ for our good; did become man in time for our good, and he will remain man in eternity for our good.” (Karl Barth)
Thirdly, Christmas is rightly observed when God is praised and his feast re-membered. “The Shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen as it had been told them.” The carols, choir anthems and liturgy are our offerings of praise and thanksgiving to the glory of God. Whether we sing on pitch or off-key, say the responses by memory or barely mumble the words, it is what we were created to do as our participation in the Christ Mass, the Holy Communion, which is his wonderful gift of himself to us.
All this is summed up well in the John Betjeman’s poetic lines:
“No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare—
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.”
Mark Joseph Lawrence
Bishop of South Carolina