2015 December 24
Until this moment, this used to be a secret: each year, each Christmas, I give the same gift to a certain group of people. It's not unknown to them, but it's been a secret among us until now, when I'm telling you.
Each year I give my colleagues here at church a small jug of maple syrup which comes from trees on my parents' property in southern Maine. A neighbor takes the sap from our trees each winter and boils it down in his shack nearby and then sells it back to us, which is the American way. My way is to share it each Christmas, year after year, without change.
Now I worry about this practice on two levels. First, I wonder if folks are starting to think that I have absolutely no new ideas ever, or that I don't respect them enough to think of a more personal gift, or that I am some sort of evangelist for sweet, sugary artisanal products with a hint of organic je ne sais quoi from Maine. That's one worry. My other worry is, what they will think if I stop giving them syrup? Some of them expect it. Will they think I'm changing, losing my affections, forgetful or daft?
A few of them are here so I'll know before long. All of them are precious to me, so I long to know.
If you've been here at NHCC to worship some previous year, or, frankly, if you've been almost anywhere in a Christian church for Advent and Christmas, you know that we don't change what we give tonight very much either. You are almost certain to hear Isaiah 9 and Luke 2 and almost certain to sing "Silent Night." Maybe you'd enjoy some new material. Haven't you memorized all this by now – don't you know already the flavor and the nature and the ingredient of God's gift? We always split the Luke reading to pause just where there is no room at the Inn, and then go on to the part about shepherds and angels and all later on. We always hold up our candles during Silent Night on the phrase “Christ the savior is born.”
Frankly, I can never hear this often enough or sing these songs often enough. Because out of their consistency comes also their surprise, their relevance, their transcendence and their challenge. Out of their consistency we receive the constancy of God's gift.
I think you know this: Bethlehem is so important for Jesus' birth because it's the home of David and the prophecy in Micah 5:2 says another savior will be born there as well. The manger is so important to Luke because it's the place of divine presence in Isaiah 1:3, which talks about knowing God, and Jeremiah 14:8 describes the savior who finds no room at the Inn. The familiar bits in Luke all come from familiar bits by other prophets, too. So not only do we not get new material on Christmas Eve: this material is even older than many of us consider.
So these bits are not new, either: It takes visiting strangers from the East for us to understand who we are as followers of Jesus. All witnesses to his birth include assertions about light and peace being at the heart of God's gift. God's zeal is for justice across the earth. The angels sing about how people of good will are the ones who find the true meaning of incarnation. And while all this may not be new to us, we need it anew constantly, and we need it consistently given the events of the past year and the premise and promise that we're starting a new year tonight and tomorrow. We do love Christmas, and it is the revelation of how light and peace and justice and good will are what God loves into being and what God longs for us to be.
But there is one thing more. It's hidden in plain sight in the story that we can tell from memory. Jesus' birth, Christmas Eve – with the angels and the shepherds and all – is the one time when earth does not look to heaven for a sign of God's existence, but heaven looks to earth. We don't look for the angels tonight as much as they point toward us. So this is the time, this is the night for us to discover whether or not we get it, after reading it and singing it so many, many times before.
As it turns out I am a bit of an evangelist for sweet, original, organic gifts. Gifts not only in jug but sometimes a chalice. Not in a palace but in a manger. This is not changing. But we can all change how it inspires us. We can look to Bethlehem, still, for a promise that is not a secret. And while we look at candles tonight, and hold up our lights, the angels are watching us. The angels, the heavens, are watching us for what we do with this gift this year, next year, which is a huge challenge, as ever it was, but it is also precious, eternal good news of great joy for all people. Merry Christmas.