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Friday, December 24, 2010

On the Eve of the Nativity

The shopping is done. The presents are wrapped and under the tree. Tonight's meal is finished, including the dessert.

I am waaaaay ahead of myself.

That's because I'm not preaching this year. Normally, I would be writing five or six sermons over the end of Advent and Christmastide. This year, I am freed from that responsibility.

Tonight, I'm presiding at the 10:30 pm service at All Saints', Rehoboth Beach. The rector is preaching, as the rector should.

So, I spent a little time going over some of the sermons I've preached in years past. I think this one, from 2003, is my favorite so far.

So, I'll leave you with this meditation on the Eve of the Nativity whilst I tend to some last minute detail I haven't yet considered needs to be done.

This, and my prayers for a most Blessed Natal Feast for you and all those whom you love and pray for this night, and always.
“But wait!”
The Eve of the Nativity of our Lord - December 24, 2003
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chatham, NJ
The Rev’d Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

There’s no way around it. This is a magical night. A night when the story we’ve all heard since before we can remember is told again, and we are caught up in it again as if for the first time.

Many of us know the lines by heart:
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus . . .” “And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes (or bands of cloth) and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. . .” We know what’s coming and yet we hang on every word - the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night . . the angel of the Lord . . . a great multitude of heavenly hosts singing Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace. . .”
Other than the story of Noah’s Ark and all the animals, two by two, or the sacred story of Moses saying, “Let my people go!” the story of the Nativity of Jesus is probably the one story from the bible that is most and best known.

And yet, how many of us get the real message of the story? Beyond the romanticism and nostalgia, how many of us understand the power which fuels this story and makes it so enduring?

The Rev. Bill Coffin, former pastor at Riverside Church in NY City, loves to tell of an event that occurred one year during a Christmas pageant. It was Christmas Eve and the pews were packed. The pageant was underway and had come to the point at which the innkeeper was to turn to Mary and Joseph with the resounding line, “There’s no room at the inn!”

Never mind that no figure of the innkeeper actually appears in scripture. We’ve all imagined him delivering the message of no room, of in-hospitality to the baby Jesus and his parents. And it seemed the perfect part for Tim, an earnest youth of the congregation who had Downs Syndrome.

Only one line to remember: “There’s no room at the inn!” He had practiced it again and again with his parents and with the pageant director. He seemed to have mastered it. So there he stood at the front of the sanctuary, bathrobe costume firmly belted over his broad stomach, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. They approached him, said their lines as rehearsed, and waited for his reply.

Tim’s parents, the pageant director and the whole congregation almost leaned forward as if willing him to remember his line. “There’s no room at the inn!” Tim boomed out, just as rehearsed.

But then, as Mary and Joseph turned on cue to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled, “But wait!”

They turned back, startled, and looked at him in surprise.

“You can stay at my house!” he called.

Well, Tim had effectively preached the sermon at Riverside Church that Christmas Eve. As Rev. Bill Coffin, the pastor, tells the story, he strode into the pulpit, said, “Amen,” and sat down.

It was, he said, the best sermon he never preached.

No such luck tonight, folks.

The Christmas pageant here, like many places, has now become the Epiphany pageant - after the hustle and bustle of the Christmas rush. After the recitals and the plays and the concerts. After the gift exchange and the broken toys and the dead batteries. When we have one more opportunity to listen - really listen - and hear the story without the maddening distractions of the kind of Christmas imposed on us by our culture and society.

The Christmas story the Gospel wants to proclaim is the one little Tim at Riverside Church in New York City got just by living into it. It’s the story of the world saying, “No” and the church saying, “But wait!”

It’s the story of rejection being met with acceptance. Refusal being met with reception. It’s the story of society’s aloof indifference and people of faith being moved with compassion.

It’s the story of the world saying, “You can’t stay here” and Christians saying, “But wait!” It’s the story of God coming among us to save us so we might be the vehicles of salvation for ourselves - and each other.

You don’t get to hear that part of the story by just sitting back and listening to it or watching it unfold. You get to hear that part of the story by living out the story - living into the story - and understanding yourself, even today, as one of the characters in that story.

What that little Downs Syndrome boy named Tim learned that night was that he, even he, had a part to play in the ever- unfolding drama of salvation history.

Perhaps this is the real attraction of this story for us. It keeps pulling at us until we are into it - living it out.

I urge you, in the midst of the romance and nostalgia of this night, to consider the part you have to play.

You may be called to be like Mary, the theotokos, the God-bearer. Or one of the shepherds or the others who keep watch by night.

Or Joseph, called to be faithful and steadfast in the midst of things you can not understand and might even make you angry.

Or the Inn-Keeper, called to provide hospitality when there is no more room.

Or the Christ child, small and vulnerable and dependent, and yet filled with unimaginable potential. Or any one of the unnamed and unremembered people who were present to and participants in the revelation of the Incarnation of God.

There’s no way around it. This is a magical night.

Who knows how you will be touched by this story this year - or where it will touch you? It may tap into a deeply hidden memory of an experience of your own rejection. Or, the deeply buried pain of loss and fear. Or the slumbering recollection of your own spiritual hunger.

Listening more closely to this story may move you to listen more deeply to your own story - or that of another - and you may hear there a call to do something. To wipe a tear. Pat a shoulder. Extend hospitality, or kindness or compassion you didn’t even know you had.

And in that moment, the real magic will occur.

You may find you have another line in the great play of your life. “But wait!” you’ll say. And in that moment, the magic that is Christmas will come alive in your life.

In that moment the Christ child will be born again - in the humble manger of your own heart - where you will be astounded to discover that there room enough to take in and transform the world.



Thomas Thurman said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

it's margaret said...

Merry Christmas Elizabeth!