Christmas Eve (late service) December 24, 2010

Isaiah 9:2-7                                                                          

Titus 2:11-14                                                                       

Luke 2:1-20

St. Matthew’s Church in Evanston, which I served before coming here, used to take Christmas Communion to residents of a local nursing home. We got lists from all the North Shore Episcopal parishes of their people in the home and we’d split the names up between me, the assistant priest, some associate priests, and our deacon. So that was how, one Christmas Eve, Fr. Michael Johnston, my assistant, found himself in the room of a gentleman in the Alzheimer’s unit of the home.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Smith,” Fr. Johnston said. “You’re a member of Christ Church, Winnetka, aren’t you? I’m here to bring you your Christmas Communion.”

“My what?” said Mr. Smith.

“Your Communion for Christmas,” explained Michael patiently.

Mr. Smith remained puzzled. “Communion? You have it here? Where?”

“Right here in the pocket of my coat,” Michael explained, pointing to the pocket where he carried his little Communion kit.

“In your pocket?” said Mr. Smith in wonderment. “You mean the choir and everything?”

Well, here we are, another Christmas Eve: the beautiful music, the masses of poinsettias, the crèche, the tree with its lights,  the candles – and Communion. The “and everything” part of this celebration is a reminder that the Incarnation – the mystery that we celebrate in Christmas, of God become truly human in the person of this Holy Child – that the Incarnation makes all things holy. That God is not locked away up in the sky somewhere, nameless, faceless, an abstraction or hypothesis, but rather that God is present in my life and yours, in our relationships with others, in our struggles with ourselves, in distant Afghanistan and in the homeless encampments along the river in Concord, at hospital beds and in prisons. Because this night is holy, all time and all places, all people, all creatures are holy. And thus the music and the flowers, the candles and the tree, the “everything” of Christmas – the beauty of holiness that goes with this night.

I have celebrated the Eucharist I don’t know how many times, trying to reckon them up, probably more than 2000. Not as many as Bishop Walmsley or Fr. Beliveau, but many. And still I am struck, and at no time more than Christmas, by what it means to say – as Jesus told us – that in the Bread, “this is my Body,” and in the Wine, “this is my Blood.” Think of what that really means. It means that the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, the Bible and the Church rites and liturgies and all the arguments down the centuries about doctrines and morality – they are all secondary. At best, secondary. What is primary, all that is essential really, is that we know that in this Bread and in this Wine, Christ is really and truly present with us. This is what Christmas is all about.

There is a little prayer that the priest sometimes says over the Gifts as they are brought to the Altar: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation; through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made / this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become for us the Bread of Heaven / the Cup of Salvation.”

Do you catch what is being said: that God’s gifts and our human hands are both involved here, both involved in shaping the Bread and Wine that will become Christ’s Body and Blood? So it was in the stable at that first Christmas. The body of human Mary, her work in gestation, and the gift of God’s Spirit – both involved, both essential, in producing the Savior of the world. This is the mystery, this is the Incarnation, this is the “everything,” this is what we celebrate in Christmas.

So in a moment we will all celebrate this mystery in the Holy Communion. And we will all take a bit of the Body and a sip of the Blood, and in so doing we will all become Christ – he will be incarnate in us – and will go forth in his Name into the world.

This mystery is so tender, so fragile, so easily ignored or avoided, even mocked and ridiculed – like Jesus himself, the Babe in the manger, the Son of God on the Cross. But it is also so powerful, and has been down the centuries, because it is true. God is here, in “everything,” whether we see him or not.

There is an end to the story of Mr. Smith in his room in that Alzheimer’s unit so many Christmas Eves ago. Fr. Johnston brought his Communion kit out of his coat pocket, took Mr. Smith’s old, confused hands in his, and prayed. When he got to the Lord’s Prayer, Mr. Smith joined in – a bit uncertainly, but joined in. The memory of these words was still there in his brain. And then Michael took the small white wafer of bread, the Body of Christ, and placed it on Mr. Smith’s hand. “You eat it now,” he instructed. As Mr. Smith did, reported Michael, tears rolled down his face. Mr. Smith’s face and also, then, Michael Johnston’s face. Tears that embraced all the sorrow, but also all the joy, of all the world. I believe that Jesus too had tears on his face that day.

Christmas blessings on all of you, this day and every day to come.

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