Christmas Eve 2018

Isaiah 9:2-7

Luke 2:1-20

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan


I’ve been fascinated this season about the argument over the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  Some say it is sexist and others say it is, well, just a song and besides that reflective of the culture of 1944 when things were different. Apparently this argument has gotten quite heated over the past couple of weeks including a lengthy article I read in The New York Times.  I don’t really have an opinion about that.

My favorite Christmas song is the melancholy Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is the most unusual of all Christmas songs. You may know the history of the song. It was deemed the most depressing Christmas song ever written until Judy Garland and later Frank Sinatra convinced the writers to change the lyrics to something a little more upbeat.  But did you know there is theological statement in the introduction?

“Christmas future is far away, Christmas past is past, Christmas present is here today, Bringing joy that will last.”  That’s eschatology!

Eschatology is the study of the end times.  Eschatology is that area of theology where we ponder the second coming of Christ or the apocalypse or the end of the world. “Dooms Day" is the secular version of this.  Now, I’m sure you’ve heard of that since more than half of all movies available for streaming these days are based on this “end of the world” theme.

But the theology of Eschatology is actually not just about the end, the second coming or even the first.  Theologians ponder how our awareness of the beginning, be it the Big Bang or Creationism, but just thinking about how the beginning of time in tension with the end of time puts us in the right mind to live into the present time.  Just thinking about the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end causes us to appreciate this moment, right now, the precious present.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas was written for a scene in Meet Me in St. Louis, in which a family is distraught by the father's plans to move to New York City for a job promotion, leaving behind their beloved home in St. Louis, Missouri, just before the long-anticipated 1904 World's Fair begins. The youngest, five-year-old sister Tootie has just found out this plan and has become despondent. In a scene set on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland's character Esther, sings the song to cheer up her little sister.  Maybe that’s what I love most about the song, even more that the reference to eschatology - it is a song sung to cheer a child.

But the original lyrics were dreary:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, next year we may all be living in the past.” Oh my, that is depressing. 

The story goes that Judy Garland insisted on changing the lyrics to cheer it up a bit so the writers (Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin) worked with her and this line became "Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

Ah, that’s better.

Frank Sinatra (for his “A Jolly Christmas” album of 1957) also insisted on cleaning up the line, "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow.” Insisting it wasn’t “jolly” enough, he had them change it to “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”  Most singers now sing both of these lines.

At Christmas time in 2001, just after 911, a group of artists put together a variety show for television to raise money for the families of the lost.  James Taylor sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas for that show with great feeling from the intention of the original song.  It was not meant to depress us.  It was meant to cheer us through simple reminders that we are here now and we love each other now and we can cling to each other now.

Christmas tends to bring with the season a bit of melancholy. But we keep trying to clean everything up at Christmas time. We want everything to be shiny and clean and perfect.  Perhaps that is good Advent practice of preparing for the Christ child, of getting everything gussied up and ready for the celebration.  But when we do this, we tend to sweep under the rug the messiness and brokenness of our lives - those places in our lives where we need the healing power of our Lord to come in.

Why would we try to hide that from God? - our messiness, our brokenness, even our melancholy.

There is a Lutheran pastor, Carrie Smith who has a parish in Jerusalem. She tells of the busy day Christmas week last year when she was carrying too much - groceries and presents in bags on one arm and balancing a poinsettia on the other. She was rushing through the streets of Jerusalem at the time school was letting out for the holiday. She was all caught up in the rush when a young boy approached her, stood in front of her and caused her to stop to encounter him. 

Now, I would have been fearful in this situation. But Pastor Smith decided to put down her shopping bags and set down the poinsettia and stoop down to greet this lad. The boy presented her with a green Christmas ornament.  It was broken. 

The side was cracked. It was apparently once shaped like a bell. The top, where a hook might go was completely missing. Smith said that her two-second judgment was that this kid, seeing a responsible-looking adult, was picking up trash from the street and being helpful. It reminded her of what her own kids used to do when finding something weird on a walk to the park. “Here, Mom—I picked this up, and now I don’t know what to do with it. So you take it.”

So she looked at the boy and smiled and said, “Harbani!” “It’s broken.”

As soon as she said it, she knew she had miscalculated. The boy looked at the cracked bell in her hand, and then back at her. He still said nothing, but his body language needed no translation—hands, shoulders, deep brown eyes all said, “But…it’s for you.”

This was a gift, for the pastor. Broken, but for just for her.

Before she had a chance to make amends, the boy was off, running down the street toward the other boys. But she quickly held up her gift and yelled to him, “Shukran! Kul sane wa inta salam!” Thank you! Merry Christmas!

The boy stopped and swung around to look at her. And a huge smiled flashed across his face as he shouted, “Wa inti salme!” And also for you! And then he was off in a flurry of after-school joy.

The meaning that Smith made of this was to ponder the nativity sets we cherish in the West.  “In our nativity scenes and on our Christmas cards, Mary always looks serene. Joseph has everything under control. The stable has apparently just been cleaned. And the baby Jesus—well, no crying he makes! All is calm, all is bright.”

But that’s not real, is it?

What’s real about this season is that it is bitter sweet for most of us.  There are moments we each encounter of melancholy.  So sad Christmas songs like Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas fit and tend to comfort.

The day of my interview last January, when I was hoping to be called to be the next Rector of Grace Church, there was an ice storm.  It was also the day we buried our beloved Bob Jordan.  It seemed an ominous day, not a good day for a job interview.

But, like the good people of Grace parish always do, (and this is true too of Christ Church, Pulaski!) we persevered and we kept the schedule and the search committee met with me anyway.  And alls well that ends well, as the saying goes.

But there was a moment in that two day marathon of meeting most of the parish for the first time, a moment I will not forget.  The search committee was gathering outside of the Fourth Street entrance to the Vest Building, the door to our parish offices where there are eight or ten concrete steps.  It was after dark and I can’t remember if we were coming or going but there we were, all of us, wrapped in our warmest winter clothes only I had on the wrong shoes.

I wanted to dress up for the occasion and wore my only heels, well, a low wedge heel actually. They were new and black suede. These were my favorite shoes but not the best shoes for icy conditions.  Every other practical Virginian in our group was wearing boots, but not me! So as we attempted to traverse the icy steps, I began to slip and slide and we literally began to cling to each other.  Several folks wrapped their arms around me and helped me steady my footing.

We made our way slowly, laughing and holding each other.

This is the way we should always make our way in the church.  When times are tough, when even our most festive season seems melancholy, we were meant to cling to each other, to laugh and to persevere.

There’ve been many stories of challenge that I encountered this week. There was a story on our parish Facebook page about a couple who came home to a home that had been burglarized and the thieves took everything, particularly keepsakes from their young daughter who had died a couple of years ago.  Much of social media is packed with sad stories of missing persons, losses and heartaches.  Much of television and movies and books we read and certainly the news are full of divisions and anger and grief.  We all have encountered the struggles of life as we have plowed through this season.  It seems that Christmas has become a season of resilience when even if things are pretty good in our lives, we are tugged at every corner by the troubles of the world.

This is our brokenness.

It is a long list of grievances and sins and losses.  This is because of our Fall from God’s Grace as told by the prophet Isaiah:  “Those who lived in a land of deep darkness--the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, the boots of the tramping warriors, the garments rolled in blood.”  This is the ancient list of hardships that the human race has faced since Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit.  These are the hardships of, “the people who walked in darkness.”  We walk in darkness still. And we long for the light of Christ.

But here is the Good News of this particular gospel reading from St Luke.  Here is the good news of the Christmas Story.  It is found in the rest of that passage from Isaiah.  If you take out all the bad phrases in this list which I just cut from the rest of the verse and read to you, if you take all that stuff out about hardships and oppression, you are left, essentially with this:

The people who walked in darkness . . .

On them light has shined.

(God has) multiplied the nation,

(God has) increased its joy;

they rejoice . . .

as with joy at the harvest,

as people exult when dividing plunder.

For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

We bring our problems to this altar each time we break bread together.  We cling to each other whenever there is heartbreak, loss, disappointment.  This is our brokenness, and this is the way that we are most able to be open to receive the Christ Child.  We are opened up by our brokenness so that we can let him in.

So friends, live into the mess of Christmas.  Take a look around at those who are hurting and just muddling through, and never forget that the true joy of Christmas is actually in the brokenness of our world because that is where the light of Christ shines through.

And have yourselves a merry little Christmas -