Christmas Eve Text: Luke 2: 1-20

This morning I opened my email to find these words that spoke to me in a big way. Not only do they speak to me but for me …
“We have a quandary,“ this woman writes. “We want a happy Christmas—a lovely, soft-lights time of giving and receiving love—but in the mix for most of us is a sticky glob of suffering. Our hearts are weighted by people we hear about in the news, our friends and family, ourselves.” So then she asks, what do we do with these “heavy pails of sadness and fear and loss. Shall we simply set them aside, as warring countries have done in order to have 24 hours of peace on Christmas, or does our suffering have a place in the Christmas story?” [1]

It’s a brave question on Christmas Eve, especially if we’ve arrived here tonight having made a decision beforehand to set the hard stuff aside, to not go there, because after all, tonight’s for joy, right?
I get it, that there are times when it’s fitting to call on that remarkable capacity we have to give ourselves to celebration even though sorrow is a very present companion. But I believe tonight is not one of those times that would have us hide the heaviness away. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. In fact tonight may be the perfect night to let the Christmas story meet us right where it’s hardest.

Here’s a personal story from my early 20’s.
For a long time (and there can be a long time even before you’re 20!) ... for a long time leading up to this moment I’m about to describe, I struggled with the question of how can there be a God of love when there is so much suffering in our world? Eventually I came to realize I wasn’t the only one asking the question For me, that question was like a massive boulder blocking the path of faith. If God truly is, then there can be no suffering … and what I do know is that suffering is for real. Meanwhile my deep regard for my parents, and the way they live this faith, helped me to somehow remain open.

In my early 20’s I found myself in crisis … struggling with what at the time were big life questions around integrity, identity, my future. One day I screwed up all my courage to go and actually speak with someone about myself, and that’s where it happened.  I can’t begin to tell you what this person said to me in response to whatever I shared with her. What I can tell you is that I was received with deepest compassion … and that as I walked home from that conversation, I recognized I had experienced Jesus. Somehow I knew to name what happened there “Jesus“! Not only that--there was this breakthrough in understanding: this is how there is both God and suffering in the world … God enters into our suffering in human flesh as compassion, as loving solidarity, making a way when there is no way.

Friends, this is the earthy, heavenly mystery we celebrate tonight … God-with-us -- Love-with-us in human flesh, making all the difference … not just once a long time ago, but again and again and again and again.

Dear knows what this “Jesus experience” was like for Mary on the night of his birth. But in the story we have from Luke’s Gospel of that night when shepherds came thundering into town in search of this new born child, we’re told that all were amazed at the good news the shepherds told them about this child -- that a saviour had been born … but Mary, the story says, treasured all their words and pondered them in her heart.

Here she is, this young ordinary girl in this humble place, holding this Jesus child … the one who draws down the love of God in a new and wildly vulnerable way. This is Mary in touch with the gravity of Love … that Love that is endlessly alive, and ever flowing --like water-- toward the lower place … the needful place … giving life.  This is Mary in touch with the gravity of God’s Love …the wonder of it … the abundance of it … that it would come to her and through her, that the world might be loved all the more fully.  And this is Mary in touch with the gravity of God’s Love … the costliness of it … this Love that holds nothing back as it ventures into a dangerous and hurting world.  No wonder Mary not only treasures the shepherds’ words, but ponders them in her heart.

Amidst all the horrific news coming out of Aleppo this month, I wonder if you’ve heard about the White Helmets … ordinary men and women from Syrian communities -- decorators, taxi drivers, bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, shop-keepers, painters, students -- people who have made the choice to pick up a stretcher and dig through the rubble, to come to the aid of those who have been buried, wounded by the bombing. And while countless times their efforts to save lives are in vain, still they persist … rescuing some 70,000 people, all the while working at significant risk to their own lives, exposing themselves to unthinkable horror and bearing the grief losing their friends.

What possesses them to move into places of such suffering?
Surely this is an expression of an other-worldly Love finding its way into human flesh … that inexhaustible Love, ever flowing--like water-- toward the lower place … the needful place … bearing mercy.  This is Love in all it’s gravity and grace … in all it’s wonder and costliness … this Love that holds nothing back as it ventures into a dangerous and hurting world.

This is the earthy, heavenly mystery we celebrate tonight …
Love-is-with-us in human flesh … not just once long ago but again and again and again in every body who says yes to such a Love.  Our mortal bodies are enough to experience and to bear the life-giving love of God.

“I cannot tell you how the Love comes

What I know
is that it is more ancient than imagining.

That it travels
across an astounding expanse
to reach us.

I cannot tell you how the Love comes
But that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way into the deepest dark that enfolds you,
though it may seem long ages in coming
Or arrive in a shape you did not forsee.

And so may we this night
turn ourselves toward it.
May we lift our faces to let it find us.
May we bend our bodies
to follow the arc it makes.
May we open
and open more
and open still
to the Beloved
who comes
again and
again and
again and
again." [2]

[1]  Kayla McKlurg, "God with us in suffering", posted on December 24, 2016

[2]  Jan Richardson, "How the light comes," (adapted) in Circle of Grace, Orlando: Wanton Gospeller Press, 2015