Christmas Eve Vigil
BY: Kathleen Norris
Scripture: Isaiah 62:1—5; Psalm 88; Acts 13:16—17, 22—25; Matthew 1:1—25
A WOMAN I KNOW, whose family owns a retail business in a small town, once commented, "Christmas is not a pleasant time at our house." I found this a sad commentary on what Christmas has become for so many of us: a time of increased anxiety and stress and discord. We lash out at loved ones because we're spending money we can't afford to spend, or, as with this woman, because Christmas is what makes or breaks our family's livelihood for the year.
What a mess we have made of God's greatest gift to us! We scurry for weeks, baking, shopping, working extra hours, rehearsing and presenting Christmas pageants. Then, on the eve of the Nativity, we force our frantic, over-stimulated children into their "best," most uncomfortable clothes, and we all rush off to church where we collapse into a pew. If we're lucky, we think, we can nod off listening to the lengthy recitation of Jesus' genealogy that opens the Gospel of Matthew. After that, it's playing Santa, and confronting those maddening "some assembly required" directions until the wee hours.
By Christmas Eve, most of us find ourselves very far from our true reasons for celebrating, reasons that are so eloquently expressed in the processional of the Christmas Vigil in the Byzantine rite: "Rejoice, Jerusalem! All you lovers of Sion, share our festivities! On this day the age-old bonds of Adam's condemnation were broken, paradise was opened for us, the serpent was crushed, and the woman, whom he once deceived, lives now as mother of the creator."
Here, in just a few simple words, is the essence of Christmas. It is not merely the birth of Jesus we celebrate tonight, although we recall it joyfully, in song and story. The feast of the Incarnation invites us to celebrate also Jesus' death, resurrection, and coming again in glory. It is our salvation story, and all of creation is invited to dance, sing, and feast. But we are so exhausted. How is it possible to bridge the gap between our sorry reality and the glad, grateful recognition Norris of the Incarnation as the mainstay of our faith? We might begin by acknowledging that if we have neglected the spiritual call of Advent for yet another year, and have allowed ourselves to become thoroughly frazzled by December 24, all is not lost. We are, in fact, in very good shape for Christmas.
It is precisely because we are weary, and poor in spirit, that God can touch us with hope. This is not an easy truth. It means that we accept our common lot, and take up our share of the cross. It means that we do not gloss over the evils we confront every day, both within ourselves and without. Our sacrifices may be great. But as the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, once said, it is only the poor and hungry, those who know they need someone to come on their behalf, who can celebrate Christmas.
Tonight we are asked to acknowledge that the world we have made is in darkness. We are asked to be attentive, and keep vigil for the light of Christ. The readings are not particularly comforting. Psalm 88, a lament which is also commonly read on Good Friday, is stark in its appraisal: "For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol," the underworld of the dead. The passage from Acts asks us to consider that, just as Israel needed God to lead them out of Egypt, so we need Christ to lead us out of our present slavery to sin. We, and our world, are broken. Even our homes have become places of physical and psychological violence. It is only God, through Jesus Christ, who can make us whole again.
The prophecy of Isaiah allows us to imagine a time when God's promise will be fulfilled, and we will no longer be desolate, or forsaken, but found, and beloved of God. We find a note of hope also in the Gospel of Matthew. In the long list of Jesus' forbears, we find the whole range of humanity: not only God's faithful, but adulterers, murderers, rebels, conspirators, transgressors of all sorts, both the fearful and the bold. And yet God's purpose is not thwarted. In Jesus Christ, God turns even human dysfunction to the good.
The genealogy of Jesus reveals that God chooses to work with us as we are, using our weaknesses, even more than our strengths, to fulfill the divine purpose. At tonight's vigil, in a world as cold and cruel and unjust as it was at the time of Jesus' birth in a stable, we desire something better. And in desiring it, we come to believe that it is possible. We await its coming in hope.
O God, who spoke all creation into being:
When you created human flesh, we betrayed you by our disobedience.
When you led us out of slavery in Egypt, we doubted and defied you.
Yet you chose to come among us through your Son, Jesus Christ,
who suffered death on our behalf, putting an end to the power of sin and death.
For this great gift of your steadfast hope, we give you thanks.
Help us, O Lord, to keep vigil this night.
Help us to watch for the signs of your coming into our midst, not in the splendid palaces of power, but in hearts humbled by need.
Help us to believe that the darkness of cruelty and sin will never overcome the light, and the mercy, of Christ.
Help us to endure, knowing that the evil and injustice of this world cannot
prevail against your Word.
We ask this in the name of your Word made flesh, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.