Christmas Eve Vigil

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.

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