"O Holy Night"
by Rev. Susan Russell
based on Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
"O Holy Night" . it's finally here . the night we've prepared for,
decorated for, waited for and dressed up for. The night when we hear again the familiar
words, sing the familiar songs . rest in the security of the familiar message: REJOICE!
Look - the baby is in the manger - the shepherds, the angels and the Star . these are the
traditions that tell us it's Christmas again: and they surround us on this Holy Night . in
this Holy Season.
It's a time when beloved traditions abound - and die-hard. For most of us, there
are a few things that "it just wouldn't be Christmas without." - things that
sometimes defy logic or elude explanation -- brought home to me in no uncertain terms last
week when we were decorating the house . "decking the halls" with the familiar
"stuff" of Russell Family Christmases.
While unpacking the various bits and pieces, I came across the Santa Candle . a
jolly, rotund wax figure that had presided for many years from the top of the bookcase in
the living room. Every year, someone would ask, "Can we light the Santa Candle?"
And every year I would explain that if we lit the candle, Santa's hat would melt into
Santa's face . and there would soon not be much of Santa left for next year. Well, you
guessed it: last year "someone" had been unable to resist . and Santa was indeed
a shadow of his former self. After a moment of irritation at having my instructions so
blatantly disregarded, I tossed the half-melted candle into the trash bag without much
more than a second thought.
And that's where Jamie - who prefers to be "Jim" - my soon-to-be 18 year
old -- found him. "You threw away the SANTA CANDLE?" he asked in horror. And
dusting him off began to clear a space. "Look at him" I protested. "He's
half melted away!" But paying no attention to his mother, my 6'2" son carefully
placed the Santa Candle on the shelf. "He ALWAYS goes on the bookcase!" he said.
And so, there he sits.
There was in that beat-up, half melted Santa Candle something that speaks to Jamie
of what is valuable, dear, worth preserving in a Christmas tradition. It tells me that the
seeds his father and I have tried to sow throughout his childhood have taken root in this
almost adult . seeds that say family matters, traditions matter, CHRISTMAS matters. And
even if we can't see the final flower they'll take as he finds his own path, they give him
the foundation to find his own traditions as he grows and matures and changes.
For there are indeed few things more certain in life than change . and what a
challenge it is when what changes are the traditions that "make it Christmas"
for us. My heart is very aware this night of those who are facing the challenges of that
kind of change . changes much greater and harder to reconcile than a melted Santa Candle.
Those who will spend a first Christmas without a loved one; those who are having to create
new traditions on the other side of a failed relationship; those who can't be "home
for the holidays" - who are away from all that is familiar: all that "makes it
For the shadow side of our beloved Christmas traditions is that we risk making
them more important than the message they represent. The danger of the Christmas story is
that it IS so familiar that we can lose the amazing impact of its glorious message in the
frenzy that surrounds the Christmas event. The culture is crazed, the media relentless .
the pressure to "get it right" is everywhere - from the Martha Stewart specials
to the department store ads. My heart ached this week for a woman who confided, "I
feel like I've flunked Christmas" - overwhelmed by how much there was left to do and
how little time there was left to do it.
It's ironic, isn't it, that the very season that offers the message of "Peace
on Earth, Good Will to All" brings instead "Stress on Earth, Bad Temper to
The challenge we face is to find ways to capture the wonder - preserve the power -
to "be like children" hearing it all again for the first time. And so we create
rituals - liturgies - traditions - that draw us again into the truth the transcends the
For Christmas is a Truth that is greater than the traditions it inspires: the
mystical longing of the creature for the creator -the finite for the infinite - the human
for the divine. It is a longing that transcends culture, religion, language and custom -
it is a longing that is represented for us as Christians in the baby in the manger - the
sudden, amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace: a God who loved us enough to become
one of us.
Yes, we manifest the wonder of Christmas in the gifts given, the meals shared, the
gathering of family and loved ones. But the greater wonder is a God who would risk
everything to come and live among us: a God who chose to be born to teenage parents in a
small town in an occupied country. This is a good time to ask that old question:
"What child is this?" What child is this who, laid to rest, On Mary's lap is
sleeping. Whom angels greet with anthems sweet While shepherds watch are keeping. This,
this is Christ the King Whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste, haste to bring him
laud, the babe, the son of Mary.
"What child, indeed": imagine having to ask! Can you remember the first
time you heard the story? I can't. Can't remember not knowing about babies and mangers,
shepherds and angels, Santa candles and presents under the tree. What would it be like to
ask, "What child is this." and not already know the answer? Well, about four
years ago, two Americans were invited by the Russian Department of Education to teach
morals and ethics from the Bible in an orphanage where there were over 100 boys and girls
who had been abandoned or abused.
It was nearing Christmas and they told the story of Joseph and Mary and Jesus .
the Angels and the Shepherds and the Wise Men . for the first time! The children and
orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened. After they finished the story, the
children were given simple materials so that each child could make his or her own nativity
scene. They used small pieces of cardboard to make a manger. Yellow napkins were shredded
to make the straw. Flannel became swaddling cloth and a baby was cut from felt.
As the children were busy making their nativity scenes, one of the teachers walked
among them to see if they needed any help.
Misha sat at one table - a 6 year old with his completed nativity set proudly in
front of him. As the teacher looked at the little boy's manger, she was startled to see
not one but two babies in the manger. Calling for the translator, she asked Misha why
there were two babies. Misha crossed his arms in front of him and began to repeat the
Christmas story. The teacher was amazed . for such a young child who had only heard the
story once, Misha told it with great care and detail: until he came to the part where Mary
put the baby in the manger.
Misha said, "And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me
and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mama and no papa, so I don't
have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I
couldn't, because I didn't have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted
to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had maybe I could use for a gift. I
thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, "If I
keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?" And Jesus told me; "If you keep
me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me." So I got into the manger
and then Jesus looked and me and he told me that I could stay with him for always."
In a single telling of the Christmas story, Misha found Jesus and claimed him as
his own: the orphan yearning for a home found one in the cradle of a King. For always. And
that is the promise of Christmas: the promise we claim tonight and celebrate with our
beloved traditions. The promise that wherever we are this Christmas Eve, we are home.
So bring him incense, gold and myrrh, Come peasant, king to own him. The king of
kings salvation brings Let loving hearts enthrone him. This, this is Christ the King Whom
shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of
Thanks be to God. Alleluia . Merry Christmas. Amen