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"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 Christmas."

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 Many."

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 telling.

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 Mary.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia . Merry Christmas. Amen