Christmas Eve Meditation:
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC Fort Collins, Colorado
December 24, 2017
Why will 800 or 900 people struggle out through the cold on this night to come here to Plymouth? What is it that brings you here tonight? Is there something you expect to receive or to witness or to share in? What are you hoping for?
Maybe you’ve come for the music. Personally, Christmas carols are among my favorite types of music we make here in the church. And on Christmas Eve we literally pull out all the stops, are led by a wonderful choir, and are lifted up by the chiming of bells and the sound of brass.
Maybe you came because you feel as if coming to church on Christmas Eve is an obligation. You are home visiting your parents for Christmas, and you are here to be with them and you know they appreciate you being here.
Perhaps the reason you came is that indescribable feeling of peace you experience, even for just a moment or two, when the lights are down and the candlelight spreads from person to person, and there is a sea of light in the darkness of a cold winter’s night. And this year especially, when there is so much anxiety in our national politics, we all need to find a quiet, peaceful center.
There are multiple reasons for being here, and I would not presume to judge your motives for being here. I am just glad to see each of you here.
Whatever your reason for being with us tonight, you are most welcome in this place. And whatever reason you are imagining right now for being here in this place…I am going to suppose that somewhere in your experience, there is a longing for an experience of the sacred, of the holy, of the divine within yourself and among those who are gathered. Perhaps, like the magi – foreigners who set out across the desert, following a star – you aren’t entirely sure what you will find at the end of your trek tonight. Maybe you will sense a presence within yourself that wasn’t quite detectable before…maybe when you receive the elements of communion or when you boldly sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or when you lower your unlit candle over the flame held by the person next to you, or when you hear familiar Bible stories, or when you see the cast of characters in the nativity scene…maybe you will sense the presence of God in your midst.
This year, I had a wonderful sabbatical and was able to travel in Italy. And in the Roman Catholic churches where I visited or worshiped, the prevailing symbol of the faith is the crucifix: Jesus nailed to the cross. Symbols are important, because they are like road signs that point beyond themselves toward a larger reality that has not yet come fully into view. And if your dominant symbol is the crucifix, it speaks clearly of the death of Jesus and its importance in your faith. And a key interpretation –- one that I don’t share –- is that Jesus had to die to pay for your sins.
In many Protestant churches, you will see a cross without the body as the dominant symbol of our faith. It is the cross of the resurrection, so it conveys the idea that what is really important in your faith isn’t just that Jesus died, but rather that he is risen. So, it’s a symbol of hope.
The dominant symbols of two branches of the Christian household are symbols of death and resurrection…they are symbols from the last week of Jesus’ life.
I’ve been wondering, though, if we need a new symbol for our faith. One that gets at the marvel…the miracle…of Jesus’ life rather than his death. And I wonder, too, what is stirring within each of you right now…what brought your through our doors tonight. Is it that Jesus died or is it that he was born?
Over the millennia, the church has spent a tremendous amount of energy creating dogma and creeds so that the faith would “get it right,” as if “having the right answers” is what our faith is all about and that the church could do that for you. My guess is that your faith doesn’t center around the argument that Jesus is of one substance with the creator or that his mom was a virgin or that we saved by faith alone. In the lived reality of our faith, that’s sweating the small stuff! And when they were hammering out the Nicene Creed, they somehow skipped all but a few days of Jesus’ life. 1,700 years ago, the bishops at Nicaea jumped from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate” and they missed all of the good bits that happened in between! They missed Jesus’ 40-day vision quest in the wilderness, the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Good Samaritan, the healing of the blind man, and hundreds of pieces of subversive wisdom that Jesus shared with his followers.
Jesus’ life is filled with provocative, even dangerous stuff! No wonder the church has tried to avoid it! But in avoiding it, we have lost the treasure of our faith: knowing what it would be like if God took on human form; knowing what a human life utterly conformed to the will of God would be like. What would it be like for any of us – for you! – to be filled with the spirit of God?
When you think about it, this nativity scene boasts an unlikely cast of characters. God could have sent the angels to tell influential politicians of Jesus’ birth, but instead the angels told the shepherds, who were the off-kilter, antisocial people who lived with the smelly sheep up in the hills. God could have chosen a princess to bear Jesus, but instead chose an unwed teenage peasant mom betrothed to a guy who was good with his hands, but didn’t talk much. (He doesn’t get even a single line in the Bible.) God could have chosen to find them a nice birthing suite at a hospital in Bethlehem, but instead provides an innkeeper with a sense of compassion, who shows the very pregnant Mary out to a stable. What in God’s name was God thinking?
I don’t think it was unintentional. A king not born into political power and affluence, but on the ground with the lowest of the low, in a backwater village on the edges of the Roman Empire. What a life that baby was about to have…what a life.
So, maybe that’s why you and I are here tonight, to try and catch a glimpse of that child who was born for us and for all people. At the end of the day, Christian faith is not about doctrine or dogma or tradition or theology…it’s about a life…his life and your life.
Symbols are important because they point to a larger reality beyond themselves. So maybe the symbol of our faith doesn’t need to reflect death. Perhaps it needs to reflect life. How different would our faith be if we were to use the manger, the trough filled with hay to feed the animals, as the symbol of our faith. Maybe what each of us is hoping for tonight is that we will catch a glimpse of that life here in the manger, and here within each of us.
Let every heart prepare him room! Amen.
© 2017 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.