Christmas has a kind of heavy lift to do this year, doesn’t it?
The church, of course, has a particular understanding of what the Christmas story means, and the rest of the “Santa, Baby” world has a somewhat different one.
Either way, it’s tricky to navigate what that ought to look like in this particular year.
If you think about it, there might even be a certain defiance in celebrating.
Let’s be careful how we talk about defiance, of course.
Faith reminds us that all truth is ultimately God’s, and this year, some are taking God’s truth as it is known specifically through science and throwing it to the wind.
Let’s not endorse that.
I’ve always believed that, though they speak in different voices, true faith and good science are eternally friends.
So if we acknowledge a certain defiance in celebrating Christmas, let’s be clear that the defiance I’m talking about is of a more private kind.
Because there is a measure of defiance in decking the halls and all the rest, particularly when the audience for all that festivity…all that effort…might only be one or two people instead of the usual gang.
As in Camus’ retelling of the myth of Sisyphus, there is something noble in our integrity, whether or not anyone else sees it.
We may be tired. We may be down. We may be in a less-is-more kind of mode in any number of ways this year.
But Corona cannot steal Christmas. Not if we refuse to let it.
That’s what I mean by defiance.
In some ways, it’s like we’re living in an odd, alternate version of that story about the Grinch.
You’ll remember that in the original story, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the Grinch sneaks from his lonely mountaintop hideaway down into the little town of Whoville.
With his own feverish zealotry, which is never a good look, the Grinch steals all the presents, and the decorations, and the contents of every icebox in town, all in a futile effort to keep Christmas from coming.
Eventually he learns that, in point of fact, he can’t stop Christmas.
Christmas doesn’t come from a store — because “Christmas, it seems, means a little bit more.”
Despite all the Grinch’s efforts, the Whos down in Whoville still have one another, which is what matters at Christmas and at every other time.
Of course, this has been in front of him all along, but it is only when he hears the Whos sing on Christmas morning, lifting their voices even in the midst of loss, that he finally understands.
His old Grinchy heart finally changes, and as Dr. Seuss tells us, the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes that day.
Now, I did not see any Grinches earlier this evening, here on the church lawn, when we had our own version of a Wahoo Chorus.
We gathered, bundled and masked and distanced and with great care, to sing a few Christmas carols together.
To spend just a little while together.
I can report that “Silent Night” is still beautiful when sung by the light of battery-operated candles, which looked like winter fireflies hovering in the darkness.
The children of the church and their families have also put together a lovely on-line service of Lessons and Carols, which you can find on YouTube, and if you have not yet seen it, we hope you will.
It is good just to have a glimpse of one another, and especially the kids, to help us remember and look forward to different days when it will be safe to gather again.
But I felt the absences, too.
Among many other things, Christmas Eve is a wonderful reunion of our church family – kids back from school, people back from other places, people with relatives visiting or with friends they’ve convinced to come along, not to mention others who just find themselves here.
One year, on the spur of the moment, a friend of mine from middle school flagged down a cab in Brooklyn and had it drive her all the way out here to Christmas Eve at 2CC.
This is not the year for that kind of profligate gesture.
With that in mind, even if Christmas doesn’t…shouldn’t…come from a store, that doesn’t change the fact that, by God, it needs to come from somewhere.
Maybe the Grinch was wrong, at least as far as this year’s Christmas is concerned.
If Amazon can send along the trimmings and the trappings and give us a nudge so that we might sing in the midst of loss, as do the Whos, God bless it.
Whatever it takes to see to it that our hearts do not shrink has got to be worth it.
It may be hard to remember right now, but one way or another, this is always the challenge of Christmas.
It was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.
The shrunken-heartedness of the world is the condition for which Christmas has always offered itself as a kind of vaccine.
And if we come into the season feeling especially vulnerable, in this or any other time, we would do well to remember that we are not alone in being so.
For starters, let’s remember that the baby in the manger knew a great deal about vulnerability.
Born to a young girl, chased into Egypt by a deranged king, later turned out of the synagogue in his hometown and nearly thrown off a cliff by his own village, to say nothing of Good Friday, it would turn out that the one put in the manger was not immune to much.
He was vulnerable, first to last.
In point of fact, that vulnerability was no accident.
The story is quite clear about this.
From the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, it is abundantly clear that Herod’s bluster and deep cruelty, his fixation on violence as a way to hide any sign of weakness, is the opposite of true strength.
By contrast, this baby who so terrifies Herod empowers his own parents, who are already vulnerable themselves in so many ways.
By the grace of God, the deep vulnerability of parenthood has made them strong but not hard.
His mother, especially, has already been through so much.
If you know the story, you know that she has so much more ahead of her.
But she will not close her eyes to need or her heart to God, even if it costs her dearly. Nor would Joseph.
In God, they find the strength to do what is right, even though almost any other course of action would have been far safer.
The same would be true of the adult Jesus, himself.
To Jesus, entanglements and obligations weren’t a form of diminishment.
They weren’t a weakness or something to get over.
What we owe one another, who was our neighbor, how we might bring forth God’s peace and healing into one another’s lives, where God would call us to mercy – these were the questions that shaped his days.
His answers were made clear in how he chose to live, and in how we do, as we seek to follow in his footsteps.
In a world made small by need and greed and fear, Jesus and his family show us what large-heartedness looks like.
Tonight, we remember that the shrunken-heartedness of the world at its worst is no match for the large-heartedness of God’s own Son.
For all the challenges of this past year, that is still true.
Admittedly, it might not feel especially true.
For many of us, the lights are not so bright this year.
Our losses have been many.
Jesus knew that what gives us the power to sing in the midst of loss isn’t that our losses are not real, but our trust that love is even greater.
It may seem strange to speak of that on Christmas, which we tend to think of as uncomplicated. As just sort of happy. Pleasant. Merry.
Some years, it is.
But speaking otherwise would not have been strange to the Whos down in Whoville, or to Scrooge, or to Rudolph, or Isaiah, or to Malachi, or to Micah, or to Mary or Joseph, and it would not have been strange to Jesus.
They all knew loss, fear and worry, too.
Nevertheless, they defied the power of those emotions and chose to grow where others thought it better to shrink.
Tonight is a night to lift that up.
Many years, we sing in the midst of blessings.
Others, we sing in the midst of loss.
Either way, sing we can and sing we do because of what Jesus teaches us: that love is worth it – worth even the risk and the pain – for nothing can truly defeat love, not an unjust king, nor a terrible, new virus, nor even death itself.
That is the defiant proclamation of Christmas.
Tonight, God comes alongside us in love, carrying our burdens in the divine heart, and looking to the day when all that has been lost will be redeemed and all Earth’s people one.
For all that might divide us, I’m sure that we are all looking to that day.
Even though so much seems different and diminished this time through, we’re looking to that day.
God came when he did and where he did and as he did to show us once and for all that no place and no person can ever be considered God-forsaken.
Tonight is the night when we especially remember that God’s love has not changed.
It never will.
As the hymn says, “Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings.”
Tonight, may every heart grow three sizes, and may the world rise, healed.Merry Christmas.