The Nativity of the Lord: Children’s Vigil Mass

Today’s readings
#christmasnd

Once upon a time, there was an old shepherd named Elias. He had been a shepherd for his whole life long, just like his father, and his father’s father. Being a shepherd was hard and lonely work. He took care of a large group of sheep and did his best to protect them from wolves and to keep them together. He would lead them by day from pasture to pasture, allowing them to graze, and bring them safely to market where they would give their wool for people to use.

Nights could be very lonely and sometimes scary. There was no one else to talk to, and he did his best to keep the sheep safe. Sometimes, if he listened hard enough, he could imagine the wind talking to him as it blew through the trees. That made him feel like he wasn’t so alone.

One night, as he was nearing the place where he and the sheep would spend the night, he saw a bright light up in the distance. He couldn’t help but wonder what was going on so he moved toward it. When he got close enough, he got the sheep settled down for the night and he went to check out the light and make sure there was nothing to worry about.

Other shepherds had done the same thing, and they all arrived to see the angel of the Lord, surrounded by the bright light of God’s glory. It was frightening to see, and Elias and the others just stood there, awe-struck, not knowing what to think.

Then the angel spoke to them. He said, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

Then the sky grew really bright as hundreds of angels joined in and began to sing: “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace to those on whom his favor rests!”

When the angels left, Elias and the other shepherds decided to travel the short distance to Bethlehem, the city of David, and to search out the Savior that the angel talked about. Bethlehem was a pretty small village, and so it didn’t take much looking to find the baby.

He was in a manger – a feed-trough for animals. His parents looked like ordinary people, but Elias knew that this baby was special, and that the family was holy. The angel was right: there was joy and peace here, it was a special feeling that Elias knew could only come from God’s blessing.

Elias never forgot that night. He went about taking care of his sheep, but whenever he was in town, he would try to find out about the baby he saw that night. He found out the boy’s name was Jesus, and he would often hear of wonderful things that Jesus said and did. When he was very old, Elias heard that people had turned against Jesus and they nailed him to a cross. But he also heard that three days later, he rose from the dead, and all of his friends were now starting to go out and tell the Good News about him.

Elias knew that Jesus was special from that very first night he saw him. He knew that Jesus had come to change everything. And he was right. Got changed everything then, and he continues to change everything now, if we let him. Jesus didn’t just get born two thousand years ago; Jesus is born right here, right now for us, if we would just make a little space, a little manger for him in our hearts.  Just as Elias didn’t know exactly what God had in store for Jesus, we don’t know what God has in store for any of us in the year ahead.  But we do know this: God sent Jesus so that He could be here among us, and he is here among us now, leading us back to him, telling us that we are his special children, and loving us all with love beyond anything we can imagine.

Things were hard for Elias and the other shepherds, and for Jesus and his family, and sometimes things will be hard for us too.  But all along the way, there are angels, guiding us to where God wants us, watching over us, shining the light, and helping us to find the Good News.  Today, God brings us here to worship, so that like those shepherds, we can find Jesus again, and we can see Jesus in those who love us, and in our own hearts.

The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Night and Mass of Christmas Day

Readings: Mass During the Night | Mass of Christmas Day

A few years ago, I saw a musical called “Children of Eden.”  It was composed by Steven Schwartz, who is probably more famous for composing “Godspell” and “Wicked.”  The premise of the musical is interesting: it’s the story taken from the first nineteen chapters of the book of Genesis, which basically takes us from the creation of everything up to the story of Noah and the great flood.  From a musical standpoint, it was beautiful, but from a theological standpoint, it was fraught with problems.

The first problem, I think, is that the story only captures the first nineteen books of Genesis.  That brings me to page twenty in my Bible, and my Bible is fifteen hundred pages long!  As the saying goes, we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet: God has not yet promised anything to Abraham, we don’t yet know about Moses and the Law, we’ve yet to hear from any of the prophets.  David has yet to sing the Psalms, and we certainly haven’t heard the miraculous story that brings us here tonight (today).

And with that very limited subset of the story of salvation, Steven Schwartz portrays an image of God that is, as anyone might expect, rather stunted.  The story ends with a frustrated God seeing that even the great flood can’t scare humanity back into obedience.  And in his frustration, Schwartz’s God throws up his hands and essentially says, “I’m done.”  God backs out of the picture, and the remnants of humanity realize that, alone now, if anything good is going to happen, it’s up to them.

And if Schwartz were right, we wouldn’t be here tonight (today).  Happily, we don’t believe in Schwartz’s God.  Because the God he casts in his musical is a God who is impotent and disinterested and completely uninvolved in his creation.  Kind of like a child who has made something out of Legos, and then become bored with them.  He has set the world in motion and then backed off, leaving his creatures to their own devices.  That’s not our God.

Our God can’t be wrapped up in nineteen chapters and just twenty pages.  Our God takes fifteen hundred more pages to describe and even that just scratches the surface.  Our God is committed and loving and completely good and holy and transcendent and immanent.  Our God is higher than the heavens, holier than the holiest we can imagine, goodness itself, love itself.  But our God is also here among us, Emmanuel, closer to us than we are to ourselves.  Far from backing off and leaving us to our own devices, our God walks with us and shares our joys and sorrows; he sees us through pain and celebrates our healing.  Our God is beyond everything we can imagine and more wonderful than anything we can hope for.

Our God is so invested in his creation that he made many interventions in human history to provide for our salvation.  Those interventions turned humanity’s hearts back to the Lord in moments of darkness.  Then, when the time was right, God brought salvation to the culmination of perfection.  One day in time, God sent his only Begotten Son to be our Savior.  He was born of the Virgin Mary, born a man like us in all things but sin.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Word, put on flesh and became one of us, perfectly human and perfectly divine.  That’s what we celebrate tonight (today).

As a man, he lived life as we do.  He grew and learned and made friends and became what he was meant to be.  He lived our life and died our death – literally dying the death we deserved for our many sins.  But his death was not the end; his death was shattered by his Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.  Because of his saving sacrifice, because of his Incarnation and Paschal Mystery, the Holy One redeemed our brokenness and made eternal life possible for all those who believe in him and live the Gospel.  That’s our God.

All of this is made possible because of the gift we receive on this most holy night (day).  That gift we call the Incarnation of the Lord: the glorious mystery of God taking on human flesh to save his people.  This gift of the Incarnation is the best Christmas present we will receive – it is the best gift of any kind that we will ever receive, because in the Incarnation we have what’s necessary for us to be saved.   This is so important a mystery and so great a gift, that at the words of the Incarnation in the Creed today, we are instructed to kneel, not just bow, as we usually do.  So we will kneel when we say the words, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”  And we kneel because we remember with great gratitude that if the Word didn’t become flesh, if he wasn’t born of the Virgin Mary, if he didn’t become one like us, if he didn’t pay the price for our sins, we would never have salvation, or hope of life with God.

God didn’t take on our form so that he could become less, he took on our form so that we could become more.  Tonight (Today), God becomes one of us and takes on all of our infirmities and weaknesses.  But in doing that, we ourselves become more than we could ever be on our own.  Our lowliness is filled with grace, our sadness is filled with rejoicing.

So as we gaze upon and adore our Lord in the manger, maybe we can take some of the items in that beautiful snapshot and see what will come for him as he grows older.  We see the shepherds, lowly men despised often by society, the marginalized ones who are the first to receive the message.  We see the wise men, those who in the wisdom they have received from God, are ready to give everything to follow Christ.  We see the angels, the messengers who urge us to take a second look at an innocent child who might not otherwise attract our attention.  We see his father Joseph, who will teach him the law, as a good father would, and help him to grow in the ways of humanity, which he so completely assumed.  We see his mother, who nurtured him in childhood and followed him in adulthood, becoming the first of his disciples.  We see the wood of the manger, a foreshadowing of the wood of the Cross, which will be the means of our salvation.  And we see and adore Christ himself, the Way, the wonder-counselor, our father forever, and prince of peace.

When we look at that manger scene with eyes of faith, we become different, knowing that Jesus paid an incredible price to bring us back to him, not just on the Cross, but even at his birth.  Human eyes can look at that manger and see with cynicism that he’s just like us, nothing special.  But eyes of faith look at the same event and see our God, wholly worthy of adoration.

And so, as we gaze on the manger, we know that Steven Schwartz was wrong about our God, and not only that, he is wrong about us.  We are not, as one of his songs says “lost in the wilderness;” instead our lives are bound up in the very life of our God, and his in ours, and we are precious to him as he is everything to us.  The grace of our God made visible will glory with us in our joys and sustain us in our sorrows.  The Lord who is born among us today gives us peace in our most gut-wrenching moments.  May our hearts be open to accepting the grace of his Incarnation, the grace of his most wonderful presence among us.