For the past month I have been talking about awe and wonder as a Christian virtue. We need to have that feeling of being pulled beyond ourselves so that we can point to the God who is beyond us as the church. I have challenged the congregation to think in terms of the scope of time, giving everyone a rock and imagining the millions of years that have led to this moment, this rock in their hands, God present for it all. I have invited people to think about the wondrous and amazing nature of creation by looking at the variety of life in our world, animals that are strange and amazing and, as with the running octopus, seem a little silly. In my writing on the capecodlutheran blog, I have challenged the trend of artificial wonder in the church, sounds and settings with the goal of making people feel a certain way.
I am a big advocate for finding wonder in the ordinary, letting awe and wonder be a part of our daily lives, however you get there. And then I thought about tonight and the things we do around Christmas, especially that moment about twenty minutes from now when we will dim the lights, pass the flame from candle to candle and sing “Silent Night.” A similar action will take place in congregations around the world tonight. We don’t do it because it is some church law, nor because it can be found in the stories of scripture. I was never taught to do this in seminary worship classes and yet every congregation I have served has it as part of their Christmas tradition. Jesus never says, “When you celebrate my birthday, I want you to pass out candles and sing a pretty, German song.”
Rather it is a tradition that developed because it makes people feel a certain way, a certain warmth, a certain wonder. In many ways it is a reflection of the nature of the story of Jesus’ birth. We dim the lights and sing by candlelight. We dim the lights and sing by candlelight not just because it is pretty, but because we have this understanding of Jesus as the light in our darkness. As John wrote in his introduction to the story of Jesus, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This is the nature of the gospel story. The Son of God arrives in a broken world, a world longing for a clear vision, for a new dawn, daybreak after a long night. Now in many a sermon tonight pastors will now launch into a section on how awful things seem to be. This is kind of a manipulative move. We do it so that we create some tension in the sermon so that you can be uplifted at the end and really feel a need for the baby in the manger. I am not going to go into a full spiral of angst. You know how things stand: the international tension, the general lack of civility, the levels of impatience, anger and general rudeness that seem to have become acceptable. Perhaps another reason we want to dim the lights is it feels like we are stepping away from that world for a few moments.
I suppose this is also why we sing a song like “Silent Night” as opposed to “Joy to the World” in the candlelight. “Silent Night” feels a little more like a lullaby sung to a baby, but I think this song has had such resonance because it reflects the strange nature of the birth of the Son of God. Much of the way the story of the birth of Jesus as told in Luke is in opposition to the stories of the births of the great and powerful of Jesus’ time, and the mythic stories of the children of gods. Because we tend to combine the accounts of Matthew and Luke, we miss that in Luke’s story, the signs and wonders are very local, shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem have this amazing experience with angels proclaiming the good news, but no one of importance hears it. To most of the world, the birth of Jesus was unremarkable, or remarkable for its lack of wonder: poor parents, poor conditions, attended by poor shepherds. This is not the story of power and wealth, trumpets blaring and mandatory celebrations. Jesus is born in Bethlehem and nobody that matters is aware.
It is the lack of remarkability that can lead us to a place of awe and wonder, of quiet appreciation by candlelight. This is something that the folks who talk about a war on Christmas don’t understand. The greatest mistakes and the greatest shame within Christian history have arisen at those times when we have failed to follow the example of Jesus. They are the times when Christians have wanted to dominate, be the greatest tradition, be the best religion. The marvel of this night is that this night was unremarkable. The Son of God sneaks into the human world and barely anyone notices.
But that is going to be the nature of the story of Jesus. He will give an example and invite you to follow. He will walk by the Sea of Galilee and invite fisher folk to walk with him. He will turn away from power and dominance and invite others to kindness and caring. He will forgive those who hurt him. He will welcome those who repent. He will teach us to see the world in a new way that is shaped by hope, peace and lovingkindness. He will do this without insulting you or badgering you, commanding you to anything but to love God and love one another.
The events we celebrate tonight are the first example of what Christian life looks like and feels like. It is about humility, a humility that happens because you don’t need to be the best or the first, a humility that is grounded in knowing the love of God as a constant. It is about peace, peace in all circumstances, even when things are imperfect and unremarkable. It is about comfort and joy. These events are worthy of our praise, and as we sing “Joy to the World,” after the sermon, we acknowledge the greatness, the wonder, the world-changing nature of the nativity, the reign of God breaking into humanity.
But first and foremost, this night is about love, the love of a mother for her child, the love of God for humanity, a love that gathers us together. And I think this tradition of candlelight at Christmas is a reflection that the church is not only served by explosive, angels in the sky, praise , but also by simplicity and quiet, a community gathering by candlelight to pay close attention to a child no one noticed at the time, the Son of God in swaddling clothes, the Son of God lying in a manger. On a silent night; a holy night, Christ is with us.