Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads
These are the familiar words of Christmas Eve in our cultural imaginations. Perhaps, even more familiar than the words we have read tonight from the scriptures. These familiar words were penned 193 years ago and have caught our imagination as the image of Christmas Eve. Our cultural imagination pictures a sweet and silent night of tenderness. Around the same time in history, another writer pictured Christmas with the same silence.
Silent Night has been a favorite for many. We take a look at a carol from the Gospel of Luke and a modern carol for encouragement as we wait for the birth of Jesus. In fact, Time magazine took this project on by exploring the US Copyright Office for every Christmas recording since 1978, when digitized registrations began. Silent Night has 733 digitized registrations, far ahead of even the next closest song at 391, Joy to the World. For many people, the highest moment of Christmas Eve is the singing of the carol and the lighting of the candles, which we will do later in the service.
198 years ago, the carol Silent Night was a composition of necessity. At the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, near Salzburg, in Austria, actors were to present the story of Christmas. The church organ was not working, mice had compromised workings. The presentation was made in a local home. Assistant pastor, Josef Mohr was reflective after a moving presentation and took a contemplative walk home. In looking down at the peaceful snow-covered village, he remembered a poem he had written about the angels’ announcement to the shepherds of the birth of the Messiah. In the spirit of inspired pastors everywhere, Mohr had a short amount of time to connect his poem with music. The organist, Franz Gruber composed a musical setting that could be played on the guitar. Silent Night was debuted that Christmas Eve and spread through the world from organ builder to singer to local congregations.
The glorious strains of Silent Night have told the story of the birth of Jesus for almost 200 years. In the Victorian era, singers found themselves wishing for silence and peace in reaction to the pain and brokenness of the Industrial Revolution and the social unrest over slavery. Writers offered calm and salve to readers and listeners. A desire to have an ideal Christmas in contrast to the pain the rest of the year.
In our time, we too have sought to salve our world’s brokenness and pain. We have turned from carols and poems of peace-filled harmony to ironic and sardonic critiques of culture. Have you seen the so-called ugly Christmas sweaters? Have you ever been to an ugly Christmas sweater party? Did you wonder where this trend from? Maybe we could point to Dr. Huxtable or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation for the appearance of the first ugly Christmas sweater. It was in 2002 that the first recorded ugly Christmas sweater affair was held in Vancouver, Canada. It is a seemingly ironic critique of fashion and switch from inclusive hope of Christmas to stratified irony that sets some as in and others as out. Perhaps, the wearers have no understanding of class-related division of their clothing and genuinely enjoy the attire.
These divisions are not new. This is the same world into which Jesus was born. Divided by imperialism and ethnic religious association, this is why the angels proclamation is still countercultural. Over 2000 years, we have heard the carols of the Gospel of Luke proclaim the birth of the Messiah through the songs of angels. Angels proclaim the birth of a baby boy of Mary and Joseph. Not in calm and subdue, proper and restrained tones, but rather in urgent and embracing songs of hope.
And even more, audacious salvation for all. The angels proclaim that this babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the feed trough of a cow, will bring salvation for all people. This is indeed good news of a great joy! Bold and brave salvation, not just for a few, but all of us. Those of who know all the songs and those of us who come once a twice of the year and mouth along. Those of us who wear ugly Christmas sweaters ironically and those of us who are still wearing what would now be called ugly Christmas sweaters, but they are what we have worn for the last 40 years.
The audacious salvation gift that the babe in the manger represents is that God has sent Jesus before we were even born. Before we forgot to get the right Christmas gift, before we offended someone by sharing our feelings, before we fell short of the image of God. Before we were, God is. Our God, Emmanuel offers a gift better than any gift we can ever give. The gift of redemption and eternal life.
On this Christmas Eve, we come to the table to celebrate this gift from God to each of us, given freely and amply. Given each and every year, because we have forgotten, not because God has forgotten! We come to the Communion table this night with awe and wonder, dazzled by the angels, and amazed by the audacious salvation that God offers to each and every one of us!
Come and adore Jesus the Christ – Savior, Redeemer of the World!
This is the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ.