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. This fun-filled trend is a seemingly ironic critique of fashion and focus on joy of Christmas. It seeks to take us away from the pain and brokenness of the world news around us to recapture the delight of Christmas. Play is always a healthy way to disengage life’s trials in order to get different perspective. Sometimes we wonder if it takes us too far from the manger.
There is an old folk tale dating to the second century that imagines what the moment of Christ’s birth was like for Joseph. In this story, Joseph is not by Mary’s side. He has left the manger in search of a midwife to help Mary. Searching near the village, Joseph has a surreal experience. Joseph sees a shepherd in the field, who is dipping a piece of bread into a clay pot. The shepherd’s hand is stilled — for just an instant — the bread suspended before his mouth. Above Joseph — the same instant — a bird stalls, its wings momentarily frozen in flight. The night breeze, brisk against his face, evaporates. All of this seems to happen at once, in what Madeleine L’Engle called “a wrinkle in time.” Everything is still. The next instant the world around Joseph returns to regular motions. The shepherd chews his bread. The bird flies away. The wind picks up again.
Like any of us, who have experienced those “wrinkles in time,” Joseph is not quite sure what, if anything has happened. Then it dawns on him. Mary’s child — the Son of God — was born. And in that instant everything grew still. Even though Joseph was away from the manger, in God’s grace, God still came to him. God still spoke and still met him with a moment of stillness and silence.
As you come to Christmas Eve worship, one of the holiest nights in the year, it seems possible that you and I are not where we are supposed to be. We might also have departed from the manger with the busyness of helping and preparing. This holy time of year, I find that I might not be where I am supposed to be. I focus on concerns that are certainly less central than incarnation yet somehow feel more pressing. This was certainly where Josef Mohr was almost two hundred years ago as the details of planning might have refocused him from the incarnational mystery of the Christmas season.
The organ had been chewed by mice, and the traveling actors were in to present the compelling story from the gospels of Matthew and Luke to the good people of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, near Salzburg, in Austria. A local home, larger enough and open enough had to be secured for the actors to perform there with adapted music. Details and lists had been completed. All had gone well and assistant pastor, Josef Mohr, was reflective after the moving presentation. He took a contemplative walk home the long way. In looking down at the peaceful snow-covered village, he recalled a poem he had written about the angels’ announcement to the shepherds of the birth of the Messiah.
Inspired by the spirit of the night, Mohr wanted to connect his poem with music for the Christmas Eve service. 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. A ‘wrinkle in time’ on a snowy walk home after a stressful day of details produced one of the most enduring carols in our Christmas repertoire.
I can imagine it felt like a ‘wrinkle in time’ on that first Christmas night as the angels interrupted the rest of the shepherds on a hillside outside of Bethlehem to announce the greatest news of all time. Throughout history, we have portrayed the shepherds as rubbing their eyes in fatigue and confusion. I have come to believe that they were flabbergasted at the God of All sending angels to announce Christ’s birth to them.
Perhaps, we all find ourselves in a place surprised that God would show up. We find ourselves surprised that God sought us out, when we were not waiting by the manger for the birth of Jesus. We find ourselves amazed that incarnation means that Christ has put on skin and walked right alongside us – when we are in the grocery store and the soccer field, when we are at the YMCA and at work. We, too rub our eyes astonished that God’s gift of incarnational grace is for us. God is not just near to those who seem to have it all together, but each and every one of us, just as we are.
The shepherds give us the next move as well. They move from being flabbergasted to amazed to proclaiming the good news to everyone, because it is just too good to keep inside. The good news that God walks with us in the brokenness of our world is good news indeed! Those ‘wrinkle in time’ moments and ‘astonishing’ movements are God’s gifts to us as we are faced with a world of brokenness. Brokenness that comes in the form of personal and corporate pain. We need healing and redemption as individuals who have gone astray, known pain, experienced imperfect people interacting and reacting with other imperfect people. We need healing and redemption as a people, a humanity who has not figured out yet how to treat one another with love and respect all the time.
We need ugly sweaters, songs, and salvation on this Christmas Eve to remind of God’s incredible presence with us, Emmanuel. We receive the gift God offers each of us generously and tenderly through the person of Jesus. All around us we see both reminders of God’s presence, and the need for God’s saving grace.
My prayer for you this Christmas Eve is one of joy and proclamation. May you be open to the “wrinkles in time” where God finds you, and then share the good news of God’s relentless incarnational love with all this Christmas.
This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.