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Stories of Light Told Around a Fire: Christmas Eve at 11:00 PM

Monday, December 23, 2018
Hebrews 1:1-4
Psalm 98
John 1:1-14

As I noted earlier tonight’s late service is a bit different than previous years; we’re not just repeating what we did at 8 o’clock. But it doesn’t mean that this is ‘less’ of a service. If anything, I think it’s more special because by adapting the end-of-day night prayer liturgy, we’ve got something that really fits with the time of day and the size of our group. And, if you want a regular eucharistic service, we have them every Sunday morning.

Actually, tonight’s service resembles, a little bit, the most important service of the Christian year: the Easter Vigil that is held on the Saturday night right before Easter Sunday. It’s a service that begins around a bonfire. And the first half of the service is made up of a series of readings that recount God’s saving actions throughout history, as recorded in scripture, ideally, if possible, proclaimed in a darkened room, or a different space than usual, so that the readings impact us in a way that they might not when everything is business as usual.

Because when we tell stories around a fire — whether by candlelight tonight, or telling ghost stories around a campfire when we’re kids, or reminiscing as a family in front of the fireplace — there’s something special about it this. It’s almost primordial; think about the hundreds or thousands of years where when the sun went down, without electricity, work had to be put down. People gathered around a fire, and recounted the stories about who they were, and where they came from. And as they heard and told those stories, they ensured that new generations were being shaped into those same peoples. Think about how important light is before electricity. It’s in that spirit and tradition that we hear the words from the gospel reading:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

The Jewish and Christian traditions, like so many other cultures, exist because people told, and heard, and passed on stories. At first as an oral culture, telling stories around those campfires. But eventually, in writing, especially when the first generation or two of Christians started dying.

The Christian scriptures would have started out as stories, told from one person to another, or to a group. The first big story that spread was probably about Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. People knew that something important had happened. And that leads to the question of how Jesus got there; how did Jesus get on the radar and in the bad books of the authorities. That leads to the remembrance and sharing of stories about Jesus’s life and ministry: teachings, the healings, the feedings, the welcoming of the stranger and outcast.

But that doesn’t cut it for everyone. There’s something inside of us that wants to know the story behind the story; the ‘why’ that lead up to the ‘what.’ That’s why we have the three Star Wars prequels and more recently (and much better) Rogue One. That’s why when David Lynch made a Twin Peaks movie, it showed us what led up to the TV show. It’s why Christopher Nolan went back to Batman’s origins when he rehabilitated the movie series.

That’s why the Fourth Gospel says ‘you’ve heard of Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus came to the world, and the world rejected him. Well, he was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ For John, Jesus’s origin story goes back to before time itself: “He was in the beginning with God.”

And that’s a story that works really well for poets, or philosophers. Most of us need something a bit more this-worldly, and, well, story-like. And so the early Christians probably dug into tales and legends and rumblings that some had heard, to flesh out and complete their picture of Jesus. So in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels we have the stories that we turn to most often:

Just when Joseph had resolved to do dismiss Mary quietly, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’

Joseph went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’

All of these, interestingly, are night stories. Stories we might hear in a special way, in the evening, by candlelight. Stories that may have felt specially present, and urgent when told centuries ago, around a fire.

So tonight, in the dark and quiet of this place, not worrying about mall parking lots, unconcerned about making small talk with our distant relatives, and leaving behind the supposed culture wars about the design of seasonal Starbucks cups, the lyrics of certain Christmas songs, and what constitutes an appropriate holiday greeting, we can take a moment to remove ourselves from all of that, gather (like a family around a fireplace, or a clan, or camp around a campfire), and hear again these stories about who we are, and who we’re called to be.

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…

An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter