Christmas Day Homily

Click here to read John 1:1-14.

The brilliance of Christmas is so concentrated, the miracle of the Incarnation so extreme that those who witness the glory of it, glory as of a father’s only son, are struck by profound awe. What is it about that newborn that inspires worship and wonder in the hardest of hearts? “John Shaw tells what it was all about through the eyes of a child:

“She was five, sure of the facts, and recited them with slow solemnity, convinced every word was revelation. She said, “They were so poor they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat and they went a long way from home without getting lost. The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady. They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an ass (hee hee), but the Three Rich Men found them because a star lighted the roof. Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them. Then the baby was borned. And do you know what he was?” Her quarter eyes inflated to silver dollars. “The baby was God.” And she jumped in the air, whirled around, dove into the sofa and buried her head under the cushion, which it the only proper response to the Good News of the Incarnation.”

Almost the only proper response. “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem,” Isaiah decrees. “Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord, all the earth,” intones the Psalmist. As for John? He simply sings, recording the ancient Christian canticle proclaiming that the Word became flesh and dwelled among us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The invocation to the Gospel of John is one part birth narrative—proclaiming the eternal being of the Word that became flesh in the person of Christ Jesus—and three parts hymn.

The birth of Christ provokes hope, joy, and a whole lot of singing. With a little help from the angels on high, who crafted the first Christmas carols on the first Noel, Christians have been singing in response to the miracle of Incarnation for millennia. Christmas hymns are among the most beautiful of all sacred music. They capture the sheer marvel of God’s grace and truth embodied in the Christ child. It is no wonder that so many of us contend with tears when we hear the first strains of Silent Night.

When I was a teenager, I experienced strong waves of doubt as I struggled to find my place as a child of God. Christmas, in particular, became a difficult holiday. The bleak midwinter days dampened my spirit, and joy of the season eluded me. I was dissatisfied with a purely commercial and secular Christmas, but my heart just wasn’t ready to meet Christ in the manger. In the midst of my fear and doubt, I began a meager but holy tradition, alone in my bedroom after the Christmas Eve festivities had ended. I would sing, quietly, every single Christmas carol I could remember. I began with O Come O Come Emmanuel, that Advent hymn of mournful praise. All the verses of Silent Night. As many as my memory could conjure of Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Joy to the World. Away in a Manger. When I forgot the words, I would simply hum, carrying the tune just a shade above a whisper. Those midnight canticles, sung from a place of deep craving for connection with the Source of Life, were my first stirrings of genuine worship.

It is no mere coincidence that music is one of the few means we have to respond adequately to the gift of the Christ-child. Singing is an incarnational practice. When we join with the shepherds and angels in singing Glory to God in the Highest, we participate in the drama of the Incarnation, giving new voice to the Eternal Word. The renowned Church musician and theologian Don Saliers writes that “Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed. Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are… Singing, we give testimony of our beliefs, we shape communities by rhythm and pitch, and we welcome Mary and Joseph to the stable on Christmas Eve.”

By singing our way through the feast of Christmas, we commit our very breath to a joyful and vital task: worshipping the Word who pervaded the sphere of flesh to show us a light than cannot be overcome by darkness. As Christina Rosetti wrote in her beautiful rumination on Christ’s nativity, “Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine; Love was born at Christmas; Star and angels gave the sign.” Love was born at Christmas, God’s unconditional love that insists that we are all children of God, the giver of life. This is such good news, it cannot be expressed in the monotone of simple speech. The real proclamation of the grace and truth of the Christ-child on this and every day is embodied in our hearty songs of praise. Good Christian friends, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice, for Christ is born today!

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