Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
When I was little, Christmas always meant a trip to Philadelphia, where my dad’s family lived. We’d wake up Christmas morning and open presents around my grandmother’s tree. Family members who lived nearby – and they all lived nearby – would stop in throughout the day, and at night we’d gather at my Aunt Kay’s house a few blocks over for dinner and a party. Sometime during that week we would gather with my mom’s family at my Aunt Cindy’s house an hour or so away, exchange gifts and play games with my cousins. We’d always be back at my grandmother’s in Philadelphia for New Year’s Eve, when the whole family would gather again and cook sauerkraut and watch Dick Clark on TV and go outside on the steps at midnight with noisemakers, along with the rest of the block.
As I got older, Christmas changed. We started spending Christmas Eve night at home in Virginia and opening gifts around our own tree in the morning before making the drive to Gram’s. When I was 14, Aunt Kay died, and we started having a smaller holiday meal with my grandmother and uncle. The gatherings with my mom’s side of the family persisted until my grandparents died, but the cousins grew up and had families and went our separate ways. Even then, our trips would only last a day or two; we hadn’t stayed for New Year’s in a while.
In my first few years as a pastor, I had Christmas morning services to attend to, and so I stopped going to Pennsylvania at all. I just couldn’t make it home in time. My parents and brother still went, though, so that left me on my own to make Christmas plans with a friend or boyfriend’s family. When I started seriously dating Jon, we started alternating holidays between our two families, so Christmas was different every year.
I’m sure your Christmases have looked different over the years, too. There are faces that have faded out of the picture and new ones added in; the scenery has changed; old traditions have been lost and new ones begun. I think it helps to remember that in a year when, for many of us, Christmas looks and feels different from ever before. The family get togethers have been abandoned or modified, we’re figuring out how to cook meals for ourselves, there have been no parties with the neighbors, no caroling, no trips to the mall to see Santa. And maybe for some of us there’s some relief in these changes: less family drama to manage, a less frenzied pace to the season, but for many of us, I think, Christmas feels a little deflated this year, too.
This Advent season we talked about waiting, as we always do during Advent, and how we’re not just waiting for the birth of a baby or a day on a calendar, but waiting for the second coming of Christ, and the culmination of God’s Kingdom here on earth. And Advent worked, Advent resonated, Advent made sense, this year, I think, because it’s been a year of waiting – for the curve to trend back down, for a vaccine to come, for this pandemic to be over. But now Christmas is here and we’re still waiting. And Christmas isn’t supposed to be about waiting: it’s supposed to be about promises fulfilled.
So what do we do with that this year?
Mary and Joseph, of course, didn’t have Christmases past to get nostalgic about. There were no traditions to maintain, no one on the radio crooning “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” to make them tear up, no childish sense of wonder to try to conjure. There was just real life: An inconveniently-timed journey forced by an oppressive ruler; no room to be found in a busy city; a birth that didn’t happen according to anyone’s birth plan; uninvited guests who smelled like sheep. We’ve successfully romanticized it over the years, but Christmas has never been about conforming to all our best-laid and cherished plans.
Maybe it helps to remember how much still hadn’t happened on that first Christmas night. Yes, a baby was born. Yes, angels appeared and sang to shepherds, who went to see for themselves. Yes, absolutely, something significant happened that night in Bethlehem.
But there was so much still to come. Bodies healed, meals shared, lives restored, hearts reconciled to God. Stories of God’s Kingdom told to crowds on a mountainside. Questions asked and new commandments given: love one another as I have loved you. Disciples who heard the call and dropped their fishing nets to follow. A palm parade, and a final meal, and a cross, and an empty tomb. As Mary held that baby in her arms, it was the future she saw and pondered in her heart. And as the shepherds returned to their fields rejoicing, it was this child’s future that gave them reason to rejoice.
Christmas was never the end of the story. It was always the beginning, always a promise of more to come, always an invitation to keep waiting.
But it IS a beginning, a reminder that God is at work in the brokenness and imperfection of our world, when all our best laid plans have amounted to nothing. It IS a beginning, proof that God’s story is still unfolding, and that no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in, God will find a way to be with us. That God is with us now, this Christmas when nothing is as it should be, just as God has been with us in all the Christmases of our lives.
We may still feel stuck in our Advent waiting. But we are not alone in our waiting. Because the Christ who will come one day in glory to make everything right is that baby in the manger, born to us and for us when nothing is right with the world.
We are not alone: maybe that’s the good news we need in a year of isolation. There is still so much to wait for, so many reasons to hope that next year will be better than this one. But there is also reason to rejoice: because the God on whom we wait is the God who is already here.