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Grace Cathedral

Article | October 20, 2023

Christmas Eve

Blog|Alan Jones

Originally published on December 24, 2008.

I: HERE WE ARE. IT’S  CHRISTMAS EVE –  one of the times we get together – believers and unbelievers and the occasional believers – to hold hands and keep Tinkerbell alive? “Do you believe in fairies? If you do, clap!” Click your red shoes and we’ll  get back to Kansas! Christmas Eve is a bit odd – full of contradictions. Is it all make-believe? Did it really happen? Do you and I really happen?

Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

II: LETTING STORIES TOUCH US AGAIN. A story … must reach us on some level to which we can respond, but a good one must also ‘stretch’ us, pull us beyond where we now are … One of the most telling aspects of this Story is the unexpectedness intruding upon the familiar. We know about kings, for example, but we do not know about kings who come as servants. We know about rulers but they don’t show up in Bethlehem in a stable. We think we know about how power works in the world but we are slow learners and are often taken by surprise when its cruel progress comes to nothing.

III: YOU CAN’T HELP BEING CAUGHT UP IN A STORY – that’s why we love them so much and why they can be scary. And if you don’t live a story the story lives you – Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars, — even Desperate Housewives.  We love movies and music, songs too – even the most jaundiced among us are touched by the music of Christmas – the familiar carols and the secular songs.

There’s a prayer uttered by a character Joel in Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms,  “God, let me be loved.” The Christmas message. “You are!” This is our story – this is our song.

The story speaks to our longing to mean something, to matter to someone. Your life is fraught with hope and wonder. What story have you been telling yourself about yourself? And what happens when the story stops or gets too painful? And what about the story the culture, the country, has been telling itself about itself? The story has shifted from The American Dream to one of scarcity and downward mobility! Some of us don’t like the story we’re in. And, there isn’t such a fine line between the sacred and the secular – especially on a night like this. This is a night to think about the awesome gift of our common humanity –  a time to cross barriers of belief and origin. He belongs to everyone. The story belongs to us all.

SO, some story is being played out in you whether you know it or not. In the Christmas Story,  you are the place where the story happens, where God happens. Now I know that there’s naturally a rush of protest in us when we hear these strange stories of a baby born in a stable, with a supporting caste of shepherds, angels and wisemen – yet they are pointing to something we need and in a direction we want to go. You think this story is ridiculous – how about your own story – all of us future-dead people. The claim that you matter is, at first sight, ridiculous. Remember the cry of Truman Capote’s character Joel “God, let me be loved.” The Christmas message. “You are!” This is our story – this is our song.

There are plenty of ridiculous stories to do with this season – signs of our longing, not on the level of literalism but on the level of intuition, the level of the heart.

There’s “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!” The famous response by Francis Church to a letter from an 8 year old, Virginia O’Hanlon, first published in The New York Sun in 1897. “Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?”

IV: THEN THERE’S IRVING BERLIN’S WHITE CHRISTMAS?Is it true? No, of course not! Is it true? Yes, of course it is! Imagine it’s December 1941. Bing Crosby singing it on his Radio show on Christmas Eve– 17 days after Pearl Harbor. American troops – fighting in WWII – for many of them, their first away from home. A hit – it has no overt religion in it, no Baby Jesus, no manger – but it became a wartime anthem of love and longing. It opens us up to the possibility of a deeper story.

So what one are you caught up in right now? Is your story crippling you? Is it filling you with delight? Irving Berlin lived in a story made up of amazing choices. There were serious limitations. He could play only in the key of C. Yet he was the most successful song-writer of the 20th century. Isaac Stern was asked – how did he account for the discrepancy between Berlin’s modest musical talent and enormous achievement? It was his philosophy of life – it was the story he chose to tell himself about himself and the world.

Life was composed of a few basic elements: life and death, loneliness and love, hope and defeat. In our making our way through these givens, “affirmation is better than complaint, hope more viable than despair, kindness nobler than its opposite. That was about it. But because Berlin believed those platitudes implicitly, he helped people cut through the ambiguities and complexities of a confusing century.”[i]

Everyone knows the song – White Christmas —  very well, but our ears are closed when we hear it because we’re so used to it. In fact, if you step back and think about the dramatic situation in the song, the narrator is recalling something that is beyond his reach. He says, `I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.’  LISTEN! [a choirboy sings solo]

Don’t knock it! This song is about our longing for some good news. It can prepare us to hear some tonight. White Christmas is a nose pressed up against the glass – a song from an immigrant Jewish outsider about a holiday that was never his. Irving Berlin was five when his parents brought him to America from Russia. The first Christmas he remembered was spent on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the home of Irish neighbors. And he remembered their tree. “. . . for the immigrant Irving Berlin, or at that point, Izzy Baline, as his real name was Israel Baline, the holiday represented the magic and wonder of the New World.”

Let’s all sing it right now and get in touch with that deep longing! Just stay seated and sing your heart out!

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know.
Where the treetops glisten,
And children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write.
May your days be merry and bright.
And may all your Christmases be white.

Yet, Christmas somehow never lives up to our expectations and maybe it’s that connection to the song and its melancholy that keeps us listening to it and singing it. The question is, tonight, are you open to some good news?

V: THE INVITATION IS VERY SIMPLE! It asks you to respond to a newborn baby without cynicism –  and see yourself in the mystery. The moment you realize you’re not simply reading or hearing a story but that you are part of one – you are one! Everything changes. We wake up to the fact that we are neither where or who we want to be. We know that we need to go somewhere. Where? To Bethlehem – to see this thing which has come to pass. We are invited to see our lives as part of a tale full of wonder and meaning.

Remember the cry of Truman Capote’s character Joel “God, let me be loved.” The Christmas message. “You are!” This is our story – this is our song.

You can’t help being caught up in a story – so which one? The one about the world falling apart – social and political stories, racist ones, class ones – ones that always put us on top? So what story are you telling yourself about yourself and the world? Has it stopped or become too painful? Has it got you by the throat so that you think that’s how the world really is. Some stories are toxic. Perhaps yours? It’s time to let it go, throw it out.

Just listen to one of the  classic definitions of the neurotic personality –  someone who is denied “the blissful certainty of being wanted!” That’s all of us, if we’re honest! Tonight could be the time to let go of the story that tells you that you’re not worth a nickel and that you don’t matter, you don’t count.

VI: TONIGHT WE’RE INVITED INTO A WILD  STORY. And note, the wildness of not so much about shepherds and angels and the magi – the stable. The real wildness of found in a couple subversive elements  in this story which we would rather ignore because they undermine our sense of continuity and confidence. The Christmas Story addresses two truths we’d rather forget or ignore. The first is that the world is One, uncomfortably One  – massive global suffering today interrupts the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about ourselves,  about our entitlements and privileges.

The second truth is that on a very practical level we are all sisters and brothers. All those we set aside, forget, colonize, and simply dump, are demanding attention. What I find compelling about this story (and what I don’t like!) is that no-one is left out. So the story we need to tell ourselves about ourselves – if it is to be true and life-bearing – has to address human suffering and human solidarity. It has to take into account that other people in the world (in the Congo, in Darfur – let alone in Iraq and Afghanistan and down the street) are as real as we are.  This is what the baby is telling us. This is our story – we are one family.

VII: IN THE LIGHT ON HUMAN SUFFERING AND THE REALITY OF OTHERS THE STORY OF THE BABY BORN IN STABLE IS DYNAMITE! If we were open to it, it would revolutionize how we imagine the world and think about God. The fact that so many of us are here, so many of us are giving Christmas another try – even if it’s only the sake of the children and coping with a crazy family for one more year reveals that none of us can live without either stories or commitments.

Are you blissfully certain that you are wanted? Is that central to the story you’ve been telling yourself about yourself? Isn’t that’s the gift we want to give to our children, our lovers and friends? That’s the message of tonight. You are wanted and loved. God is saying: “Yes, it’s you I want! There been no one quite like you ever before! You are adorable! You are lovely. See that woman adoring her child? That’s how I am with you.”

Tonight’s story? – you are the place where God happens. There’s a whole new way of being in the world open to you – given the mess we’re in – not a bad idea! remember Joel’s prayer “God, let me be loved.” The Christmas message. “You are!” This is our story – this is our song.

Merry Christmas!

[i] Houston Smith, p. 3

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