Christmas Eve (Fourth Sunday in Advent this year!)

Christmas Eve, December 24 REALITY NATIVITY, anamnesis

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.

And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.

Some thoughts:

     What do you notice about these opening lines? “’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse . . . “ and “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” One line comes from fiction, one from history. Without intending to on our part, both can slip into fiction.

     A case in point, many years ago my wife was with one of our sons at a Christmas pageant with the manger, kings, live animals, and flying angels in a beautiful production. As a huge camel walked by our third grader asked his mother, “Mom, is this real?” Thinking he was wondering if the camel was real, she asked what he meant to which he responded, “I mean, is the story about Jesus real or pretend?” His is a subtle significant question. I would guess you have heard the passage from the Bible read on Christmas Eve almost as many times as you are years old! Having become so familiar with the story it can subconsciously slip into the genre of nostalgic prose, negating the power and significance of the event, in effect, inoculating us to its impact year after year, so how do we approach what we’ve heard many times before?

     We have historical information which is of some help in deromanticizing the story like—At this specific time in Roman history, there were also censuses being taken in Spain, Syria, and Gaul in addition to Judea. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about ninety miles. Even riding a donkey we’re talking of a trip of several days. But notice the Bible says nothing about a donkey. The phrase “while they were there” seems to indicate Mary and Joseph may have been in Bethlehem for an extended period of time. At any rate, Jesus was born during their stay. We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born during that day, but we do know the shepherds found out the news from the angels that night. Matthew tells us of their nighttime escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s decree. Luke, who most likely got this information from Mary herself. Being very familiar with the story, how do we move past rehearsing facts?

     There is a word in my mind that unlocks the “too familiar story.” That word is anamnesis. It is related to our word amnesia as you might guess. The word (anamnesin) is used in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in the “words of institution” (I Cor 11:24). In the biblical sense it refers to bringing an event in the past into the present. How does that work? The significance of what happened historically still has impact on the present. It is “remembering” an event in the sense that time has been suspended and we are present in the moment. We are not pretending but rather letting the moment become present. We do this every Lord’s Supper when we partake of the bread and the wine.

     Every year we hear those glorious words from the second chapter of Luke, we are in a different place from the year before. We are older. Much has happened in the world and in our lives. We are at the manger. We’ve never been here before. Our journey has come from a different place. What happened then is affecting us now. Some of our carols reflect this truth.

Did you ever notice that the verb tenses of “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are present tense verbs? We sing those songs from the perspective of being present the night of the Savior’s birth.

     Since the dawn of creation and that devastating moment in the Garden of Eden when a perfect, sinless relationship between man and God was permanently destroyed, humans and all of creation looked forward to a coming Redeemer. After waiting for thousands of years, on this glorious day the Creator of the universe emerged from the womb, God in human flesh, fully human in every way and fully divine as he had been for all eternity. Could this birth have been a more humble surprising entrance? The one who created vast worlds measured in light years, arrived as the Light of the world with a cry that pierced his own universe. That cry still penetrates our hearts today with the words, “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The impact of the babe in the manger is daily.

Music: “Silent Night”  Sissel


O God, who hast caused this holy night to shine with the illumination of the true Light: Grant us, we beseech, that as we have known the mystery of that Light upon the earth, so may we also perfectly enjoy him in heaven; where with thee and the Holy Spirit he liveth and reigneth, one God in glory, everlasting. Amen.     ―Book of Common Prayer

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