Bishop Brian preached at Church of the Ascension, Knoxville, for their 5:00 and 8:00 pm Christmas Eve services. You can listen or read below.
Christmas Eve 2019
The Church of the Ascension, Knoxville
The Right Rev. Brian L. Cole
So, we are here.
Another year has come and gone and we are here, in this sacred space, on this most sacred evening.
In this space, on this night, my prayer is that you already know that your true identity is as a child of God, made in God’s image. For the last several weeks, as is true every year, perhaps you have felt less like a child of God, made in God’s image, and more like a lemming, running each day up to the cliff of manic consumerism, only to get up again the next day and make the mad dash one more time.
But, now we are here.
On this night, we have already joined in the singing that tells us once again that the Christ child entered our world, a world without room for him, and that this child, Jesus, grew up to make room for us, for all of us. He especially called and cared for those for whom the world has no room.
If you have ever thought that you did not count, that you did not matter, consider yourself especially kin to the Christ child, who on the first night of his life, as God made flesh, was born on the margin, forgotten by those who were counting, by those who were taking names, sorting out the powerful from the weak.
My task this evening is to proclaim the Good News again, to tell the story of the Christ child again. But can we ever hear the story anew? Is there any space left in us to hear the old story with new ears? Or is there a groove in us, a spiritual and emotional rut, called Christmas Eve Night, that immediately takes any attempted gospel input and safely buffers it away, sending it back in time, to be lost in nostalgia and warm feelings?
You see, the invitation this evening is for us to leave this space, to go far from Northshore Drive and to enter Bethlehem and the story from St. Luke’s Gospel. There, in the faraway land, we overhear the story again and we are witnesses to the birth of the Child for whom there was no room.
But when you hear the story from St Luke’s Gospel, can you hear it without all the layers of your nostalgic past? When it is read, does it truly come to you as a world-changing story, or is it swallowed up in childhood pageant drama? When it is read in the center of the church, does it take your breath away or simply remind you of hearing your grandfather read it on a Christmas morning now long ago. Instead of bearing witness to a sacramental truth, perhaps it is all too much saccharine.
Let me offer a possible way for us to break through the nostalgic haze of this night. Instead of traveling to far away Bethlehem, please go with me to another far and distant land. It is that far and distant land…called Kentucky. Ever been to Kentucky?
Well, in that far and distant called Kentucky, there is a poet, an essayist, a farmer, a novelist–all wrapped up in one person. His name is Wendell Berry. He lives with his wife, Tanya, in a simple farm house on the Kentucky River. They have lived in that farm house on the Kentucky River for decades. It is a small farm, but from that particular place, Berry has invited many to consider how the lands on which we live shape and make us here and now. He asks us to care for the very places that sustain us. He is a modern-day prophet in coveralls.
He has a poem that I would like to read to you tonight. It is a poem about Christmas. In many ways, it is a poem about the first night, about the Child’s first night in a dark world. It is also a poem about this Christmas, about this dark world.
It is entitled Remembering that it Happened Once—
Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.
You never knew Bethlehem was a small town on the Kentucky River.
“Remembering that it happened once…” Berry gives us the poetic key we need to unlock the sacred power of the first night and every night that has followed since. We are here tonight to remember that it happened, that the Christ child was born in a meager setting, with King Herod and the Empire already plotting for his doom. That child, we believe, is God Incarnate, eternal love taking on finite flesh. He is reconciling all to God, even while so many of us are indifferent to his love and his life.
Remembering that it happened once, that Emmanuel, God with us, came to abide in the most unlikely person, to show us what true power looks like in a world addicted both then and now to power that perverts and destroys and hates. God’s power shown through Jesus heals and creates and loves. There is another way, there is another world, and Berry sees that world in this world, in his barn, when he opens a door he has opened countless times before.
The surprise and the scandalous grace of the Christ child is that Emmanuel, God with us, shows up in a place we might have dismissed as Godforsaken. In showing up, in being born in an unlikely place, Jesus bears witness to the belief that no place is Godforsaken. No place in this world exists without God’s presence, even if God’s presence suffers in that place.
This night, we do not have to leave from here to go all the way to Bethlehem in order to believe again. This night, we also do not need to leave from here to make the journey north to Wendell Berry’s barn. I think if we all did that without calling ahead, the Berrys would be put out with us.
This night, we only need to consider where the door is in your life, if you opened it now, where you would be surprised to find the mother and child, where you would be taken aback to see Emmanuel born in your presence. For that is the Good News. The Good News is that it happened once, in Bethlehem. Once, in Bethlehem, the Christ child was born and grew up and walked among us, and abides with us still.
The Good News is also this—the Child is being born again, this night, behind the most unlikely door you can imagine. Consider the most Godforsaken place you know, and then go there, if not physically tonight, go there in your mind and in your heart.
The child is being born in the most Godforsaken places. He is being born on Death Row. He is being born in a midnight ER. He is being born in a house ravaged by opioid addiction. He is being born to someone you have been taught and told does not count, does not belong. God is with us in the last place you would consider looking.
Remember that it happened once. Believe also that it is happening now.
He is there. Because he is there, because he remains with us, we are here again. We are not alone.
Tonight, we all stand with one hand on the door. Behind that door is another world. When you open that door, that other world enters this world. Our dark world is shown to also be a world of transcendence, of eternal love that does not end. When you open that door, Emmanuel comes to us again and never departs. Because he is there, because he is here, we are here again.