Every year since 1977, I have led a Christmas Eve Communion Service, often more than one.  For 38 Christmas Eves, I’ve had the honor of joining the angels’ surprising announcement: “Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” 

I’ve been with a congregation I loved as we experienced together the miracle of Jesus’ being born again and again in human hearts; in the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.”

I’ve served bread and wine, tangible signs for us of the body and blood of Jesus, as profound reminders that, with him, we share with him a common, fragile, and promise-filled humanity.  We are, and are ever becoming, his body.

In the glow of candlelight, I’ve sung with a room full of yearning and grateful people that blessing which “Silent Night” gives to Mary and Jesus, ‘Sleep in heavenly peace,” while hearing those words also as the gift our Divine Mother-Father speaks to each child, however young or old, in our conflict-riddled, war-torn world. 

There is divine, transforming, and gentle power at work in the patterns and practices through which we welcome the wonders and hopes of Jesus’ birth.

This year, for the first time in nearly four decades, I am not responsible for leading a Christmas Eve service. I will preach at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church in Huntington on both December 20 and December 27, but I will be in Asheville for Christmas Eve. While I will miss the privilege of preaching and serving the Eucharist on that “night of nights,” it will be a gift simply to hear the ever-astonishing news of God’s intimate nearness to us in Jesus and to rest and rejoice in a salvation we are unable to achieve but are free to receive.

In the 12th Century CE, Isaac of Stella, a Cistercian Christian, urged his friends:

Let the Son of God grow in thee,

for he is formed in thee,

let him become immense in thee,

and may be become a great smile

and exultation and perfect joy.

The Christmas story is exquisitely and beautifully shaped to bring the possibility of joy out of, even in the middle of, the pain and perplexity of life.  Jesus is both a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief and God’s “great smile.”  It is the smile, the exultation, which lasts forever.