This is the first year we will have a Blue Christmas service at my parish. It seems appropriate for us as well as for the larger community. We lost a beloved member this year and had a young man commit suicide. A few of us have children in prison, there have been several serious hospital stays and probably a lot of other things have happened that I am not aware of. So we are inviting the community to join us in prayer and meditation.
The gospel reading for this service is the birth narrative from Luke. Everyone knows this story. Last year, when we read it Christmas Eve, I cast Joseph and Mary as poor people from back in the mountains who were traveling to Washington DC and had to stop here so Mary could have her baby. It wasn't a sermon that was bursting with joy. I think we lose sight of the fact that the birth of Jesus wasn't a time of joy. They were away from home, required to go to Bethlehem by an oppressive government. There was no doctor to tell Mary that she was too pregnant to travel and it wouldn't have made a difference anyway. They had to go; there was no choice in the matter. Add that to the general scariness of giving birth - scarier then than now even! - and it wasn't a clap-happy night.
We have surrounded this holiday with such overflowing joy that we often lose sight of what the day/night actually was. We also forget that this is more than just another baby. Jesus is the one who comes to bring God into our lives in a radically new way. And he doesn't come to the wealthy or well-connected but rather says over and over again that he comes for those who are weary and heavy laden, the very people who will gather for Blue Christmas.
And we will bring this baby gifts, although they might not look like gifts. You see, we bring Jesus our problems, our sorrows, our pain and our losses. We are most real when we admit that there is more to us and to our celebration than joy in gathering together and in giving and receiving gifts. There is remembering those who are no longer with us or who, for whatever reason, cannot be with us around tree and table. There is sadness mixed with our joy and we do ourselves a disservice if we do not recognize that.
Here's one of my favorite Christmas stories. My youngest sister was convinced there was no Santa Claus. She spent her 8th Christmas noticing little things - who had written the tags, what store the box came from (in the days before generic boxes). And then she announced that there wasn't any Santa Claus.
I think we spent the entire next year trying to convince her otherwise but she was adamant. Mother and Nana had wrapped the presents and put the tags on. She knew where they had come from and it just wasn't the North Pole. To prove that she was right, she put out a snack for Santa the next Christmas. And she wrote a note asking that Santa leave her a note in reply. She also warned us that she would recognize anyone's handwriting even if we wrote wrong-handed. I remember wondering how in the world we were going to pull this off. There just didn't seem to be any way to pass her test.
Christmas Eve, we all went to the early service. Then, Mom put the little kids to bed, Daddy went off to direct another church choir and my older sister and I went to sing in the choir for the late service. I admit I was thinking more about what to do for the Santa note than I was interested in the sermon. As we processed out of church, I noticed a good friend of the family in the back row. Obie hadn't ever come to church; in fact, I'm pretty sure I knew that he had no use for church. So I was delighted to see him there. We asked him to come back to the house with us, knowing that Mother and Daddy would love to see him. Yes, you guessed right; Obie wrote the note from Santa.
My little sister was flummoxed! She had no idea where that note came from but it was enough to help her believe for one more year even though the boxes came from the same stores and Mother wrote the tags.
The reason this story is one of my favorites is that Obie died young of an awful disease. The doctors told him he could go to bed and perhaps have another year or he could go back to teaching and directing plays and he would die much sooner. He chose to do the work he loved and use the talents he had been given as long as he was able.
I think of Obie every Christmas Eve when we sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing, the hymn we processed out of church to that long ago night. And I shed a few tears for a man who was so dear.