In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
At the end of the 19 th Century, Francis Church, editor of the New York Sun received a letter just before Christmas from a little girl who did not believe in Santa Claus. His response, published as an editorial, has since become a classic.1 He wrote, Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love, and generosity exist& How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence&
Francis Church was by no means a theologian but these famous words are actually good theology. Not about Santa Claus of course but about Jesus, about the meaning of this night, about the meaning of the incarnation. For me tonight is the night that gives birth to every bit of meaning I find in life. Because tonight is the night hope comes into the world.
When I was a kid I can remember being in my bed hunkered down beneath the covers shaking with fear because of one thing or another. Either I thought I saw one of my toys move or heard something crawling around in my closet or the floor outside my door would squeak in an unusual way and I was positive there was some monster waiting outside my door. These were normal enough childhood fears but I can’ t help smiling to myself as I look back on them because when I was a kid I was sure my fears would go away as soon as I became an adult. I remember being so envious of my mother and father sleeping in the other room. They weren’ t scared I thought; they were never scared. I used to dream about how nice it would be as an adult because adults were never afraid. It was only little kids who got scared late at night all alone in their beds.
But that isn’ t true is it? Life is full of fear and the monster that lives under the bed is nothing compared to the worries that can fill our minds late at night and make sleep almost impossible. Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus but for me there has to be a Christmas because Christmas is the only known antidote for fear.
Not long ago I heard a cute story about a little boy in the Christmas Pageant who was chosen to memorize the angel’ s message to the shepherds. He worked and worked on his line but he was so unnerved by his assignment that when his moment came instead of saying, It is I, do not be afraid& he delivered these words: Here I am& and I am scared to death!
Well, here we are, all together again to celebrate the wonder of this night and in truth I know some of us are scared to death. We may be grappling with illness, we may be struggling with finances, we may be consumed with worry about our children, grandchildren, or our marriage, we may have lost a job or we may stay awake at night worrying about how we are going to keep the job we have. The fact of the matter is fear can be immobilizing. Fear can blow a situation out of all proportion. Fear feeds on the illusion that there is no one who understands, no one to speak with, no one to help.2
But the promise of this night is that we are not alone. Like a fireman lowered into a well to comfort the little child trapped at the bottom the birth of the Christ child, the incarnation, is God coming into our darkness, reaching out to offer us companionship and help. The great wonder of this night is that in this birth we are told that in spite of our fear there is hope and life and love.
It is after all the one phrase repeated over and over again by the angels. Do not be afraid, they say to Mary and Joseph. Do not be afraid to bear this child, do not be afraid to love this unwed mother, do not be afraid to journey to Bethlehem, do not be afraid that your child has only a stable in which to be born.
Do not be afraid, the angels tell the shepherds. Do not be afraid to find this child and once you find him do not be afraid to place all your hope in him because Emmanuel has come, God is with us. Do not be afraid, it is the primary message of this night and it is the same message the angels will deliver on Easter morn to the women who discover the empty tomb.
The other day I was out at the hospital making visits and as I walked to the elevator I came across this little window built into the wall. It looked like the ticket window at a movie theater and the little sign over it said – Stress Register. I assume it is the place where you register for your cardiac stress test but I couldn’ t help laughing as I read the sign. Thinking I was extremely witty I leaned my head against the glass and said to the nurse behind the counter Just exactly how much stress can I register at one time? Very funny, she said without even looking up, Boy, I’ ve never heard that one before!
As I climbed onto the elevator I thought to myself how wonderful it would be to have a place to take my worries, my stress, my anxieties and lay them down if even for a little while. And then I remembered – I already have two places! The first is the manger and the second is the cross. The Good News of the Gospel is that in Jesus’ birth and in his death God declares that everything that is most frightening about this life God has lived through and died through just like you and me. And in so doing God has corralled evil, sin, and fear – indeed everything that is frightening. Like mad dogs tied to a leash they can still snap and snarl but ultimately they cannot claim us. Love has conquered even that which is most terrifying.
And so for me all my hopes and dreams are wrapped up in this night. Because it is here that I find the courage to persevere, the courage to face everything that frightens me. As Barbara Brown Taylor so beautifully puts it, Tonight is the night we measure all time against. Everything that happened yesterday is before Christ and everything that happens tomorrow is after him. Tonight we celebrate God coming among us, Emmanuel, the God who is made out of the same stuff we are and who is made out of the same stuff God is and who will not let either of us go. 3 And who will not let either of us go& .
Fear not Christ has come. We are not alone. We will never be alone. Merry Christmas.
1 Forrest Church .
2 Herbert O’ Driscoll.
3 Past Perfection , Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another way, Cowley Publications, 1999. P. 20.