Christmas Eve homily 2015

Christmas eveJeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Christmas Eve 2015

Luke 2:1-20 (verse 19)



Growing up, I never felt like our Christmas tree was the real thing.  Yeah, it was a live tree; we’d never go for the artificial variety.  But it was a store bought tree, purchased from the Optimist Club, which was logical since they supported the local Little League program.

On the night we put up the tree, we’d all wait patiently—or maybe not so patiently—for Dad to come home from work.  When he arrived, we’d pile in the car and drive to the lot on Oleander Drive.  It was a makeshift operation, some bare bulbs hanging from wires overhead illuminating the lot.  Trees were laid up against wires ran between poles.  We’d go through the lot looking at 100s of them.  None ever seem perfect.  It was hard to get all of us to agree.  After 15 minutes of this fruitless exercise, my parents would assume authority and pick out a tree.  Dad would pay for it and then tie it to the top of our car for the ride home.

In some ways, it’s odd that my dad purchased a tree instead of finding a place to cut one.  He’s the type of man who never brought anything he could make, and that included our tree stand.  Had the bomb dropped on our house, something kids worried about in the 60s, I’m sure Dad’s tree stand would have been the only thing to survive.  I was in Middle School before I could pick it up.  It was constructed from a 3 foot by 3 foot square piece of 3/8-inch plate steel with a four inch steel tube welded to it.  That tube was where the trunk went and on the top were bolts to hold the tree in place.  It was hard to get water into the tube, so after the first year, he drilled a bunch of holes in the side of the tube and then welded a shorter six inch pipe over it, where we poured water that would seep into the trunk.  This tree stand was so solid that the tree’s trunk would have broken before it would have toppled.  As a child, I wondered why we didn’t have one of those red stands with green legs like all other families.  As an adult, before moving to an artificial tree, I found myself wishing for Dad’s old stand.  The tree in that stand would have survived kids, dogs, cats, and rowdy guests, all of which have been known to topple a tree my living room.

My grandparents still lived on a farm and never had a store bought tree.  For me, they had a real tree—an Eastern Cedar—thick and full and fragrant compared to the scrawny firs the Optimist Club imported from Canada.  My mother, obviously trying to console us, said firs were better because you had more room between branches on which to hang ornaments.  She was trying to convince herself, I’m sure, for she knew that a tree had to be picked out and cut by one’s own hands in order to be authentic.

Of all the trees I’ve seen in my life, the one that stands out as the ideal tree was the one my Grandmother and Grandfather Faircloth had for Christmas 1966.  It was a full, well-shaped cedar my grandfather had cut near the stream that ran behind his tobacco barn.  Although I didn’t witness the harvesting of this tree, I imagine him, sitting on top of his orange Allis Chambers tractor, with the tree tied behind the seat, hauling it back home.  This tree took up a quarter of their living room and its scent filled their home.  Grandma decorated it simply: white lights, red bulbs and silver icicles.  And, of course, there were presents underneath along with boxes of nuts and fruit.

They gave me a Kodak Instamatic Camera, that year, the kind that used the drop-in 126-film cartridges and those square disposable flashes that mounted on top.  It was the closest thing to a foolproof camera ever built and I got good use out of it.  It’d be nearly another decade before I replaced it with a 35 millimeter.  My grandfather did not feel good that Christmas, but after some coaxing, I got him to come outside so I could take a picture of him and my grandmother in front of the house.  Even though I lost this picture years ago, I can still visualize the snapshot in my mind.  Grandma and Granddad stood in front of their porch, by one of the large holly bushes that framed their steps.  My slender grandmother, a bit taller than her husband, has her arm around him.  They’re both smiling.  Granddad sports his usual crew cut.  In the picture, my grandparents are a bit off-center and crooked, for the camera wasn’t as foolproof as Kodak led everyone to believe.  But the image was sharp.  It still is.

My granddad never raised another crop of tobacco. Although I don’t know for sure, he may have never even driven his tractor again, for early that January, his heart gave out.  That’s why the memory is so vivid.

I’m sure my Christmas memories are fairly normal.  You probably have similar ones—some are good, and others are of Christmases that didn’t live up to expectation, or even those sad Christmases in which we lost loved ones.  There’s nothing wrong with a normal Christmas, for if you look at the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel, that’s what the first one was all about.  It was business as usual.  You have a young couple doing their civic duty, registering for the census, and the shepherds working the graveyard shift.  Even birth itself is fairly normal. It’s something we’ve all experienced.  It’s into this ordinary world that God enters.  That alone is good news.  God appears in an ordinary world, in an ordinary life, like ours.  We don’t have to do anything special to experience God.  The Almighty can find us waiting in line to meet a government bureaucrat or while working the nightshift.  God can find us where we are, that’s one of the messages of Christmas.

The Good Book tells us that after the shepherds left the Baby Jesus, rejoicing and praising God, Mary pondered in her heart all the things she’d heard and experienced.  The late Raymond Brown, a well-known scholar who wrote the most detailed commentary on the birth narratives of the Gospels, says the word “pondered” literally means “thrown side by side.”[1]  Mary brought together in her heart all the events occurring in Bethlehem and during her pregnancy and juggled them around in an attempt to understand.  There must have been a variety of emotions of which we can only speculate.  How much of her Son’s future did she really understand?  Possibly not much.  It would be thirty years before Jesus’ ministry would begin.  And even after he started his ministry, there may have been times Mary and her family tried to talk Jesus out of it.[2]  But then, the birth of any child is miraculous to the mother, so maybe Mary just thought this was normal, and as the years went by forgot about the angels and the prophecies concerning her son.

Mary is important to the story, not only because she is the mother of our Savior.  Mary’s the only person mentioned in the gospels whose presence bridge the life of Jesus.  She gives birth, she’s at the cross with her heart heavy with sorry, probably still pondering and wondering, and on the first day of the week is there to experience the resurrection.[3]

Ever since that first Christmas some 2000 years ago in the small town of Bethlehem, the day has been one in which we ponder its meaning while creating our own memories.  The picture etched in my mind of me photographing my grandparents reminds me of the family from which I sprung, a family who saw to it that I had a chance to know the Christ-child as someone more just a reason to receive gifts.  Those trees I remember from my childhood, whose roots historically are pagan, have become a symbol for the life Christ brought into the world, the greatest gift we can receive.  The impossibility of finding the perfect tree, a task so daunting for my family, always seemed so silly afterwards for even imperfect ones become perfect when decorated.  And God works the same miracles in us, taking what is weak and imperfect and using it to carry out his mission in the world. And if I wanted to stretch it, I could even point to my Dad’s Christmas tree stand as a metaphor for the solid foundation we all need in our lives!  The memories of Christmas that stay with me are not of receiving gifts.  It is the assurance of being loved, by parents and grandparents, and ultimately by God.

Tonight, as you leave here, ponder what this all means. I suppose for most of us, our fondest Christmas memories are as children or when we had children of our own.  In a profound way, Christmas is about children for children represent worlds of possibilities.  The birth of a child in Bethlehem, the joy of a child tearing into wrapped presents and then hugging a parent, the twinkle of candlelight in our eyes as we sing Silent Night help us what it’s all about.  And when we hear those words from Jesus’ adult ministry, that unless we come as a child, we will never enter the kingdom of God,[4] we can think about how we viewed things as a child.  Perhaps this is what we should be pondering as we once again recall and celebrate God’s entry into our world.  How might we become child-like and accept our Savior into our heart?  Amen.

[1]Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 406.

[2] In John 7:5, we see that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him.  Was this the reason his brothers and Mary were trying to see Jesus in Matthew 12:46 and Mark 3:31?

[3] Not only was Mary present at the death, she’s listed as being present with the early church.  See Acts 1:14.

[4] Luke 18:17.

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