What Great Brightness Did You See?

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Luke 2:(1-7)8-20

“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”

One of my very earliest Christmas memories is being allowed for the first time to go to the Christmas Eve service at Grace Church in Menominee, Michigan. At Grace Church in those days we always did the Christmas Pageant at the Christmas Eve service. And I remember when I was finally old enough to be an angel in the pageant. I remember putting on the white surplice that had big sleeves like angel wings. I remember the tinsel halo they put on my head, and how it felt prickly on my scalp.

But most of all I remember going into the church in the dark. I’d never been in the church in the dark before, I’d only ever gone on Sunday mornings. And the church looked so different at night! The stained glass windows weren’t bright and colorful, but dim and mysterious, like they were hinting at pictures rather than showing the pictures. The candlelight flickered and moved, like there was something happening in the light, so different from sunlight and bright electric lights. And the church seemed somehow bigger in the dark, as if the shadows in the corners, the shadows between the beams in the ceiling, the shadows usually chased away by the sunlight – as if the shadows opened up into vast, mysterious spaces that stretched out into heaven and earth far beyond just the walls of our little church building. I remember the church seemed huge; and as we little angels sang, and as the story of Jesus’ birth was told, it seemed to my child’s imagination like the whole universe was gathering around to be part of the mystery. Years later I read in one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books the line “In our world too, a stable once held something inside it that was bigger than our whole world” – and that line always seemed to me to describe how I felt about the church in candlelight that Christmas Eve night.

And I will admit that somewhere deep inside, in some little corner of my soul, that little boy still comes to church every Christmas Eve, to see the candlelight in the shadow, to see how the church looks somehow bigger than in the day, to feel the universe gathering in the shadows to be part of our mysteries.

And what have you come here tonight to see? What mystery of love brings you to Christmas Eve? And, more importantly, what will you take with you when you go? How will you return, glorifying and praising God for all that you have seen and heard?

The shepherds in Luke’s nativity story are a great connection for us, a great way for us to imagine our way into the story. There the shepherds were, doing their shepherd jobs, keeping watch over their flocks by night, when suddenly the night around them changed: the shadows deepened, the darkness of the sky opened up into the vast depth of heaven, and glory shone out like they’d never seen before, and the voice of angel told them there were glad tidings, there was good news, there was a birth of love into their world that would be for all people, and they would find a sign of love: a child put down to sleep in a cattle’s feeding trough, a child who would later take bread and say “This is my Body,” a child who would give himself to be the Bread of Life for the world: they would see a child sleeping in a feeding trough.

And of course the next thing the shepherds did was get up and go look for the sign, go look for the child. They didn’t just sit back and say “Hm, that was an interesting experience, that was a beautiful moment.” They got up, they got moving, they went out to be part of the mystery themselves. And when they found Mary and Joseph and the child in the feeding trough, they told them everything they had seen and heard. They didn’t keep the mystery to themselves; they shared their good news of love, and everyone who heard it marveled. And even then they didn’t stop. They returned, they went back to the fields and the flocks and the night – but this time they went glorifying and praising God for everything they had seen and heard, and telling everyone as it had been told to them.

And the Gospel invitation to us tonight is to be like those shepherds: to get up, to go out, to see for ourselves the joyful mystery of God’s Love with us, to know the presence of the Child who is our Bread of Life, and to return, glorifying and praising God for all that we have seen and heard.

And what have you come here tonight to see? What angel has called you here for good news? And what will you take with you when you go?

Some of us are here tonight for family and tradition. Some of us have journeyed far to come back home to Staunton, to touch base with our roots, to connect with good memories, to gather around for Christmas Eve dinner and then come to church for midnight mass like we always do, to gather that special kind of strength and courage for the future that comes from being able to touch your past.

Some of us are here tonight for music and beauty. Some of us treasure the special songs we only sing this time of year, the songs we’ve been waiting all Advent to sing. Some of us feel our spirits lightened and our souls gladdened when we see the wreaths around the church, and smell the spruce, and see the masses of poinsettias glowing richly red in the candlelight. Some of us listen to the voices of the choir and hear, just behind them, the host of heaven that always sings in joy. Some of us are here for the beauty that is an outward and visible sign of God’s love and life for us.

Some of us are here tonight because we need to hear good news, because in a world that is broken and hurting and violent and filled with prejudice and injustice, where uncertainty seems to hang above our heads each day, we need, the way the starving need bread, we need to hear glad tidings of great love, we need to be nourished with the Bread of Life.

And some of us are here tonight because the church seems so much bigger on this night, and we still hope to peek into one shadowed corner and glimpse the whole universe gathered in God’s love.

But whatever has drawn us here, whatever angel has called each one of us to be here tonight, what meets us here is the same, what gathers us here is the love of God in Christ, what we see and hear and have told to us is the glad tidings that God shares our life, God comes to us in the very midst of our humanity, God tells us we do not need to be afraid, God feeds us with spiritual food from a feeding trough in the House of Bread to strengthen us for our journey.

So look around you right now. Look at these faces, these flowers, this candlelight, this church. Look around: where do you see and hear God’s love being born for you?

And what will you tell others you have seen here tonight? When you return on your way, when you go back tomorrow, or next week, or in the new year, when you go back to your life-as-usual, what will you take with you from tonight? What birth of God’s love here will start you glorifying and praising God and telling everyone what has been told to you about this child?

What did you come here to see tonight? And, more importantly, what unexpected gift of God’s love will you take with you when you go?

“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” May this Christmas be for you an occasion to glorify and to praise and to know the love of God. Amen.