Christmas Eve (B): Living Christmas
By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly
Tonight, the Church dispersed throughout the world gathers in vigil and prayer, emerging from weeks of expectant and hope-filled Advent waiting. The faithful do what Christians have done for millennia—singing joyful songs and carols, praying prayers of thanksgiving, and hearing again the age-old story from Bethlehem. God’s incarnate Son, born this night, bringing peace, joy, and love into the world!
The story of this night is perhaps the best-known story of all time.
We sing our songs and say our prayers and tell our stories, and we are assured that since that marvelous night all those years ago in which God came down to Earth and took on our humanity, our universe—our very existence—has been changed forever! But once our singing and praying and storytelling is over tonight, we’ll all go home. Although many will continue the Christmas celebration in the coming days, eventually, business-as-usual will return. The Christmas decorations will come down, the cards will get recycled, and all of that delicious food will get eaten.
And then, reality sets in.
Wars still rage, violence still plagues our streets, hunger and poverty still ravages our communities, and atrocities are still committed by supposed people of faith. So I can’t help but wonder: is it really Christmas or are we still in Advent? Has Christ really come or are we still waiting?
I live in a small town in rural Western North Carolina—the Eastern edge of Appalachia. Last month at our small local hospital, 18 infants were born addicted to opioids. 97.6% of students at our neighborhood elementary school are at or below the poverty line. My county—far from the largest county in the state—ranks third in North Carolina in the rate of drug overdoses. All of that is to say nothing of our social and political realities, where new peaks of “shocking” and “unprecedented” are reached with each passing week. Misunderstandings and misdeeds cause neighbor to fight neighbor. Spouses are suspicious of one another, siblings despise one another, and the political mantra of our time seems to be, “I’m gonna get mine.”
I see all of that and wonder: is this it? Is this the reign of peace and joy and love that Jesus was talking about? In all of our festive worshipping and singing and storytelling, have we missed something?
The 20th century German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions of Christ or his followers. In his essay, “The Divine Dawning,” he asks of God, “Is your humble human existence from Bethlehem to Calvary really the coming that was to redeem wretched humanity from its misery? Is our grief taken from us, simply because you wept too? Is our surrender to finiteness no longer a terrible act of despair, simply because you also capitulated? Does our road, which doesn’t want to end, have a happy ending despite itself, just because you are traveling with us?”
These are hard questions for us to hear—especially on Christmas Eve. But you know, the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that we may be getting Christmas wrong. Instead of celebrating Christmas—recalling what happened so long ago—perhaps we are called to live Christmas as something that began long ago, but continues today.
Christ’s coming as a child in Bethlehem, his life and ministry on earth, and even his death on a cross at Calvary, are only the beginning of the great drama of our life as faithful servants of the Most High God! Novelist Nancy Mairs was right when she wrote, “God is not a White Knight who charges into the world to pluck us like distressed damsels from the jaws of dragons, or diseases. God chooses to become present to and through us.”
So while we gather here to remember the birth of Christ, recalling stables and angels and shepherds, let us leave this place knowing that Christ’s birth is not the end of the story…
If we truly want to live Christmas, then the birth of Christ must take place within us.
But first, we must create a place within our hearts for Christ to dwell. For as long as we cling tightly to our wealth or our status or our power or anything that re-enforces the misguided notion that we can somehow save ourselves, there is no place for Christ.
No, it is only when we do as the Blessed Virgin Mary did and surrender ourselves to a strength that is not our own—a strength that works in us and shines through us, bringing the bright light of God’s love to the desperate and waiting world!
So what will your story be?
Will it be one of forgiveness?
Perhaps a story of generosity…
Maybe a story of hope…
Whatever it is, may you find a place in your heart so that Christ can be born in you this Christmas; and may you share the miracle of His Divine birth with all whom you meet.
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina, and is the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef. He holds degrees from Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (Master of Divinity), where he is also completing doctoral work. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.
 Karl Rahner, “The Divine Dawning” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2014), 67-75.
 Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).