There were several wonderful things about our service on Christmas Eve, the night that we celebrated the coming of God into this world through the gift of Jesus Christ:
The number of people that chose to worship here on that night—of course!
Our soloist, Allison Bonner—most certainly!
Sharing Holy Communion with our loved ones—definitely!
The singing of familiar carols and the lighting of our candles—absolutely!
However, whether we realized it or not, I believe the very best thing about our worship on Christmas Eve was the large number of babies and small children present, and especially all of the noise and fuss that they were making.
On the night that we gathered to worship the gift of a new-born baby, born for our salvation, we were reminded of the sheer, untamed, undecorated reality of that gift as babies were crying, children were restless and some adults grew anxious.
As we very sentimentally turned off the lights, lit out candles and sang the sweet verses of Silent Night, the light in the Church Street Narthex continued to burn brightly while a stressed mother bounced her fussy infant in her arms, pacing back and forth.
And while there were anxious parents and grandparents here in this place, there was even more anxiousness, worry and even fear beyond these walls.
As we were listening to the angelic voice of Allison Bonner sing O Holy Night, Joe and Cass Santapolo were with their daughter, Caroline and her sick son Jackson in the children’s hospital at Duke University awaiting surgery.
While we were sharing the bread and the cup, Cora Aycock had just arrived in the emergency room at Vidant with her son James who had a bacterial infection.
While we were listening to the story of Christmas and singing carols, countless other children were suffering—some from all kinds of sickness, from ear infections and stomach viruses to seizures and cancer—some from abuse, others from hunger.
This is Christmas unfiltered. This is real Christmas. This is Christmas reality.
But every year we try to cover it up. We wrap it with colorful paper and tie a bow around it. We string it with artificial lights and decorate it. We try to romanticize it, sentimentalize it. But no matter how hard try, no matter how much energy we expend or how much money we spend, we cannot conceal the real harshness of it, the harsh realness of it.
But every year, for whatever reason, we try. Maybe it is because the story fills us with so much hope and so much peace, we can’t help but to glamourize the scene of that first Noel.
In our minds, the scene is majestic. It is glorious. Angels flying in the night sky singing a heavenly chorus. A brilliant star rising in the East. A baby worshipped by Shepherds and Kings and even animals.
In our Nativity scene, there is no crying, no fussing, no colic, no ear infections, no stomach viruses, no disease, no restlessness, no dirty diapers, no spit up, no anxiety, no fear. Our Nativity is a serene, sweet, sanitized scene. It never rains in our Bethlehem.
And then we tend to romanticize the rest of the story.
A glorious baptismal scene with John the Baptist and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. Jesus calling faithful disciples who drop everything to follow him. Even the cross has become sentimental—a perfect, pretty piece of jewelry to adorn the neck. It looks nice upright or sideways. In our minds, the whole story is a beautiful, perfect fairytale.
But the truth is that was not the reality of Christmas. Christmas reality was not beautiful. Christmas reality was far from perfect.
Christmas reality, says the prophet Isaiah is “Like, a root out of dry ground,” Jesus was born among animals in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding troth with the stench of wet straw and animal waste in the air.
Yes, Kings, Magi or Wise Men came to worship the baby, but we forget that King Herod was using those eastern visitors to locate the baby so he could run a sword through him. And we forget the holocaust in Ramah, the innocent babies slaughtered, the desperate cries of anguish and despair from parents because there children were “no more.” We forget the escape to Egypt like homeless refugees.
This is Christmas. This is the Christmas reality.
And the rest of the story?
We forget that John Baptist argued with Jesus trying to prevent his baptism. We forget Jesus was tempted by Satan not only in the desert for forty days but his entire life by disciples who never seemed to understand him. We forget he made just a few precious friends, but a mob of enemies. And in the end, those enemies got him. And his best friends betrayed, denied and abandoned him. And we forget that it was in the most god-forsaken of ways, God, the creator of all that is, was tortured to death.[i]
This is the reality of it. And this is the good news of it! This is why the story fills us with such hope and peace. The reality, the good news of Christmas is that there is nothing glamorous, glitzy sentimental, or romantic about it. God came into the real world, encountered real evil in the most real of ways, experienced real suffering and pain and died a very real death.
Dr. Ernie White was one of my professors who was stricken with cancer while I was a student at Southern Seminary. I’ll never forget something he shared with us in class one day. He said, “Although I cannot explain it, somehow, the sicker I am, the more pain I experience, the more hopeful I become, because in the moments of my most immense suffering, God has been and is the most real to me.”
Because of Christmas, through the coming of God in Christ into a very real and broken world, we know that God knows something about real human suffering and real human misery. God knows what it feels like to feel forsaken by God. God is therefore able to relate to us in the most intimate of ways in those moments when life is the most real, the most broken.
This is what made our Christmas Eve service so wonderful, so miraculous. As we lit the Christ candle with fussy children in the background, we were reminded that God is truly Emmanuel. God is intimately and empathetically with us in our broken reality. God was not looking down on our worship from glorious streets of gold, but God was right here in these worn, wooden pews beside us.
Beside the one who broke her leg… Beside the one who lost his job… Beside the one whose marriage is ending… Beside the one undergoing treatments for cancer… Beside the ones whose children are sick… Beside the ones whose children have died.
On this First Sunday after Christmas we bless these sweet children, we promise to surround them with a community of love; however, we also realize that truly loving them means that we cannot always protect them from the broken reality that is this world. However, with faith in Christmas, with faith in the God who knows the reality of this broken world, we know that God will always truly and authentically be Emmanuel, God with them.
Therefore, when we bless James Alexander Aycock and David Grimes Lewis this morning, when we touch them saying to them, “The peace of Christ be with you always,” we are not merely whistling in the dark. We are not simply being sentimental and in no way are we being artificial. But we are being as authentic, as genuine and as true as we can possibly be.
As people with the faith in Christmas, we are keeping it real—as real as that untamed night in an undecorated stable in Bethlehem.
And baby James, who has a tube in one of his kidneys, awaiting surgery on that kidney in a couple of weeks, deserves nothing less.
And baby Grimes, who has been on antibiotics and a nubulizer this week, who has just started teething, who promises, like all babies, that the one thing we can all expect in this world is the unexpected, demands that we keep it real this day!
Let us pray together: O God, we thank you for coming into the real world as a real little baby, thank you for encountering real evil, for experiencing real suffering and pain, for dying a very real death. And we praise you, dear Lord, for resurrecting it all and for giving us a peace that is beyond understanding and a hope that is abundant and eternal. Amen.
PRAYERS AND OTHER ELEMENTS OF WORSHIP FOR THE DEDICATION OF CHILDREN, PARENTS AND CONGREGATION
Emmanuel, God with us, show us where you may be found today. In each human birth, in the joys of parenthood and in tragedy and loss—in loving homes and in broken homes.
Emmanuel, we rejoice that you are with us—in everything, through everything.
Lord Christ, be born in us today.
Word of God, become flesh in us that we might live your gospel in hope.
Light of the world, shine on us and in us and through us for our sakes and for the sake of your world.
Loving God, help us to see your grace, hear your voice, and follow in your way through Jesus Christ our Savior who taught us to pray…
O God, as we continue to celebrate the good news of Christmas, as we continue to light candles and sing carols, even as we gather around a beautiful tree aglow with lights and Chrismons, we acknowledge the real pain and the real sadness of this broken world.
While we rejoice in hope, we know of others who cry in despair.
While we experience peace, others know strife and injustice.
While we are surrounded by love, others are enveloped by hatred.
While we are filled with joy, others are overcome with grief and fear.
Thank you for being Emmanuel, God with us. Thank you for coming into this world as it is, fragmented, fragile and forlorn. Thank you for knowing what it feels like to be human in the real world—to be tempted, lonely, betrayed, afraid, to die, and to even feel forsaken by God.
And thank you for always working in our world to transform it all, to redeem it all, to resurrect it all, to work all things together for the good.
Come now and work on us, work in us, and work through us, to help us share this good news with all people, especially to the children with which we have been entrusted. Help us to prepare them for the world ahead of them by showing them faith in Christ and teaching them to follow the way of the gospel.
Forgive us when we fall in love with Christmas but neglect to share it with others. But continue to be Emmanuel as we continue to strive to be the church that you are calling us to be in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.
INVITATION TO COMMUNION[ii]
This is the table of the Lord.
Come, not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come, not because you deserve to come or you have done something to earn the right to come, but because you need mercy and you need grace.
Come because you love the Lord a little, but you like to love him more.
Come, because the Lord loves you and understands what it is like to be you. Come because the Lord has become flesh to dwell among us.
Let this bread and this cup be for you the token and pledge of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.
OFFERTORY SENTENCE (Adapted from Worship Reources #518 Chalice Worship, p.392.)
The amazing gift of God who emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out into the real world to become one of us prompts us to make a grateful response. In Christ we have known a love that will not let us go. Through an offering, let us share this love in our community and to the ends of the earth.
Gracious God, we now give these offerings that they might herald the good news of Christmas. Accept them as expressions of our response to the gift of your Son and the salvation he brought us.
DEDICATION OF CHILDREN[iii]
Hear these words from Deuteronomy 6:4-7
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.* 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
Charge to Parents
You parents are now to recall your own faith journeys and give yourselves in covenant to lead your children toward full discipleship in Christ.
With gratitude to God;
Josh and Cora, do you receive James Alexander; Billy and Jessica, do you receive David Grimes, as a precious gift of God, and seek God’s grace and this community’s support in nurturing and caring for your child?
Do you covenant to remain faithful in love to your child, whatever the future may bring?
Do you promise before God and this community so to fashion your lives that your child may come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?
If so, please say, “I do.”
Charge to the Church
The church, as a family of God, gladly joins you in holy covenant for the care and the nurture of these children.
Congregation, will you please stand.
Do you promise as a community of faith:
To surround these families with your love for the strengthening of their life together;
To be for these parents and children a family in Christ whose love for them cannot be broken;
To accept these children into your loving care for shared responsibility in their growth toward fullness in the life of Christ.
To keep it real with these children, by telling they the good news of Christ, to help them learn the ways of Christ and to lead them in service to God and neighbor?
If so, please indicate so, by saying “We do.”
James Alexander Aycock, I am not merely whistling in the dark when I say to you, “May the peace of Christ always be with you.”
David Grimes Lewis, I am not glibly gushing when I say to you, “May the peace of Christ always be with you.”
Prayer of Dedication
Great and gracious God,
We celebrate these young lives that you have given us, and ask your blessing upon them.
Lay upon them your hands of love, that they may always know how precious they are to you—and to us.
Lay upon them your hands of grace, so that when they fall for falter, they will know that you are there to help pick them up again.
Lay upon them your hands of hope, that they will grow up to dream bold dreams, and lay upon them your hands of courage so that they might bring those dreams to life.
Lay upon them your hands of Light, so that your light might shine through them.
Lay upon them your hands of joy, so that their lives might be filled with laughter.
Bless these children, O God, for we dedicate them to you. And in so doing, we renew our own dedication to you so that your lives might be a word of blessing upon the lives of our children. As family and friends, as their family of faith, help us to be good stewards of the lives with which we have been entrusted. In the name of Jesus Christ, who welcomed the children, we pray. Amen.[iv]
COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION
Go now into the real world and keep it real.
Go into the real world and share your faith in a real God who became a real little baby, who encountered real evil, experienced real suffering and pain, and died a very real death.
As you have blessed James and Grimes this day, go and in a very real way, share the peace of Christ with all people.
And may the real love of God, the real grace of Jesus Christ and the real communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all.
[i] Inspired from a sermon by Frederick Buechner entitled “Two Stories,” from Secrets in the Dark (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 86-87.
[ii] Adapted from Colbert S. Cartwright, O.I. Cricken Harrison, eds. Chalice Worship (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997), 21, 22.
[iii] Adapted from Chalice Worship, 21, 22.
[iv] Haymes, Peggy. Be Thou Present: Prayers, Litanies, and Hymns for Christian Worship (Macon, Georgia: Smyth and Helwys Pubishing, 1994), 69.