The memory for me is still visceral. I remember the cool, smooth surface of the standard issue junior-high chair with its metal legs and deep blue seat. I remember exactly where I sat, one-third the way down the third row of the tiered band room; I remember the daily unpacking of my standard issue clarinet and wetting the reed in my mouth as I put the fragile instrument together with my clumsy pre-teen hands. I remember the exact size and shape of my band folder, stuffed with music books and loose sheet music. And I remember how much I loved the accomplished feeling of mastering the simplest of tunes; so much so that I could probably still play Mary Had a Little Lamb, even though I haven’t touched a clarinet in over 20 years. I played that simple song over and over and over again; in part because I liked to be good at things, but more honestly because I hated practicing.
Practicing, in middle school band but also in much of life, is not usually the fun part for me. As deeply woven as the junior high band room is into my memory, so also is the resistance I felt toward practicing. No matter how much I knew intellectually that practicing was how one became accomplished, I found myself craving the satisfaction of doing what I knew rather than practicing something much more complicated that would require me to stretch my skills and change me into a better musician. Unsurprisingly, this has been a lesson with which I have wrestled all my life; I’ve wrestled with the truth that practicing is worth it because it changes us. Practicing is worth it because it does not let us stay in our comfort zone; practicing asks us to sacrifice the steadiness and ease for growth and change.
And this, friends, is where I find myself on this holy night. While I often find myself in a bit of a hectic, seasonal rush to the Advent of Our Lord, this year has been different. It has, frankly, been more difficult Advent waiting for this Christmas night: we have buried friends, marked the first anniversary of a natural disaster, dealt with threats of violence in our community, and worried these past few days about our neighbors experiencing homelessness in this bitter cold. On this night, I find myself longing for the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” of Christmas. I want to let myself fall back into the rhythm of life that was simple and easy, or at least the rhythm that I knew. But the truth is, on this night, I’m struggling with the practice of Christmas.
Earlier this week, I listened to theologian Joy J. Moore talk about Christmas as a practice of hope; that the truth is that we will never feel completely buoyed by Christmas or the holidays, because that’s not really what they are for. Christmas is a practice of the hope to come; it is our best attempt in this fragile and broken world to stand where the shepherds stood on this night so very long ago.
Christmas is an opportunity to practice the courage and the scandal of proclaiming the good news that God is with us. It is a practice; all this—all this beauty—it is only practice for the greater glory to come. It is practice for a reality where death has lost its sting and violence has no home, but all of God’s creatures do. The truth of this Christmas for me, is that I’m struggling with the practice.
But what I know to be true, is that the struggle is the practice. What I know to be true is that the hope of God incarnate does not need me to be good at the practice of hope for it to permeate the world. What I know to be true is that this Christian life necessitates that we will wrestle with what we believe to be true about the world. What I know to be true on this bitterly cold night is that whether the practice of Christmas feels easy for you this year or not, is that God is with us, and we are changed. We are changed by Emanual; Christmas after Christmas we come to this sacred space, warmly and brightly lit by an abundance of candles and we are changed.
In the account of Christ’s birth in the gospel according to Luke, there are so many figures with whom one might identify, but for me, at least for this year, it’s the shepherds. I’m drawn to the shepherds in Luke’s account because they stood terrified in a field, their work interrupted. It is the shepherds and their willingness to be surprised by hope, but not without wrestling with a bit of terror first that draws me closer to the birth of our Savior. It is their willingness to be changed, by finding Joseph and Mary and the Christ child; it is their willingness to practice embodied hope alongside their terror and to be transformed into something they could not have expected.
The beauty of Christmas is that is asks us to start not at the joyous resurrection or even the pain of the cross, but instead the tiny, newborn child, to start at Emanuel—God with us. The beauty of Christmas is that is draws us into the reality of those shepherds, sore afraid in a field, surrounded by light while hearing good news that would echo around the world for generations. The beauty of Christmas is that no matter the crying Christ child, or the exhausted mother and bearer of God, or the shepherds hearing angel’s voices in the field, is that we are inherently changed by Christmas. We are changed each time we lean into the practice of Christmas. Because while Christmas does not need us to happen, when we are attentive to the story of the Christ’s birth, we cannot remain unchanged.
My prayer for each of us this night is that we can lean into the practice of Christmas; that we can let ourselves be changed. My prayer is that the struggle of Christmas be gentle even as it shapes and molds us into something new. My prayer is that God with us not be something we forget come Monday, but something that motivates us to continually choose to see Christ in all peoples. My prayer on this holy night is that we can hold more than one truth: that we can be tired and scared and hesitant to practice the hope of Christmas and still choose to believe that this world better we do. My prayer is that the practice of Christmas will change our lives and the lives of all we encounter. May God bless you and your practice this night and forever.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky for Christmas 2022.
This is so good, Becca… the practice of Christmas. I need to let this sit with me awhile. Thank you for sharing this. Love to you, sweet friend.
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