What are you doing tonight, at midnight? You’ll have made it home by then. Perhaps you’ll even be halfway to sleep. Maybe your preparations will finally be over -- everything wrapped, stuffed, baked, and packed. Maybe you’ll have a moment there, as Christmas Eve becomes the first few minutes of Christmas Day. Maybe you’ll have a chance to breathe and to experience -- for a moment -- the sacred power of Christmas.
This night is a holy night. It’s the night that Christians mark the birth into the world of the God-child, the one they call Immanuel, God with us. The little Jewish boy named Yeshua bar Joseph, Jesus the carpenter’s son. Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus the Christ.
And all through the ages, on this most holy night, the faithful have paused to listen, to hope, and to pray. All through the ages, the faithful have gathered to tell the story again, to hear the angels’ song again. All through the ages, the faithful have held this night to be sacred above all others. A silent night. A holy night.
So what are you doing tonight, this holy night, at midnight?
I hope you are awake and paying attention. Because at midnight on Christmas Eve, when heaven and earth are in harmony at last, a wondrous miracle is said to occur.
In many countries of northern Europe, it is said that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the whole of creation responds to the gift of Immanuel. In Norway, they say that if you go out into the barns and stables at midnight, you can hear the animals speak. In England, the cattle are supposed to kneel at midnight in homage to baby Jesus. Even bees – bees, mind you! -- are said to assemble in their hives at midnight and hum a Christmas hymn.
Do you believe it? Do you believe such ancient stories? Do you even hold out one single speck of hope that at midnight your cat or dog might gaze up at you and begin to talk with you about the birth of Baby Jesus?
It’s never happened to me. Not yet. Even after decades of living with dogs. Not one of them has ever said anything but “roof!” to me on Christmas Eve. Probably tonight will be no different.
But there is something in these old, old stories that calls to me. I want to believe in them. I want to think that tonight might be different. I want to believe there is a miraculous power at loose in the world on Christmas Eve that can cross the great divide between humanity and the rest of creation.
Because there is a great divide between humanity and the rest of creation. We know it. We learn it from childhood. That fire burns and water can drown and dogs can bite and mosquitoes can sting. And none of the talking animals we find in children’s books about Narnia or Oz ever cross over into our world.
So our childlike sense of connection to animals and grass and trees and clouds begins to fade. And the stars vanish behind a haze of street lights. And the earth fades away under parking lots and sidewalks. And we move in our little self-focused bubbles, from house to car to work or school and we forget that we are all connected.
We the people become disconnected from every other person. We the humans become unhinged from the humus, the very soil that sustains us. We the created ones become separated from our Creator and all of Creation.
And so we feel free to ignore our fellow humans, and to hurt them and to make war against them. And so we feel free to ignore our precious planet, and to use it up, and to make war against it. And so we feel free to ignore the Divine Love that brought all things into being, and to walk away from God, when God or our lives get just too complicated to bear.
But tonight offers us the opportunity to get re-connected. Tonight we celebrate the outrageous claim God entered the world as a human being, specifically to heal this deep disconnection. Tonight we celebrate the reunion of God and the universe, because tonight we proclaim that God entered creation. God, who existed before the Big Bang, and who brought an infinity of universe into existence -- THIS GOD took specific form in a specific place at a specific time as a specific human being. God inhabited 23 particular chromosomes and a unique genome comprised of 8 billion base pairs of DNA. God began as a blastocyst, then became an embryo, then a fetus, growing and developing in the blood-lined uterus of a first-century Galilean girl. God was nourished by a twisting cord that bound his flesh to hers. And finally, at last, God – on a dark and holy midnight -- burst into the world as a sobbing infant, rooting blindly for the necessary breast.
There is a truth underlying this outrageous claim. It is the truth that drew every single one of us here tonight -- the sensation that this birth has changed everything. The deep awareness that when God entered the world in the person of this child Jesus, the healing began. The divide has been crossed, the barriers broken.
This is the good news the angels sing … that in the birth of Jesus, in this incarnation, heaven and earth are re-united. Creation and its Creator are rejoined.
God and sinner … as the carol says … are reconciled.
So of course everything MUST erupt with praise. Of course angels sing and shepherds run. Of course the stars dance, and the baby wails, and Mary hums a lullaby -- and why wouldn’t the animals join in? Everything in Creation is connected. And like a spider’s web, when one strand is touched, the whole elaborate construction vibrates. So when God enters Creation, of course, of course, of course: all of it, every bit of it, must sing for joy.
This is a profoundly Biblical notion – that all of Creation is connected, and that everything in it -- snow and frost, rain and sun – leafy hands of trees and bubbling springs – fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains – all of it is commanded to sing praises to God. It is also a profoundly Biblical notion that when the Messiah comes into the world, humanity and the natural world will live in peace. It is the vision held up by the prophet Isaiah when he describes the Peaceable Kingdom of God’s Messiah:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Of course, we’ve forgotten that stuff is in the Bible. And we’ve forgotten that we are part of a Creation that can only be healed by this birth…the birth of God’s only-begotten Son. And as a result, we just go on with our lives as if none of it matters, because we are so busy and we have forgotten.
Except … these few old stories remain, these old folktales of talking beasts, floating up through our consciousness and reminding us again of that deep conviction that drew us here tonight. The conviction that Christmas matters. It matters to every single person, and to every single being. And to every single star and comet and planet. And to every electron dancing in the heart of every single atom. To children and their parents. To rocks and to stones. To every fish and to every bird.
Tonight, this holy night, indeed -- heaven and nature sing.
And so at midnight, I hope you will pause in whatever you are doing, and listen for that Christmas song, the song of reunion, the song of rejoicing. Will the animals talk? I don’t know. Perhaps in your dog’s yawn you will hear the angels sing. Perhaps you will hear in your cat’s purr the chorus of praise that rings through eternity.
Or you might just go outside and stand in the mist-shrouded darkness of this most sacred night. Stand and breathe and look and listen. And know the truth of Christmas:
This is the world God made.
This is the world God loves.
This is the world God came to save.
Stand and soak it all in for a minute, this most holy night.
You probably won’t hear the animals talk.
But I bet you’ll hear creation sing for joy.