My sisters and I grew up attending Christmas Eve services at a rural evangelical church in the northern woods of Wisconsin. It was as picturesque as that sounds–snowy woods filled with evergreens and white-tailed deer and birch trees.
After the services every kid was given a brown paper bag filled with candy and an orange, though why they gave us oranges I’ll never know, since we all chucked them into the woods as soon as we hit the parking lot.
My Dad would drive us through the prettiest neighborhoods to see their glowing lights, and then we’d pile into the house, take off all our winter gear, and gather around our nativity scene to sing “Silent Night.”
The nativity set had been given to us by friends who traveled often to South America. It was Peruvian, I think, and beautifully rendered in colorful clay with alpacas instead of donkeys and sheep.
The manger was particularly unusual, decorated with cross-hatched grass, and we would wait until Christmas Eve to put baby Jesus on it.
One Christmas Eve we’d just finished the church service and my parents were chatting with the pastor. We couldn’t leave to get our goodie bags until they were done, so my sisters and I were losing our patience.
My youngest sister, Caroline, who was probably five at the time, grabbed my mom’s hand and exclaimed,
“Mom, come ON! We have to get home to put BABY JESUS ON THE GRILL!”
In her defense, that Peruvian manger totally does look like a grill.
Kids keep us humble, and my poor parents had a heck of a time explaining to our pastor that we did not, in fact, condone the grilling of our newborn Lord.
It was an unconventional moment in a relatively conventional Christmas Eve.
Yet as I think back through my life, almost every Christmas Eve has been unconventional in some way.
We picture the photo-card-perfect snowy evening, the family gathered quietly and serenely around a fireplace, everyone getting along swimmingly. But how often does that happen?
There have been years where one or more of us have been in crisis, when one or more of us can’t make it home, when freezing rain thwarts family plans, when the gifts don’t arrive, when grief knocks at the door.
If we are waiting for Christmas Eve to fulfill some sort of worldly expectations we might have, we may wait forever.
As a kid there was the Christmas Eve when our car spun out and did a complete 360 on the highway on the way to church.
There was the one where the entire family got the stomach flu except my dad, who wisely decided he needed to “work a bit at the office” to escape the showers of barf.
Most Christmas Eves these days Daryl and I are scrambling to find a babysitter for the later services at church which, as you’d imagine, is no small feat.
As a kid it often felt like a magical night. As an adult, it often feels like it’s missing something.
Perhaps that’s because it is.
From Luke’s Gospel:
Luke 2:1-11 (NIV)
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.
Mary and Joseph missed having a proper room. The shepherds missed a good night’s sleep. The innkeeper missed an opportunity to be generous.
Until Jesus returns in glory, every Christmas Eve will be missing something. He has come, but is still coming. He has begun to set things right, but they are not fully there. We live in this beautiful, holy, mysterious, awkward tension of the already-and-not-yet.
That hollow you feel when things go wrong? It’s there for a reason.
That hollow you feel, even when things go as planned, when the family gets along, when the cat doesn’t knock over the tree, when everyone is reasonably healthy and the turkey finds that perfect place between raw and burned? It’s there for a reason.
“Do not be afraid,” proclaimed the angel. “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Whatever goes right this Christmas Eve and whatever goes wrong, turn to the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. He will one day set all things to rights. He has come. He is coming.