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Signs and Wonders on Christmas Eve

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[Editors' note: This Advent season, we will be running a series of reflections on the Bread Blog from members of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. The lectionary readings for this post are Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 1:1-20; Titus 2:11-14. Keep reading the Bread Blog for more Advent reflections each day.]

Christmas Eve draws us to the precipice of hope and expectation. Practically speaking, we may be anticipating the arrival of guests or a journey to celebrate the holidays. Gifts have been wrapped and stacked beneath evergreen trees topped with golden stars. So often, the days preceding Christmas unearth magical thinking, excitement, and joyful anticipation. We recall childhood days, lying awake on Christmas Eve, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa and the promise of white snowfall and frosty winds. At some level, this element of wishful yearning never completely leaves us because the Christmas story evokes similar feelings – the promise of new birth and miracles.

Traditionally, Christmas Eve centers on the story of Mary and Joseph, having been turned away by the innkeeper, giving birth to a son in manger. But other Bible verses allude to unprecedented miracles about to occur. In Isaiah, we learn that those walking in darkness will see a great light. A babe will be born who will be deemed to be a Wonderful Counselor, a Mighty God, and an ambassador of peace. In Luke, God answers the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth with the news that they will bear a child who “will be great in the sight of the Lord.” And Paul’s letter to Titus assures him and the Cretans that the “grace of God will appear, bringing salvation to all.” We open our hearts to the unexpected at this season. Hymns tell us of angels singing, stars shining brighter than ever, roses blooming amid the bleak midwinter.  In Bethlehem, the “hope and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” Signs and wonders abound, perhaps making even skeptics reconsider their impervious stances for one amazing night.

We can easily get swept up in the holiday festivities, feeling hopeful and optimistic, maybe even stretched, as we journey through the season. Candlelight services, familiar music, seeing old friends and family can all be part of a joyful celebration.  Imagine how excited and abashed the shepherds felt in the fields as angels appeared in the sky, and how awed those who witnessed the star in the east must have been.  Signs that confirm the existence of a Mighty Counselor who will bring peace to a warring world must have been met with wonderment, curiosity, and excitement. 

But how do we live the rest of our lives – the days that no signs appear in the clouds, telling us which way to turn? Rev. Craig Barnes recently wrote an article for the Christian Century suggesting that signs don’t always lead to the joy we’d hoped for, or perhaps signs do not even appear at all.  Many of us have large decisions to make in our lives and while we long for a sign pointing us in the direction we want to go, sometimes that simply doesn’t happen. We wonder if we should retire to a new location, or take a job that we’re not sure about; we long for angels or bright stars that will lead us. But we walk in darkness; we do not see the great light! Barnes suggests that our faith will be tested in situations like these. We will have to act without signs; we will have to have the courage to move forward without clear directions or great promises that everything will turn out well.  Sometimes we have to wander in a “wonderless” desert.

Therefore, we must rely on the witness of God’s great mercy, as shown through repeated biblical texts, to propel us forward.  Dark days may cover our earthly existence, but sooner or later, we will reap a bountiful harvest.  The yoke upon us will be broken. Righteousness and justice will ultimately reign. The community of faith will shelter us, rejoice with us, and keep our crooked paths straight.

Prayer: God, keep our eyes open to the signs and wonders of your kingdom. When we walk in great darkness, carry us across the chasms of despair. Shore up our faith this Christmas season and in the days that follow. Amen.

Elizabeth Young is a member at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Visit their website at www.nyapc.org.


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