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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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The Not Normal Night

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: christmas, normal, fear, pandemic

December 24, 2020    Christmas Eve

Saint James’s, Florence

We are a remarkably diverse gathering of people this night. We come from all over the world, from so many different cultures and backgrounds and languages, so many different experiences of Christmas. It is risky, and usually unwise, to make any general statement about us.  

But having come to this night, after this year, I can say this without fear of contradiction: None of us have ever experienced a Christmas like this one. We are all a little disoriented. A lot of our year is grounded in knowing how this night will go. All year long we get battered and buffeted; when we come to this night, just this night, we come trusting that our traditions, our customs, our cherished memories of the past will somehow be honored, kept for another year.

We will sing the carols, we will see the crowds, we will jostle in the Christmas Markets, we will gather with our family and our loved ones. The world may change, but Christmas will not change. That’s all we ask.

But none of this is true for us tonight. There are no Christmas markets. There are no crowds. Florence has been without tourists for months. We can’t sing. And worst of all, we can’t travel to gather with those we love. It is a very different Christmas.

And it isn’t just that. After the year we have had, after having our comfortable assumptions shaken and our easy confidence in our own mastery over nature shattered, we are wondering—will anything ever be the same again? Will we ever get back to what we thought was normal?

There was a danger in those past days, you know. It was a danger we lived with without ever knowing we were in it. And it was simply this: Because we knew what Christmas would be like, because we loved the carols, and the crowds, and the gatherings, and the festivals, we thought Christmas itself was normal. 

It came as we expected it would, and it went as we expected it would. And maybe more often than not, as we were packing up the Christmas decorations for one more year, we have wondered—why didn’t it make any difference? What was it all about, anyway?

So maybe there is a gift in this year unlike any other year. Maybe we gain something this year, against all of the losses we have felt. Maybe without all of our usual comforts and customs, we can sense for the first time something that has been true forever: There is nothing normal about Christmas. 

We would know that was true just by reading the story again. Jesus is a born to a family on the run, either because they have to show up to please the Roman emperor, or because they have to be on the run from jealous Herod. He is born in the midst of trouble and strife, because trouble and strife are what is normal in this world.

And because he is born, born alongside us in the midst even of all this trouble, we are given a means of overcoming even this, too.

Christmas is our great claim that Christ gathers into one things earthly and heavenly. But when we say that, we make a claim that is not normal at all, not in the terms of the world around us: That there is more than this world to our lives, more than this world to what matters, more than this world to what is real, and true.

And we say this, too: each one of us carries within ourselves that fundamental truth. We are not just these bodies, each one of us once a baby like the child in Bethlehem, each one of us someday to be like the man in the grave behind the stone. 

Something about us is out of the reach, out of the realm, of this world. And that something is the presence of what is holy, and sacred, and that breaks through into this hard, brittle world of ours tonight—and for all time.

My brothers and sisters, this has been a hard year. Florence is no stranger to the ravages of pandemics, but we have never known anything like this before in our lives. We have been surrounded by suffering, and sorrow, and death. Some of it has struck very near to us. Our own mortality is no longer just an abstract idea to us. We have been humbled. And we have been scared. That is normal. And it would be normal if there were nothing more to it than that. 

But Christmas is not normal. Jesus is born right into our humility and fear right alongside us, and by his birth loves us into our own new birth in what is not mortal, what death can never touch. 

Mild he lays his glory by,

born that we no more may die.

Born to raise the ones of earth;

born to give us second birth. 

There is nothing normal in that. Oh, how I wish we could sing it. How I long to hear your voices. But because we can’t sing, listen—listen! The herald angels sing: “Glory to the newborn king.” Amen.