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A few weeks ago we had some friends over for dinner. One couple in our group has a daughter who at the time was trying to decide if she should come home from Britain for Christmas or stay put. So our conversation naturally turned to our own young adulthood and the experiences we had spending our first Christmas away from home.
For me the year was 1983. I was a 21 year old University student anticipating a semester abroad in the new year. It just so happened that my brother was cycling through Europe that fall and so I decided to make the great sacrifice of forfeiting Christmas with the family at home to meet up with him in Paris.
Sounds picturesque doesn’t it? And it was for the first few days. We went through the Louvre and up the Eiffel Tower and down the Champs d’elysee and yet the closer we got to December 24th the more the initial excitement about being “on my own” in a foreign city for Christmas began to wane.
By the time the museums and shops started to shutter their windows early on Christmas Eve and Parisians started to rush home to be with their families, we had already eaten all the shortbread cookies my mother had sent and I had opened the only gift I was going to receive from my brother days earlier: metro tickets and a Michelin guide to the city.
Later that evening, under cover of darkness, after a very unsatisfying Christmas eve dinner, sushi I recall, my brother and I walked through the quiet streets of the city making our way to Notre Dame cathedral for midnight mass.
When arrived the place was packed, standing room only. So we stood shoulder to shoulder in the nave of the church.
I never did have a very good command of the French language and my high school French was definitely not cutting it this night. I barely understood a word the priest was saying but then the organ started up and the strains of a familiar Christmas carol started to float through the air: Douce Nuit, Sainte Nuit – Silent night, holy night.
Suddenly it didn’t matter that I was far far from home or that the only person I knew in that huge cathedral was my brother standing next to me or even that I didn’t understand all of the words that were being spoken.
In that moment my soul recognized that i belonged to something bigger and more ancient than time itself.
That’s why we come to church on this night every year, (whether we come in person or we come from the comfort of our homes.)
We come, whether we know it or not, because there is something in our souls that yearns for this connection with something with a story that is bigger than our own. There’s something in our souls that recognizes that for as much as we have been running around and preparing welcome for others in this season, doing our best to be a house for the holy or an Inn of hospitality, a place of welcome has already been made for us, a place of great belonging.
And the good news is that this place is not so very far away, in fact it is with us all the time. We live in a holy house, the entire world is a home for the holy, a place where God, where the spirit is on the loose. And if ever there was a time when we need the spirit to be on the loose in the world, surely it is now.
But the message of Christmas brings us even better news than that because at the very heart of the stable is a promise passed down from one century to the next saying to us that we too, our very lives are a dwelling place for the sacred.
In the infant Jesus, lying lowly in a stable we see God’s love letter to the world proclaiming to each and every one of us “this is how I come” through human flesh and blood just like yours and because of that no matter what challenges may come our way, omicron, floods, fires, isolation, discrimination, illness, loss or grief, we can know that we are never alone, Emmanuel, God is with us as close as our very breath, infusing us and our world with incredible beauty, resilience and possibility.
That the very Source of Life, older that time itself, comes to us in the skin of a baby, the skin of a brand new beginning, fragile and yet incredibly strong reminds us that we are all a house for the holy. We are all a birthplace for the power of love to be made known in the world.
This Christmas Eve when many of us are feeling discouraged, exhausted, isolated and fearful for ourselves and for our world, may we all stop to take a moment to lean in close to the manger to listen to the newborn’s announcement saying I am here, I am with you, you are my stable, my manger, my home.