Photo by Max Beck on Unsplash

The last Christmas 

December 22, 2022
“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart.” George Michael’s classic Christmas song dealt with a romantic breakup, but the very same words describe what I’m going to experience on December 24 of this year. After thirty-two years of preaching Christmas Eve sermons to the same congregation, this year will be my last. I’m retiring in February, so this is my last Christmas.

Hopefully not literally. Barring unforeseen tragedy, I will celebrate numerous Christmases as the years unfold. Children and grandchildren already gather; maybe I’ll see enough time to welcome great-grandchildren around the tree, but this Christmas Eve will be the last time I tell the story in the church where I pastor.

I didn’t grow up going to Christmas Eve service. Southern Baptists in Salina, Kansas observed Christmas Eve at home with extended family and usually a ham. The high church folks spent Christmas Eve amid stained glass and lit candles, but Southern Baptists gathered around the tinsel and evergreen with grandma and grandpa. In my home, my mother prepared a holiday meal, someone read the Christmas story, we shared what it meant to us individually, sang Christmas carols, thanked God for Jesus, and opened gifts.

So, when I moved to Maryland and joined ranks with the American Baptists, I was not acquainted with what happened in church on Christmas Eve. I soon learned to anticipate the service with great joy. The Chrismons and Advent candle, the pageant and Silent Night, the words of Luke and the melody of Handel all melded to create a truly holy evening in which to welcome the Christ child.

My contribution to the service entailed a meditation. I think the 32 reflections I offered through the years could best be described as part standup comedy, part Prairie Home Companion, and part Hallmark Christmas movie. If people left saying they laughed and they cried, I felt I had hit the mark. 32 homilies on the same story, however, requires a creativity that is not always justified.

Do I have to come up with something memorable, novel, and cutting-edge for my last Christmas sermon before I retire? 

Through the years, I’ve told the story from Zechariah’s silence, Elizabeth’s anticipation, Mary’s meditative state, Joseph’s reluctant participation, the Magi’s discernment, the shepherds’ epiphany, the angels’ pronouncement, the innkeeper’s confusion, Herod’s menacing plot, and the rewarded patience of the elderly Simeon and Anna. The donkey has spoken, as well as the lambs in the field. The star somehow found a voice and the humble stable took on the power of metaphor. Even the baby in the manger had a curious insight on the meaning of the night.

When push came to shove, I added modern parables, tales of wonder, Christmas miracles, and the way it all looked through the eyes of a child. I’ve let Luke sing, Matthew evangelize, John theologize and Paul speak to the perfect timing of our God. Although I never repeated a meditation, I called on the same witnesses to add new light to the glow of the story on more than one occasion.

Now this is the last one. Is there anything left to say? Maybe a fresh political perspective on God defying the powers that worked against the newborn king. Perhaps an optimistic vision of the ability of a single child to change the world. What about inviting the congregation to rock the baby in silence as they ponder what Mary held in her heart? Could we unleash pure joy through joining the angels in announcing the miraculous birth? What if we found inspiration to burst forth from the nativity scene praising and glorifying God for all we have seen and heard? This might work: “From the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of the stone: the baby was only the beginning.” I could end my final Christmas Eve on an ominous note. “Just as Joseph and Mary brought the Christ child into that dark night, we now take him into a world every bit as dangerous and gloomy.”

Just thinking about the possibilities is exhausting. Yet don’t I have to come up with something memorable, novel, and cutting-edge for this my last Christmas? No, absolutely not. The only message worth sharing is the same message that has been part and parcel of every Christmas Eve for the last 32 years. God so loved the world that the eternal Christ came in human flesh to save us from our sins. From the first Christmas to this last Christmas, the heart of God was given to us all. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will to all.

The Rev. John Burns is pastor of University Baptist Church in College Park, Md., and author of “Modeling Mary in Christian Discipleship,” published by Judson Press.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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