Christmas is a time when memories are made. For me, many of those memories have
to do with the Church. For as far back as I can remember, the bulk of my Christmases
have been spent in church. Before I was a priest, I was in church choirs. Christmas for
church choirs is a very busy and time-consuming holy day. For example, our parish choir
sang for our four o’clock mass and now for our 11 o’clock mass, with rehearsals prior to
the services. That was my experience, too, as I was growing up. So many of my
Christmas memories are tied up with the music of Christmas.
It’s so beautiful and heart-warming. The Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah is a
favorite, especially “For Unto us a Child is Born” and, of course, the “Hallelujah
Chorus.” But the music that’s most beloved are Christmas carols. Many of us learned
those carols at an early age and we look forward to coming to church and singing them
each year. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without that beautiful tradition.
When I was young I knew all the words to the carols, but I didn’t catch the subtleties
that are so important to me today. Take for instance “O Little Town of Bethlehem,”
written by Philips Brooks in 1868. Three years earlier he had traveled to the Holy Land
and had seen Bethlehem and the place where it’s believed Jesus was born. When he
returned to his home in Philadelphia the memory of Bethlehem stayed with him and
inspired him to write his now famous hymn.
As in so many of the hymns of the Church, there are at least two levels of meaning in
the hymn. The first is literal and the second figurative. “Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light” recalls not only the dark streets of Bethlehem in the first century,
but also the dark streets of Philadelphia in the 19 th century. How dark those streets were,
as in every city in the United States at that time. The Civil War had only ended three
years before. So many had been killed, the economy was in a shambles, places where the
war had been fought were still having trouble getting back to normal.
But he also knew that if his hymn happened to survive the test of time, those words
would speak to every age. Those dark streets of Bethlehem are not so much a place as
they are a condition of the soul. Those dark streets speak of a sense of isolation from
God and one another and even from oneself; the dark streets are the wounds each one of
us has that have left their scars, some still not even healed. Those dark streets speak of
grudges still being held, consciences nagged by secret sins, selfishness and greed in the
midst of hunger and want. Those dark streets are in New York and London and Moscow
and Kyiv and Champaign, and every place where human beings are found, because those
dark streets are in the human heart.
It is into those dark streets that Jesus, the everlasting Light, wants to shine. Just as
that Light shone on the streets of Bethlehem, so he continues to shine in our day, “where
meek souls will receive him.” I see that Light in the lives of the people of this parish and
I’m inspired by your witness.
The famous preacher, Fred Craddock, who died in 2015, tells the story of a missionary
sent to preach the Gospel in India toward the end of World War II. After many months
the time came for him to return home for a furlough.
His church wired money for him to book passage on a steamer; but when he got to the
port city, he discovered that a boatload of Jews had just been allowed to land temporarily.
These were the days when European Jews were sailing all over the world, literally
looking for a place to live. These particular Jews were now staying in attics and
warehouses and basements all over that port city.
It happened to be Christmas, and on Christmas morning, this missionary went to one
of the attics where scores of Jews were staying. He walked in and said, “Merry
The people looked at him as if he were crazy and responded, “We’re Jews.”
“I know that,” said the missionary. “What would you like for Christmas?”
In utter amazement, the Jews responded, “Why, we’d like pastries, good pastries, like
the ones we used to have in Germany.”
So the missionary went out and used the money for his ticket home to buy pastries for
all the Jews he could find staying in the port. Of course, then he had to wire home asking
for more money to book his passage back to the States.
As you might expect, his superiors wired back asking what had happened to the
money they’d already sent. He wired that he had used it to buy Christmas pastries for
His superiors wired back, “Why did you do that? They don’t even believe in Jesus.”
He wired in return: “Yes, but I do.”
The dark streets in that very dark time had a Light shine in them that night, for Jesus
Christ came to that little community of Jews through that missionary. Each one of us is
called to bring the Light to those in our families, our workplaces, our clubs, our schools.
The people with whom we associate may not be Christian, but we are, and that means
that Jesus can be present wherever we happen to be.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.