The custom of holding Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve originated at King’s College in Cambridge in the year the Great War ended. It was a rather fancy way to tell a simple story, high church and glorious. But whether you tell it in a Gothic cathedral with priests in surplice and cassock, or in a village church with little kids in bathrobes and paper crowns, it’s the same story repeated, wondered at, puzzled over, relished, and entered into for 2,000 years. And whether it’s sung with sophistication by boy choristers in ruffles accompanied by a masterful organ, or with a willing simplicity by a few octogenarians at a church piano, it’s the same song, sung with astonishing trust in its ancient oddness and candid faith in its startling relevance.
It’s such a good story. And so we tell it and we sing it year after year until its truth dawns on us, its power changes us, its vision redirects us, and all its promises come true. No matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey, it’s a story and a song for me, for you, for all.
If you’re a little restless in spirit, if every now and then you’re blindsided by a longing you can’t quite name, if you’ve ever felt far away from yourself, as if you’re missing some meaning you were made for, if you wish you could clear away what’s standing between you and the joy you know is for you—if that’s how it is with you, restless and far from yourself, the story and the song are yours. The story, about a people in lonely exile, yearning for a light, for someone to bring them home. The song, your own heart’s cry for a breakthrough, for joy at last—O Come, O come. Rejoice, rejoice. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.
If you’re exhausted from the effort to climb to the top, if your heart’s a little soured from doing the things it takes to get there and stay there, if you’re asking yourself what it’s costing you, whether you might be happier some other way—if that’s how it is with you, tired of climbing, the story’s yours, and so is the song. The story, about a God who comes down, lays his glory by, abandons privilege to become small, and all for love. The song, a wondering, a question for Christ, a question for you—‘Is it love that leads to leaving?’ If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.
If you’re feeling stymied as you survey an unjust world, if you’re angry and depressed about how little things change, if you’re tempted to throw in the towel—if that’s how it is with you, edging to the brink of despair, the story’s for you, and the song. The story about the fear and panic engulfing a proud tyrant’s city, while in a village just nine miles away—light-years away—heavenly peace holds sway as an infant sleeps at his mother’s breast. The song, a vision, the powerful down from thrones, the poor up from the dust, justice no longer denied. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.
If you’ve made a mess of something, maybe your life, if there are unkempt places in your heart you’d rather never come to light, if you know what you deserve and fear an accounting, if you think you’re not good enough for God to love you—if that’s how it is with you, hiding something, ashamed, the story is for you tonight, and the song. The story of a truce between earth and heaven, of pardon and peace and the erasure of shame, a story in which the feared judge turns out to be like us, helpless and vulnerable, knowing our weakness well, from the inside out. The song rejoices in a Child who pleads for us, a heaven born prince with healing in his wings. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.
If you’re sad tonight, if you carry a heart pierced with the fresh pain of recent loss, or an old loss still vivid and sharp, if you’re acting brave but really want to curl up and cry—if this is how it is with you, grieving, bereft, the story’s for you, and the song. The story about a hard journey, following a star on sheer faith, keeping company with others in the long cold night as life and love are somehow born again. The song is sure: the Child feels for all our sadness, you are not alone. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.
And if you’re joyous, at peace and full of hope, if you’re amazed by all the love you’ve received and all the love you’ve given in your life, if even your sacrifices are wellsprings of joy, if your thanks cannot be counted—if this is how it is with you, awestruck and grateful, the story is for you tonight, and the song. The story about love in the beginning, about love in the end, about light in darkness that darkness cannot overcome, about the unaccountable graciousness that makes you God’s child, the apple of God’s eye. The song is glory in the highest, love’s come down to earth for us, and earth repeats the joy. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart.
Dear friends in Christ, the church doesn’t offer certainty or safety. Faith won’t fix your problems or pay your debts. We have no armies, no power to force right where there is wrong. No doctrine or rule in our tradition can change a heart or mend it. We have nothing efficient to offer the world. But we have a story. We have a song. The story of fierce love, the song of tenacious hope, the surprise of a God in flesh appearing. The Christmas story, and we tell it tonight to you, in this good company. In good company, we sing it with you tonight. With all who need to hear it, with all who need to sing it, we share it with love. No matter who you are, no matter where you find yourself on life’s journey, it’s yours. A gift to you from God.
May it save your life, heal your heart, soothe your pain, shield your gladness, awaken your desire, strengthen your hope, and give you joy that never ends.