Sermon Christmas Eve Candlelight 2023                                      Rev. Betsy Hogan

Do you like a Hallmark Christmas movie? I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one. The last time I remember being able to sit down and watch a Christmas movie is in the olden days when the only movie that seemed to be on every channel – which was three channels – every time I went to sit down and watch a Christmas movie…

Was The Sound of Music. Which I’m still not sure exactly WHY it was a Christmas movie, but as a result I’ve seen it probably at least twenty times.

But not so much with Hallmark movies. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen one.

But this past week, thanks to the New York Times, I learned all about them. And their timeless appeal. Which apparently derives from one of the very oldest narrative tropes in the time-honoured Christmas canon – namely, the need for something, anything, or someone, anyone, to “save Christmas”.

Which is really no surprise how popular and pervasive it is! Because it never fails! From Rudolph with his nose so bright, to Dickens’ Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, to angels earning their wings and Good King Wenceslas looking out – we LOVE a good story about how something or someone has saved Christmas.

So according to the New York Times here is only a partial list of what’s needed to be saved in the Hallmark movies of the past five years, in order to save Christmas:

A bakery, a candy store, two toy stores, a rec centre, a local theatre, a lumber mill, a textile factory, a lighthouse on a remote coastline, a Christmas tree farm, a rundown bookstore, a village museum, a half-dozen inns at least, and the actual town of Christmas, Colorado.

It really is a wellspring of narrative trope inspiration that can never run dry. And it’s not surprising that we love it.

Which brings me to another glorious tale of how something saved Christmas, which may or may not be entirely true – but even if it’s not, it still makes volumes of meaning.

And that’s the story of how our carol Silent Night came to be. If we want to embrace it as a miracle.

Because it almost didn’t happen. Christmas Eve in 1818, in the little village of Oberndorf in Austria. And as the priest is preparing for the Christmas Eve service, he discovers that mice have destroyed the organ. Nibbled away the bellows, made the organ unplayable, left his congregation with no instrument, no music, no carolling. On Christmas Eve.

Which simply can’t be. So the priest is in a panic. Father Joseph Mohr is his name, and now he’s in a panic, and IN this panic all he can think to do is to rush home and find a poem he’s written about the birth of Christ –

And then to rush WITH that poem to the home of his church organist Franz Gruber. To beg him to write some kind of tune – ANY kind of tune – to go with this poem, that could be played instead on the guitar.

So that at least, at the very least, there’d be ONE piece of Christmas music for the congregation that evening. At their Christmas Eve service.

And thus was born Silent Night. Father Mohr’s words set to Franz Gruber’s hastily composed tune. Which he played that evening on the guitar as Father Mohr sang the words, and everyone loved it. And it still is the single most sung and recorded Christmas Carol of all of them. 

Silent Night, the carol that saved Christmas, in a little Austrian village. 

Except of course for the part where that might just be the Hallmark version. Because even though we know that Father Mohr did write it, and Franz Gruber did compose the tune, and they did first sing it with their congregation at the Christmas Eve service in Oberndorf in 1818 –

We don’t actually know if the organ bellows had been eaten by mice, apparently in a just-before-Christmas-Eve feast. We don’t actually know if the Oberndorf Christmas need saving. It might just have been that Father Mohr and Franz Gruber liked singing and liked the guitar, and together made a carol to sing on Christmas Eve. They might in fact have been rehearsing it for weeks! We actually don’t know.

But here’s the thing. That wouldn’t make Silent Night any less of a miracle. Because even if how it came about was pretty much just ordinary – just a bit of  seasonal creativity of a pair of musical churchmen to liven up their village Christmas Eve service–

It’s still a carol that with all its ordinariness is being sung tonight by candlelight in 100 different languages all around the globe. It’s still the carol that with all its ordinariness did more to betray the utter insanity of warfare on the Western Front during the First World War than virtually anything else, when German and British soldiers found themselves singing it together from their respective trenches, and crept out into no man’s land to share Christmas together. 

And it’s still the carol that with all its ordinariness wrests -- out of all the noise and violence and jarring injustice and chaotic humanness of the world, however briefly – a tiny perfect pause. 

When the veil between now and beyond is lifted. And our spirits and the Holy Spirit lean in toward each other. And all we hear is a lullabye.

Its gentleness and cradling and comforting. The tiny perfect pause.

Because it was NOT a silent night, that night in Bethlehem. Not any more then than it is now. Bethlehem at the time Jesus was born was occupied: its residents marshalled by the soldiers of Rome, its streets and alleys monitored, its mood on edge, as ever and for too long.

It was NOT a silent night, that night in Bethlehem. Not any more then than it is now. An influx of travellers arriving for the census, migrating like refugees, filling every boarding place, searching for room after long journeys. Landing in make-shift shelters, trying to figure out food.

It was no more silent then than it is now. Not in the place where Mary and Joseph landed. With the groans and wails of childbirth, and the midwife’s coaching, and the water to fetch and the cloths to wring out and the cleaning and the sweeping and the calling for fresh hay.

And then with the shepherds. All those shepherds turning up. With their sheep in tow, muttering and grumbling. Bewildered and hungry and not best pleased they’ve been dragged into town.

It was NOT a silent night, that night in Bethlehem. Not any more than it is now.

And yet, somehow, some words and a tune that didn’t HAVE to have saved Christmas in Oberndorf to be a miracle – that maybe and probably really just arose in a very prosaic and ordinary way – 

They wrest out of all the noise and chaos precisely the thin-veil holy perfect pause of Godness born, in a very prosaic and ordinary way, into the midst of it… anyway. Like a carol-shaped manifestation of the whole point, of the whole gift, of the incarnation. God with us.

It’s not Hallmark that gets Christmas right. It’s the Grinch. Who finds out that no something or someone ever needs to “save Christmas”. Because somehow or other, it comes just the same. That’s the actual point.

Under cover of darkness, in the tiny perfect pause of a lullabye carol, God slips in. Always. And we lean into the more, and we know we’re not alone, and we ponder these things in our heart. Amen.