About forty-five years ago tonight I went to Mid-night Mass for the first time. At that time I was a struggling professional musician and a public school teacher in Dallas. And like all struggling musicians we made most of our money during the Christmas season. I have played the Messiah so many times and various Christmas oratorios that I could probably play the 2nd French horn part in my sleep.
A fellow French horn player invited me to play at the Mid-night service at her convent. But this wasn’t a paid gig. I was just doing a favor for a friend. Sr. Lorene and I had become friends while we were playing in a local civic orchestra. We liked the same kind of beer! And we enjoyed talking about the same things. But she had something I did not: faith.
The evening began with a quiet processional with the sisters entering singing Gregorian chant in Latin with a darkened chapel and only candles lighting the faces of those around. Some of the students of the nuns and their families were there. Some of the families of the sisters came to that service too, so the place was full and warm. And something changed in this rather jaded professional musician. This was no longer a gig—it was worship! I had never been so nervous in my musical life! There is a difference in playing a job and offering your gift to the Christ of your faith.
Somewhere in that service, the world changed for me that night. And my prayer tonight is that this worship service can be that same experience for you. For I want you to know that your gift of worship to the God who loves us more than life, changes you.
All too often we go to our worship services seeking to receive something from God or the community. We want to receive our Lord in the Sacrament of the Altar. We want to hear a good sermon. We want to celebrate with our friends and family. We want to experience the delight of our children’s faces in the light of the candles. We want to revisit the excitement of our childhood naivete about Christmas. We want to experience that family richness that we remember or wish we remembered. But less often do we realize that what we do tonight is “our bounded duty.” It is our gift to the Christ child. We are here to bring ourselves to the God who loves to celebrate God’s gift to us in the Christ.
The whole purpose of Christmas is for us to remember that God had the temerity to come live with us in Jesus the Christ. In this person who came and dwelt among us has lightened our darkness, has given us ways for us to walk as the children of light. This child was destined to change us forever.
The whole of the Incarnational event is about where God and humanity meet. It says to us that holiness is not just for other people. We touch the greatness of God in the simplicity of our lives and we are ennobled by it. No longer are we the lump of clay, or the sin-filled soul. We have been raised to the greatness of God in this service tonight to give us a glimpse of what we are called to if only for a moment.
In Eastern Christianity, the Orthodox churches know that it is through worship that we brought to that newness that is symbolized by the Christ Child. Through the enactment of these holy mysteries we come to a newness in ourselves. Things change; the earth moves under our feet and our actions are turned into gift. The gift of God in the Christ becomes also the gift we offer to God in our hearts.
I know that some of you are here tonight because Mom or Grandma wanted you to come. Or it is the thing you do on Christmas Eve. But if the earth does not move under your feet tonight, keep coming back. It will. Worship does that. When the service becomes gift, it changes one’s whole perspective. When life becomes a gift, our lives change.
It is in the touch of the Holy that we can see the goodness of life. It is in this gift-giving that we know that change is possible no matter how old we are or how entrenched we are. It is in this night that we come to live into the grace that God gives in the sacrament of living this ancient story of God constant saving grace of God’s presence every moment of our lives. Our lives change when our lives become gift, when our actions become offerings of our humanity in the face of God’s holiness. And they and we are transformed.
So my prayer for you tonight is that you allow yourselves to bring your gift to the altar. Bring your hearts to the Christ Child tonight. Come to Bethlehem and see this remarkable gift that has been given us, but do not come empty handed. Offer the Child your heart. You will be changed. Amen