O Holy night! The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees; O hear the Angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born
O night, O Holy night, O night divine!
You may not know this, but the hymn we just sang, “O Holy Night,” is not in any of the Episcopal Church’s hymnals. After just trying to sing it congregationally, I now realize why! You may be wondering, then, why we sang it tonight… from a photocopy out of another hymnal, no less. Well, one particular line of this hymn was brought to my attention by my spiritual director and I just couldn’t get it out of my head. When something sticks like that, it’s usually an indicator that I should just lean into it—just go with it.
And that line? “… the soul felt its worth.” I just couldn’t get away from this line. Jesus came and the soul felt its worth. A baby is born and somehow humanity understands how worthwhile we are? Why? How?
Over the last nearly five years, you, the faithful members of this worshipping community, and I as your clergy have seen, lived through, experienced, and have borne a lot. As just a few examples: The growing pains of making room for an explosion of foster (and then adopted!) children, with all the smells and sounds that come along with kids! Or the sudden loss of deeply loved members in this community. And the most obvious because it’s the most recent, the issues with the wall right behind me! As I was reflecting on this line, “Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth,” I kept returning to moments in our shared lives where our souls were laid bare. Moments when we no longer had the energy or wherewithal to hide some of those things about us—as individuals and as a group—that we thought were less than enough, weren’t up to snuff, showed weakness, or showed our brokenness to each other or the wider community.
Just as one example, I remember the Sunday after dear baby Ava was reunited with her biological family and left our foster home. For those of you who may not have been here at that time, this was a little girl we picked up from the hospital at 12 days old. She was a little shaking bundle of pain and had the loudest scream you could imagine. She was withdrawing from heroin and she spent her first 3 or 4 months in waves of painful screaming and sleeping just a few hours at a time.
So that Sunday after she left our home—after we no longer could monitor her, could no longer control the situation—I didn’t have the energy to pretend I had my act together. I was in too much pain and I could do nothing but be in my pain and turn to you and Jesus and be in pain. I was scared for her. Scared about what life would be like for her without us and for us without her. We had lost a child we loved—we LOVE—so deeply.
That baby, the miracle she was and is, forced me to let go of a lot. She gave me the gift of forcing me to bare my soul. All of it. The parts of me that have failed, the parts of me that continually make mistakes, the parts of me that I do like to show others, and the parts of me that I prefer to keep hidden—like the fact that on that Sunday morning, I didn’t know if I totally trusted God that this was the right thing to happen for her. Nevertheless, it was all laid bare.
“Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”
When I look back at some of the most meaningful moments that we’ve shared over these last few years, I see times when we have been invited and oftentimes forced to look at the whole of who we are. Not just the things we like, the things we think are important, or the things that we think others want to see, but all of it.
We think that the parts we try to hide, that we’re ashamed of, that we are worried about showing others, or that we’ve actively ignored for a long time are places where God doesn’t hang out. They’re parts of ourselves that can’t possibly be part of the beauty of who we are as children of God, right? They’re things that are surely distractions from who we’re called to be, not part of who we are!
But again, the most meaningful moments we’ve shared are when we can’t keep up the charade. When the curtain between the “good enough” and the “not so good” is ripped down. In the middle of losing our sense of control, of feeling unanchored, as if the world is crumbling, or that it might all be coming to a crashing end… we realize, bizarrely and counterintuitively, that God is still here.
When I have that thought or feeling that just comes, despite my best efforts, and that I know is NOT how I should think… God is still here. In the middle of a crisis that feels like maybe we’ve done something wrong or we’re just not who we’re supposed to be… strangely, we have experienced God. There is no better example of that than having to vacate this sanctuary for a half a year only to have a profound experience of the Divine and a clearer sense of this parish’s calling in the community. When painful emotions that, frankly, are too much to bear have bowled me over and I feel out of control… When I finally have to let go, God appears and speaks worth into my soul.
The gift of the incarnation is that the Messiah’s birth—the joining of Creator to all creation—means that all of who we are is worthwhile. The gift of the incarnation is that we are now free to be fully who we are, both the smoothed-out places and the rough, jagged edges of our souls. All of it is loved by God. And God, through Jesus, joined the Divine Self with all of it.
Long lay the world, in sin and error pining. The sin of thinking that I must have my act together all the time. The error of thinking that to be a successful church we must fit a certain mold. The sin of thinking that we are only good enough Christians if we have a full church, or a beautiful building, a choir… you name it. The error of thinking that I can’t trust other Christians to see me fall apart and still love me. The sin of thinking I’m not good enough.
But then, he appears. Our souls feel their worth. A thrill of hope! The weary world rejoices! Because, weary from trying to be perfect, to be something we’re not, from worrying about things we can’t control, we finally just give up. (Which, it turns out, was kind of what we were supposed to be doing from the beginning!) We give up trying so hard… and God appears.
We have endured a nearly 6-month ordeal with this building, but it’s not over. This big pole in the middle of the chancel here is a temporary shoring up. So, rest assured, there’s still plenty of time and room for you to get tired of worrying about it and finally give it up! And God will show up, no matter what happens.
Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices! For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Tonight all of creation is joined to God. All of creation is beloved. All of creation—the things we don’t like and the things we do—all of it is known by God. Our whole soul is loved.
So, bear your soul to the Messiah. All of it. Fall on your knees. Hear the angel voices. This is the night divine when Christ was born!