Welcome friends to this Christmas Eve, a night filled with traditions at the end of a season steeped in traditions. Black Fridays have been survived. Cookies have been baked. Trees have been trimmed. Presents have been bought. Office parties have been endured. Carols have been sung. Families have gathered or disbanded, or both, and now we are here. It is no wonder that, when Charles Dickens told stories about this night, the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future all made appearances – because this night has that quality of being almost timeless. Children experience it almost entirely in the moment, while the rest of us seem able to simultaneously exist in this moment and in the memory of each Christmas that has already passed.
When I was a boy, Christmas Eve was the longest night. Our church had four services that night so my father, a church musician, left the house early and only came home for a quick dinner after the first service was done. While he was away, Mom would be in the kitchen preparing dinner for Dad and any guests we’d invited over that year. I was only marginally helpful, mostly there to keep company. As she worked, Iowa Public Radio would be on in the background so that we could listen to the annual broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge.
Listening to the BBC broadcast is like a cross between being in Cambridge yourself and watching golf on television. You can hear the congregation milling about in the minutes before the worship service begins, then a commentator whispers in hushed tones – as though his dubbed over voice might actually interrupt the ceremony – to tell the story of the lessons and carols.
King’s College has been presenting the festival of lessons and carols for almost a century, since 1918, and has been broadcasting it by radio since 1928. American public radio stations started carrying the program in the late ‘70s, right around the time my family moved to Iowa when I was in the second grade.
Standing in the kitchen, rolling up her almond crescent rolls and preparing the annual ham and broccoli soup, my mom listened to the lessons and carols, inviting us both to imagine what it would be like to be there.
“Now everyone is taking their seats,” the radio commentator would say and Mom would already be one step ahead of him. “The choir boys are in place now,” she’d reply, “and they’re waiting to see who will get the opening solo.”
This was one of those Christmas traditions that captivated me. I actually don’t know if this is true, or if it’s some apocryphal tale, but I have a vivid memory of Mom telling me that each year the boys in the choir would audition to be the opening soloist for “Once in Royal David’s City.” The choirmaster would select two boys as finalists, both prepared to sing this famous solo, being broadcast around the globe as it has for almost a century. Then, on the night of the service, as worship began, the choirmaster would raise his baton and point to one of the boys, and in the next breath that boy would sing to the world.
Like I said, I don’t know if that’s really how it happened, or happens today. But that’s what my mother told me, or at least how I remember it.
As a young singer, my active imagination transported me via the crisp vowels of the radio host to Cambridge itself, and I imagined what it would be like to be standing there in my white choir robes, waiting for the night to begin, wondering if I would be picked to sing.
The choir boys of King’s College seem like a perfect parable of Christmas to me. Like them, we have been practicing and preparing for Christmas for weeks now, for months and for years. Inside the church, our preparations have been wrapped up in the season of Advent, with its annual remembrance of John the Baptist and Mary, mother of God. These last four weeks have been all about waiting, preparing, hoping.
Outside the church, our lives have been filled with waiting, preparing and hoping as well. Not just for Christmas, but for the kind of life we suspect Christmas is supposed to represent. Family and friends. Reunions with those from whom we’ve been separated. Reconciliation with those from whom we’ve been estranged. Peace between enemies. A new beginning. These are the things for which we are waiting, preparing, hoping – and this is why a holiday that can seem so purely joyful to the youngest of children becomes complicated as we grow older. We have lived through cycles of life in which the reunions have been missed, the reconciliation has been botched, the peace has been broken, the new beginning has finished before it really ever even began. We wonder what power on earth or heaven could possibly live up to all our hoping.
Then there is this other way that the boy choir at King’s College seems like a parable for the Christmas season, and it’s in the choirmaster’s act of picking a boy to sing. Luke’s gospel begins with some serious name dropping. Jesus was born during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. So far this story sounds kind of boring and predictable. Power born into and among power. Then the scene shifts. Jesus’ family comes from Nazareth to Bethlehem, two nowhere towns on the edge of nowhere. He’s born in a barn. His crib is a feed trough. The first witnesses to his birth are rural animal keepers. Given two choices, the rich and powerful or the poor and overlooked, God picks the poor and overlooked.
Of the angels’ appearance to the shepherds in Bethlehem, Luke writes, “the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” That makes sense to me. God’s glory would seem fitting in a palace occupied by the emperor, or the court of the governor of Syria. But in a field, among the sheep, behind a barn?
As a boy, I always assumed that the choirmaster picked the best singer to sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” and that the other kid was the back-up, the understudy. In all reality, that’s probably the case. But the real story of Christmas is that God does pick the back-ups, the understudies, the struggling, the poor and the overlooked. God chooses ordinary people like you and me.
All of our waiting and preparing and hoping has been for a God who picks us! This is the good news of great joy, precisely because it is for all people! And it is a challenging truth. Perhaps we were hoping God would pick the other guy, that God would pick the emperor, or the governor, or your boss, or your parents, or anyone else but you to be born in, to change the world through. Instead, here’s what has everyone singing tonight: God has picked you! You are the one the angels are singing to out in the field, and you are the one God has chosen to sing the new song, the one about families made up of friends, about reunions and reconciliations, about peace now, for everyone, forever.
This Christmas Eve, filled with old traditions and hopeful expectations, the thing that is new is you. Tonight, and tomorrow, and for every day to come, God is being born again in you. The murmur of the crowd has finally died down on this silent, holy night and the choirmaster has raised the baton. Who will be picked? Whose voice will carry the news forth that once again in David’s royal city God has come to dwell with us?
It is you. God has picked you.