“O Holy Night”

Christmas Eve: O Holy Night

A sermon by Rev. Keenan Kelsey, Noe Valley Ministry, December 24, 2022

O Holy Night. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.

Outside these doors, the culture is Christmas holiday.  In here, it is Christmas holy day. And there is a world of difference.

On holidays we run from our duties; on holy days we face up to them.

On holidays we try to empty our minds; on holy days we try to replenish our spirits.  On holidays we reach out for things we want; on holy days we reach up for things we need.  Holidays bring a change of scene; holy days bring a change of heart.

What will be your change of heart tonight?

One place that holy days and holidays do intercept is in giving. A gift is a way to mark special days.  On this holy night, God gave the world a gift.  something— or more particularly some one.

This someone was not a baby God,  rather this someone was a manifestation of God in this world., a revealing, an embodiment.  Coming into this world as we all come, as a vulnerable, dependent, unique baby child, ready to learn and to grow and to flourish, Jesus becomes our partner, a guide, a way to see and know and embrace God in our lives.

This is our gift from God. But remember what the children decided in our StoryTime…is it better to give or to receive?  The answer is both!

God gives us this gift. And like Mary and like Joseph, our angels ask us not just to accept the gift. but to give our own gifts.

Christmas gifts are not necessarily those on anyone’s list for Santa, but the ones that pay the love forward in love and generosity and compassion and forgiveness, and imagination.  A change of heart can lead to a change in both receiving and giving.

In 1941, Hitler’s armies were invading the city of Leningrad. The staff of the famous Hermitage Museum worked around the clock to load priceless paintings and sculptures onto three trains and move them to places of safety.  Not even the Museum Director knew the destinations. Hitler’s forces soon surrounded the city in a massive blockade, trapping two and a half million people under appalling conditions of hunger and deprivation. Only two of the trains had managed to leave the station. It was dire indeed.

Meanwhile, knowing how important it was for the citizens of Leningrad to have some diversion, the museum staff kept their palatial building open to visitors. Only minor works remained on display, but the building itself was a work of art.  And maybe, as the beleaguered city dwellers walked through its half-empty halls, gazing at so many empty frames, they might remember what once had been, and would be led to hope for its return.

The day came when even the Hermitage building itself came to be at risk.  Bombs falling nearby shattered the windows. Heavy snows drifted in, soaking the once elegant parquet floors. Desperate to save what could be saved, the museum staff enlisted Russian soldiers to shovel up the mixture of snow and glass, take it out bucket by bucket, and install new windows to protect the building.

There was no material way to thank the soldiers for what they’d done. But then, a longtime Hermitage guide, Pavel Dubchevski, had an idea. He offered to give the soldiers a highly unusual museum tour.
Dubchevski led the hollow-eyed, starving men, clad in their ragged uniforms, through the cavernous halls of the museum. So many picture frames hung empty on the walls, but the guide paused at each one, describing to the soldiers the painting that used to hang there.  Later, the soldiers would recall that his descriptions were so vivid and powerful that they almost felt they could see the world-famous art treasures.

Pavel Dubchevski, was filling a role that day very much like that of a prophet, very much like that of Jesus/ He brought his gifts of imagination to bear – and created for those who might otherwise be sunk in despair a vision of hope. Where there was only empty darkness, he painted on the canvass of starving dreams, creating a prayer for a bright new day.

What kind of gift will you be giving at Christmas? What kind of eyes, what kind of heart, do you have that will recognize such gift when they are offered to you?

May Christmas wake you up and allow you take responsibility for the gift you are. Are you open to the presence of God, entering once and for all into your being, and into our midst. If you are, you need nothing else.

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