Christmas Eve - All the weary world

The Nativity, for Liturgy

Last Tuesday, I was part of an event downtown called “Unhappy Holidays.” In a cozy space decorated with twinkling lights, in the midst of a table full of snacks and cups of warm beverages passed from hand to hand, a group of people from our community gathered to share our stories, our pains, our hopes, and our mutual recognition that the holiday season that is filled with joy for so many people can also be a season of grief for others.

Together, we joined in singing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” one of those hidden-gem Christmas carols that doesn’t get sung as much as other favorites, like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “Away in a Manger.” It is one of those carols that, if we know it at all, we know the first verse, and even then, we might fumble the words at the end.

Together, we sang all four verses together, starting off feebly in unison, and then gaining confidence and singing in heartfelt harmony as the song continued. Because once you get past the first verse, a perfectly nice stanza about angels singing at midnight about peace on earth, you enter into a second and third stanza that speak deeper truths about the burdens of our world and the longings of our hearts:

Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heav'nly music floats o'er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hov'ring wing,
and ever o'er its babel sounds the blessed angels sing.

And you, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow;
look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!

Maybe it just speaks to my own lack of sleep these days, but I was struck by the compassion that these heavenly angels have for the weary world; for its sad, exhausted, lowly places; for those whose forms are bending low beneath the crushing load of life; for those who seek rest, those who are tired.

As I think about the Christmas story, from the plodding donkey making his way to Bethlehem to sleepless new parents to shepherds on the night watch, I realize that, first and foremost, the Christmas story is a story told by tired people for the sake of tired people.

Are you feeling tired tonight?

Maybe you are tired like a donkey. You carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, weight that is is incredible or holy or essential work, but tiring nevertheless. Your back is tired from walking this long road shouldering other people’s expectations and hopes and dreams. You are weary from the journey. You plod through this life as a beast of burden, and even when you are loved and appreciated for your work, your body and your soul yet long for deep rest, for restoration.

Are you feeling tired tonight?

Maybe you are tired like a shepherd. You sit awake at night, keeping watch over what is precious or helpless. You work nights, when the rest of the world is hushed. Your mental lists of the tasks of the day run through your head even in deepest dark, keeping your brain from shutting down enough for you to get some rest. You keep watching the clock, or watching the stars, as you try to balance your own rest and well-being with the needs of those who depend on you. All you want is one, good, uninterrupted night of sleep where you are free to rest, to dream, to leave the lists and the anxieties behind.

Are you feeling tired tonight?

Maybe you are tired like an innkeeper. Your routine and your sleep cycle keep getting interrupted. You feel tired of crowds, of the bustle, of the stuff, of the “too much-ness” going on about you. You want to live your vocation, you want to provide for others, but your inn is full, your resources are depleted. You want a nap. You want the city to rest. You want all creation to take a deep, cleansing breath. You want everything to slow down.

Are you feeling tired tonight?

Maybe you are tired like Joseph. You care for those whom you love, even when it is hard. You keep up with the demands of work and family and empire. You keep finding yourself on difficult journeys that were not of your own choosing, that were demanded of you by those in power, or by your faith, or by your conscience. You long for a safe place to rest, for security, for a temporary release from the obligations put upon you, the good ones and the hard ones and the oppressive ones alike.

Are you feeling tired tonight?

Maybe you are tired like Mary. You bear hope, even when it is exhausting. You say, “Here am I” as you offer your whole self to the call of love and service and sacrifice. You sing for justice and your voice is wearing out. You know the pain of bringing new life into the world. You are summoned awake by crying in the middle of the night, by the needs and hungers of the world. You know what it is to be both weary and expectant. You want the world to hush, to cease its strife. You want a world at rest, a cosmos at peace with itself.

Are you feeling tired tonight?

Then come to the manger. Follow the star. Hear the angels singing. Cuddle up in the straw with the barn cats and the watchful sheep and the restless goats.

For here, in the manger, is a baby, new-born, opening his sleepy eyes to the world.

There is no weariness, no exhaustion of body or spirit that this baby will not experience in his lifetime; there is no weakness or despair that this baby will not ultimately redeem and refresh.

This baby born tonight will walk weary and burdened journeys, like the donkey. This baby born tonight will watch sleeplessly over us as a good shepherd caring for his sheep. This baby born tonight will give all his energy bring all into the family of God, even though he will scuffle with the powers of the world because of it. This baby born tonight will say “Here am I” to a life of self-giving love, even unto the sleep of death.

Because baby born tonight is God, entering our weary world.

This is the point of Christmas: not that Jesus came into a perfectly-caffeinated, awake, alert, ready-for-a-savior world, but that Jesus came into a weary, bleary-eyed, tired-of-the-babel-sounds, desperate-for-a-savior world. Into the very heart of the middle of the night, God broke open the sleeping skies with the cries of a baby that woke his mother and shook the foundations of the earth. The song of the angels - the heavenly music drawing forth the glad and golden hours of peace - woke the world to a new vision of hope, of justice, of grace, of mercy, of salvation and restoration for all people, all creation.

To all my tired siblings in Christ, take heart. You will not be tired forever. Indeed, even now, in whatever your weariness, you are yet blessed by the God who comes to you this night to walk all of your weary roads alongside you.

And so, on this holy night, whether it be restful or restless, hear now these words of John O’Donohue, from his poem, “For One Who Is Exhausted, a Blessing:”

Your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

May the world slow down enough tonight for you to catch a glimpse of a star in the sky and a light on the horizon; may the earth pause enough tonight for you to catch the faint sound of a baby’s cry on the wind and the song of the angels through the trees; may the slow time of this holy night bring joy to you, and hope, and light, and more than anything else, rest to your waiting spirit.

All you, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow; look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing; oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!

Alleluia! Jesus Christ is born this night.
Thanks be to God.