By Rev. Ashley Harness

The story is the same every year. But we change. So we read, we sing, we listen, we ponder in our hearts, we light candles in the night and we do our best to glorify and praise Holy Love born against all odds into the most vulnerable and unlikely places.

This year, I am different in ways I didn’t want. I imagine you are too. I am grieving the loss of one of my moms who died not even two months ago. And I am fumbling my way through the long, dark nights of this season trying to figure out who I am on this side of her death. No matter if you have lost somebody beloved to you, we have all been lost and fumbling this year as we have all lived through another pandemic year. We are all trying to figure out how to live again, respecting the power of death made all too real again and again through the onslaught of variants in these pandemic times. Though the sacred story hasn’t changed, we have changed.

This year, I find myself drawn to the singing angels and shepherds. I find myself envying their seemingly easy praise of the Divine breaking into their lives. And then I pause and wonder, is that true? Was it easy praise? Is real praise of God, full-bodied, full-throated glorification of God among us ever really so easy?

Yes, sometimes. For toddlers who have yet to learn self-consciousness, who are still in touch with the innate divinity of their bodies made perfectly in God’s image, just like Jesus. I get to witness this kind of angelic host praise band daily, thank goodness. As our family seeks to find some rhythm of “normal” in our second winter largely at home because our children are still too young to be vaccinated, we have stumbled upon an after school praise break of sorts. It started as the weather got too cold to go to the park and release extra energy. It started out of necessity. Our two tiny humans began to run full speed around our dining room table with Christmas carols blaring when the older one got home from school. Eventually the running morphed into dancing. And they began to recruit their parents into the fray too. Sometimes we are referees between their bouncing, overly amped little bodies. And sometimes we are initially unwilling dance partners. But by the end of a few songs, we have all shaken out our wiggles, released pent up yells from the day and danced boldly, if badly. And we all feel better. Whether we have the words for it or not, we all notice the Holy Love breaking into our little corner of the world by the end of that dance party.

But other times, I’m realizing, praising and glorifying God is not so instinctive and not so simply joyful. To glorify God means first and foremost to recognize God. Praise is our response, the expression of that recognition of Divine presence. But as our scripture story reminds us, God shows up in the most unlikely and most vulnerable times, places and people. To spend time on those tender edges of life is holy – and it can also be scary and painful. The shepherds were terrified when the angel arrived and then a whole cascade of singing angels, remember? They were being told of God’s presence of peace arriving, but even peace, even’s God’s rest and wholeness, can be something we have to learn to recognize and welcome.

I think about my mom again. I am so profoundly grateful for the peace-filled, God-filled time I had with her in her last week embodied, incarnate and alive. I found myself singing to her, often. I sang her the same song she sang to me every night as a child –  and that I sing to my own daughter before she goes to sleep now – Silent Night.

{sing} Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

It was a song of praise to God and to my mom for my mom’s life well-lived, a song of praise for the presence of peace and wholeness finally descending upon us after so much suffering. It was a song of love that I sang through tears of tremendous grief. Recognizing God, glorifying God, and praising God is ultimately about saying thank you for God’s love made real and manifest here and now. And in all our fallible humanity, we often don’t fully recognize that holy magnificence of God except at the edges of life – around birth and around death. Around both, time stands still, or at least slows so we are sure to pay attention, so we have a better chance of recognizing Holy Love in our midst.

As I look back on that last week with my mom, I realize something about my songs of praise. I never sang them alone. Most often, there was a nurse or another family member in the room. But even when it was just me and my mom, even when she could no longer respond, I knew I was still was giving thanks and praise WITH her. Praise, is a group project, it turns out.

I think there is a reason that the original angel is joined by a whole praise team of angels to sing to the shepherds. And I think there is a reason that there is a whole crew of shepherds that bear witness to the birth of Jesus and go off to sing, to praise, to glorify God afterwards. We can’t do it alone. Unless we are toddlers, most of the time true praise feels just too ridiculous to do alone. Dance party for one is way harder than a dance party with beloveds – even if those beloveds are across zoom. We need other beings to pull us onto the dance floor, even if it’s just our own dining room. Or at least I do. Most of us are living in bodies we have forgotten are perfectly made in God’s image exactly exactly exactly as they are, made to give thanks for their incarnate gorgeousness. And other times, it’s just too hard to find our praise alone, or when we forget we are never truly alone. When we need God most is when we forget we are never alone, when we find ourselves lonely in the middle of another COVID lockdown, in the middle of the night, in the hospital, in the open field of sheep, or in a manger on a very long, cold night.

So, this Christmas Eve, let us pause to ponder with Mary the revolutionary, vulnerable and joy-filled Love (capital L) our bodies are capable of bringing into the world. Let us pause like the Shepherds to honor whatever reaction to that Love we might have at first, even if it is as unwelcome as fear or grief. Let us pause like Joseph to humble ourselves and be amazed that Love dared entrust itself to our care. Let us pause like the angels to praise Love’s presence – to sing, to dance, to give thanks in whatever way is true – together. Because distant though we may be, we are never alone. God is always, always being born within and among us, here and now, at the beginning, at the end, and everywhere in between of life. Amen.