Isn't it funny how we get Christmas Eve just slightly off.
We gather and we light our final Advent candle and we sing "Silent Night" and we have our candlelight service, and we rarely -- or at least, I rarely -- remember that wer'e a day early.
Because we make such wonderful associations with the peaceful evening and the sense of going to sleep and resting to await the celebration of Christmas Day, it's easy to get our minds fixed on the idea that our Christmas Eve service marks Jesus' birth. But even if he was born at night, he would have been born at least four or five and as many as 24 hours after the time we gather to celebrate.
And we call it Christmas Eve because it's the day before Christmas. And in a lot of our churches, we rarely worship on Christmas Day, but almost all of us hold at least one Christmas Eve service. Sometimes, of course, they're very late, so they end after midnight and we're actually celebrating on Christmas Day when we finish.
Lots of things contribute to this trend. Families gather during this time, and people find it easier to have their family celebrations of gift-giving and meals without having to sandwich church services into the mix. Pastors have the same concerns -- their families don't like crazing up the schedule any more than does anyone else. I can sympathize, but I want to be very careful about pushing worship times around here and there for convenience sake. It's not a good habit to get into.
Many older church traditions include Christmas day worship. I have a friend in our conference who begins a Christmas day service at the churches he serves. Why, he asks, would you not worship the Lord on the day of his birth?
And like I said, while I don't want to get into the habit of bumping church around to fit everyone's schedules, there is also an element of getting too wrapped up in a particular day. Because to tell the truth, we don't know what day is Jesus' birthday. The early church picked December 25th for a variety of reasons.
It helped offset some of the pagan celebrations and rituals around that time of year. People who had just converted to Christianity could move from celebrating their festivals to celebrating the birth of their new Savior. It was also near the winter solstice, the day when the amount of time between sunrise and sunset stops shrinking and starts increasing. What better time to mark the beginning of the Light of the World than the day in which light only began to increase?
But to be perfectly honest, the pick of December 25 is throwing a dart at a board with 365 squares. We have no way of knowing for sure, and even if church tradition makes this time of the year more likely, we're still making a guess as to the exact date.
There's a part of me that would like to emphasize how we don't know which day Jesus was born, so we could never be sure if we were wishing him happy birthday on the right day. Not because I'd enjoy the uncertainty, but because it would remind us to celebrate his birth every day, which is what we as Christians ought to be about anyway.
Think about how you'd feel if someone you knew wished you happy birthday every day because they didn't know which one was your actual birthday. Upset because they didn't know? Perhaps, but you could also receive well-wishes every day! Wouldn't that be kind of neat?
You know, unhooking our celebration from this exact calendar date might ease some stress. No deadline for baking, no one day of the year when everybody has to fly through O'Hare or DFW, no putting up with Uncle Grump who drools too much and can't keep quiet about his wildly inappropriate wartime Christmas stories...
And it might move us towards the idea of expressing gratitude for God's gift of Christ Jesus more times than just at the end of December. After all, the good news of great joy to all people was to all people of all times, at all times. That's one of the things that makes it so good.