Christmas Eve was upon me, and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't stand back from those familiar readings and wring some sort of meaning from them for the sake of all those upturned faces sitting in the pews. I was emotionally exhausted and intellectually drained. I could barely make sense of those readings myself. So, I decided not to preach at all.
Most Sundays, in the days when I was a parish priest, I felt that my duty was to offer an explanation of the week's readings from the Bible, specifically, the Gospel reading, focussing on the life and teachings of Jesus. I was quite fastidious about this, perhaps to a fault. The New Testament epistles and the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures were often given short shrift relative to the Gospel reading, something I now regret.
Furthermore, I felt that my explanation had to have some direct application to the lives of my congregation. It wasn't an academic lecture. It wasn't just parsing the text for its more obscure meanings, providing historical context, or referencing generations of theological interpretation. It was, to my mind, more than anything an invitation. I saw myself offering my hearers an opportunity to enter the passage and live inside it awhile, drawing their own take-away conclusions.
Often, I'd tell stories. One church member once said to me, "I know what you're doing. You tell us a story. Then you raise an issue or a question. And then you use the Gospel reading to shed some light upon it." Busted! But another member was less certain, saying, "Brian, I never know where you're going. But you always seem to get there."
Still, there were times I didn't want to stand between my congregation and the biblical texts. One such time was Good Friday. After years of trying to make sense of it all, I gave up. We would read the passage about the crucifixion, often dramatically, with participation by the whole congregation. The choir would lead us in an extended musical meditation. And then I'd sit down and we'd all have a good long reflection on those horrific events that Christian tradition has interpreted as "good." I would let the story speak for itself.
Most often, when I did this, I think the congregation relished not being preached at for a change, engaging with the story in their own way. Christmas Eve and Easter morning were not those times, though. The church would fill with people for whom churchgoing was a seasonal obligation. They were maintaining contact, keeping the lines of communication open, dropping their annual donation on the plate, and perhaps assuaging a little guilt. And they wanted a proper sermon.
But that year, I couldn't give them what they wanted. My marriage had just broken up. My children were spending Christmas with their mother. I had work to do that held me to my responsibilities right up until the last minutes of Christmas Eve, leaving afterward to go home to my borrowed apartment alone and feeling miserable. Then, in the morning, I had to get up and do it all again. I wasn't sure I had any hope to share with my people.
But I knew that the story did. The birth narrative, whether the version with the shepherds or the one with the wise men, or even the one with the mystic ramblings ("In the beginning was the Word ..."), was all about hope and hope's fulfilment in the birth of a child. That birth was surrounded by darkness: a population uprooted through the whim of a dictator; people shutting their doors to a constant stream of travellers and strangers; the oppressive, ever-present threat of an occupying force. And yet ...
That year I needed more than ever to hear the "and yet" part, even if I wasn't able to preach it. I needed to hear the story with fresh ears and an open heart. I needed to feel again its healing power. So, I re-wrote it. The shepherds became a city utility crew. The magi were university faculty. And the Holy Family was a poor couple in a broken-down Rambler station wagon, taking one difficult step at a time toward their new life.
Here's that story, Christmas in a Car Wash. May it bring you just a little hope in these dark times, as only a story can do. Just press the Play button.