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Times call for a clear understanding of why we gather

By the Rev. John Burns

By now mass confusion reigned in the gathering, and most of them didn’t even know why they had assembled. 
 — Acts 19:32 (The Inclusive Bible)

On Christmas Eve, hundreds of thousands of people will gather in the churches of this nation to celebrate. Mass confusion will reign in most of those gatherings.

Shepherds in ill-fitting bathrobes and angels with tilted haloes will be wrangled by volunteers who pray for some semblance of order in the retelling of the story of Christ’s birth. Musicians will rush through last-minute rehearsals to put the finishing touches on their rendition of “O Holy Night” or to tune their instruments before breaking into “Joy to the World” once again.

Ministers will scramble to come up with some novel thought about a story they have told more often than any other narrative in Scripture. Parishioners who haven’t been in church since Easter lilies sat where poinsettias now reside will chatter about what time the service will be over and when they can get on to whatever actually interests them on this most sacred of all nights.

Ushers will put their heads together to figure out how to seat the upswing in attendance; deacons will strategize on how to get the candles lit throughout the congregation without wounding worshipers with hot wax; and sound engineers will fumble with mic stands, feedback and proper positioning of equipment so as to capture the moment when one cherub shouts, “Today is born to you in the City of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

Across the nation, a cacophony of Christmastide will sound forth. All that mass confusion is fine. But this year, of all years, we can’t allow the mass confusion to reign without a clear understanding of why we have assembled.

Every day we are told about more men in power working under steeple, marquee, Olympic flag, capitol dome, university colors, military insignia, corporate brand, network logo and courthouse rotunda who have violated women or teenage girls in one way or another.

Mass murders continue to occur with the frequency of full moons.

Racist demonstrations give evidence that an American disease many had hoped had been quarantined to fringe extremists now marches down Main Street.

Natural disasters sweep away the hearth and home of thousands of people.

Our national politics are both ugly and inept.

If ever we needed to remember why we gather, it is this year.

We gather to remind ourselves that God has come in human flesh to be with us in our dilemma. Our dilemma of being human, being vulnerable, being fallible, being sinful. We are not a pretty picture here. We have lost our way. We need a Savior.

Nothing we have on our own is sufficient for the problems we face. Our stars in the worlds of politics, entertainment, sports, academics and religion have failed us. They do not lead us home but cause us to navigate into treacherous shores. Only one star leads us to salvation. That is the star that calls us to the birthplace of Christ.

Our only hope now is to bow together before the manger and welcome the One who has the power to confront, forgive and redeem our broken world. That’s the reason we will assemble on Christmas Eve. That’s the reason we will tell the story, light a candle, sing of peace on Earth and good will for all. That is the reason we will gather in this most dismal of times and have hope.

The Rev. John Burns is pastor of University Baptist Church, College Park, Md.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.