Schongauer, Martin, active 15th century. Nativity, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56751 [retrieved January 5, 2022]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Schongauer_-_Nativity_-_WGA21041.jpg.

RCL Christmas 1 and 2
Isaiah 62:6-12, Psalm 97, Titus 3:4-7, Saint Luke 2:1-20

You just heard once again the old story, the charming story of the Emperor and his decree; the young family, Joseph, Mary, and their firstborn son; the parents’ journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to obey the decree; the angels with their heavenly song glorifying God; and the simple shepherds, minding their own business yet receiving from God his very secrets concerning the salvation of the world. We could not observe this holy night without the old and charming story. Like many of you, I have either heard it, or been privileged to proclaim it, for enough years to make the number of those years embarrassing. With all of that history, we could all forget that the value and importance of the old story are not its charm, but the truth it tells. The story cannot be bettered. We cannot improve it. But we can illustrate it with a story that tells a similar truth, and on this winter’s night, I propose to illustrate it with another story about another Christmas Eve.

The story has been told by the widely-known preacher, Frederick Buechner.[1] As a young man, he found himself at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome on Christmas Eve. With the colossal congregation, he waited for hours for the Mass to begin and the Holy Father to appear. Finally a hush fell upon the people, and way off in the distance the Swiss Guard entered with the golden throne on their shoulders. The crowd pressed toward the aisle to get a closer look and to cheer the procession as it slowly made its way toward the Altar.

Most memorable to the young Protestant preacher was the Pope himself. Dressed in simple white, his only accessory being a white skullcap, Pius XII rode the throne anxiously not regally. His lean, ascetic face with his high-bridged beak of a nose, his glasses reflecting the light of candles, he leaned forward and peered into the crowd with an intensity all could feel. His eyes enlarged by his glasses, he “peered into my face,” Buechner writes, “and into all the faces around me and behind me with a look so deep and so charged that I could not escape the feeling that he must be looking for someone in particular. He was not a potentate nodding and smiling to acknowledge the enthusiasm of the multitudes. He was a man whose face seemed gray with waiting, whose eyes seemed huge and exhausted with searching, for someone, someone, who he thought might be there that night, but whom he had never found, and yet he kept looking. Face after face he searched for the face that he knew he would know—was it this one? Was it this one? Or this one? And then he passed out of sight.”

Tonight, I suggest something Buechner doesn’t. That night the Holy Father was looking and searching for the One, the One who is here tonight with us as He always is. He was looking for the One who looks into every face looking to find someone to save. He is here tonight as He is at every Eucharist and every gathering in His Name. He is the One in the old and charming story. He is the One who leaves the ninety and nine to find the one sheep for whom the Good Shepherd would give his life over and over again. The Holy Father that Christmas Eve long ago was looking for the One, the One who is searching to find you and to find me. He is the One whose birth we celebrate tonight. He is the One whose endless search for us gives us endless hope that He will finally find us.


[1] Buechner, Frederick. The Hungering Dark. (Nashville: The Abingdon Press, 1978), pp. 20-22.