My very first Christmas as a pastor I was a "licensed pastor." That meant I could perform all the pastoral duties (sacraments, marriages, sermons, pastoral counseling, leading worship) that an ordained pastor could, but only at the church I was "licensed" for. (The standing joke among us (“us” being the handful of seminary students who were licensed pastors) was that the Holy Spirit left us when we left the church grounds, and re-entered us when we returned to holy ground.) I was asked to continue the church's tradition of a Christmas Day service, "for the old people." None of the people who asked me would be there, they assured me; this was only continued "for the old people."
So I decided to try something I'd learned about in a church in the town where I grew up, a Bavarian custom (or Mennonite, I'm still not sure) of serving hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls for "communion" on Christmas Eve. Word quickly got around about what I was doing, and the Powers that Be were quite upset about my "Communion." They finally decided I could get away with it as long as I didn't call it "communion" (Wine and bread only are sacramental, even to UCC'ers. At least old E&R UCC'ers.) I aroused so much curiosity I had almost as many people there on Christmas morning as I usually had on Sunday mornings. I made it relaxed and casual and everybody stayed after to finish off the food (at my urging, but it didn't take much). It's still one of the happiest memories of my brief pastoral career.
I didn't give a sermon that day. The service itself was abbreviated, but I knew a service of "communion" (which it was, but it wasn't. Paul, I'm sure, would have approved.) needed a service of the Word. I read scripture for Christmas Day from the Lectionary, but I didn't preach. Instead, I read this:
The World in a Bowl of Soup
by Annie Dillard
Once there was a great feast held in a banquet hall of such enormous proportions that you could not believe men built such a thing. Two thousand chandeliers hung from the ceiling: lumber cut from all the world’s forests made the walls and parti-color floor. Great loose areas of the hall were given to various activities: there were dances and many kinds of gaming: a corner was devoted to the sick and injured, and another to the weaving of cloth. Children chanted rhymes wherever they gathered, and young men sought pretty girls in greenhouses or behind the damask hangings of booths and stalls.
The feast lasted all night long. Guests sat at a table as long as a river that stretched down the middle of the hall. No one cloth could cover such a table, nor could one centerpiece suffice. So the table was decorated in hundreds of different themes, with different combinations of colors and kinds of tableware, with various carved figures and various drinks, and with lively musicians in costume playing to each set of guests a special music.
There was only a single course served to the guests, but that was a soup made of so many ingredients it seemed to contain all other dishes. The soup was served continuously, all night long, and there were so many guests that all the places at the table were always taken, and the benches always full, when the servants ladled the soup into the endlessly decorated array of metal, glass, wood, and pottery bowls.
Now, the host of this feast was a young man of tremendous wealth and power who stood behind a curtain on a balcony above the great hall and watched the guests as they ate and drank at the long table. He thought: “All night long people have been eating as much soup as they wanted and then coming back to the table for more. It is good that they enjoy themselves. But not one person has seen or really understood the excellence of that soup.”
So the host parted the curtain a crack more and let his gaze fall. It fell directly on an old man who happened to be sitting at the table in his line of vision, looking about and thinking of nothing at all. At once the old man felt an overwhelming sense of power, an impact as if his spirit had been struck broadside and wakened to a flood of light. He bowed his head and saw, through charged eyes, his bowl of soup that had come alive and was filled to endless depths with wonderful things.
There were green fields in his soup bowl, with carrots growing one by one, in slender rows. As he watched, transfixed, men and women in bright vests and scarves came and pulled the carrots, one by one, out of the soil, and carried them in baskets to shaded kitchens, where they scrubbed them with yellow brushes under running water. He saw white-faced cattle lowing and wading in rivers, with dust on the whorled and curly white hair between their ears. He saw tomatoes in kitchen gardens set out as seedlings by women in plaid shirts and by strong-handed men; and he watched the tomatoes as, before his eyes, the light from the sun blew each one up like a balloon. Cells on the root hairs of beans swelled and divided, and squashes grew spotted and striped in the fall. Wine aged in caves, and the barrel maker went home to his wife through sunlight and shade.
He saw the ocean, and he seemed to be in the ocean himself, swimming over orange crabs that looked like coral, or off the deep Atlantic banks where whitefish school. Or again he saw the tops of poplars and the whole sky brushed with clouds in pallid streaks, under which wild ducks flew with outstretched necks and called, one by one, and flew on.
All these things the old man saw in his soup. Scenes grew in depth and sunlit detail under his eyes and were replaced by ever more scenes, until, with the flight of wild ducks, the worlds resolved into one blue sky, now streaked, now clear, and, at last, into soup again, dark soup, fragrant in its bowl. The host had let the curtain fall shut.
The man blinked and moved his head from side-to-side. “I see now,” he said to himself, “that this is truly an excellent soup, praise God.” And he ate his bowlful and joined the dancers in a daze, a kind of very energetic daze.
May it be unto you according to your faith. Merry Christmas, and the happiest of holidays, to you and yours.