I preached this sermon on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021, for Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN.
Just over a year ago, I had the privilege of sitting at the hospital bed with two of our beloved parishioners, Dick and Vera, just before the end of Dick’s life. He was not really conscious at the time, but it was such a blessing, given all of the complications of hospital visitation these days, that Vera was able to be there in person with him to say goodbye after many decades of marriage.
And there is one image from that afternoon that I think I will never forget—how Vera reached out to hold Dick’s hand, just as she had always done, and how, even though he was deep into his passage away from this life, his hand squeezed back, and his thumb gently caressed her hand. A memory that was deeper than consciousness, a memory of love so deeply inscribed into him that nothing, not even the approach of death, could inhibit its expression. When Vera also left us earlier this year, I thought of the two of them holding hands again in the new life that is promised to us, and it made me smile.
I remember, too, several years ago, holding my infant godson, so afraid I would drop him, so in awe that my life had even a small connection to the beauty and the possibility of this new life. I remember how his little fingers, tiny and determined, would wrap around my finger, surprisingly strong, an instinctive urge to hold on, to connect. His grasp felt like an inquiry, simple and direct: will you be there? Will you care for me? Is it true that I am not alone in this big, strange world? Can I hold onto you?
I think it might be said that from the beginning of our days to the very end, there is no gesture more fundamental than to reach out to the ones we love, to feel their fingers intertwined with ours. Because, if you think about it, this is what we always do—when we’re happy, when we’re frightened, when we’re falling in love, when we’re waiting for important news, when we can’t quite walk on our own strength, and when we must say goodbye for the last time: in all those moments of life when words fail us, we reach out, and we just hold hands.
I think it can also be said that our journey of faith is much the same—like that famous image from the Sistine Chapel of Adam and God extending their hands towards one another at the moment of creation, their fingertips separated by an infinitely small distance—underneath all of our striving and our doubting, our seeking and our praying, we are extending our hand out into the deep, into the vast mystery of life, reaching out for something certain, something true, something that endures, something (or Someone) to hold onto. When all is said and done, we yearn, quite simply for a God who will reach back and clasp our hand and say, I am with you. Hold onto me.
And that is exactly what we are given on this night. A God whom we can hold onto. A God who holds onto us. All of the music and the lights, all the activity and the excitement, all the exhaustion and ambiguity and yearning that characterize both the holidays and life in general—all of it finds its answer here, in the birth of a child in Bethlehem, in the terrified wonder of the shepherds in the field, in the song of the heavenly host, in the courageous heart of a young mother, and in the tiny hand of an infant that reaches out, surprisingly strong, towards your own hand. It is the hand of God, holding yours in the cool and pregnant darkness, and it is the answer to your own questions: I am here, now. I will care for you. You are not alone in this big, strange world. You can hold onto me.
How else would love come to find us if not like this: in the flesh, in the way we most instinctively understand? How else could God close that infinite distance between the fingertips? Only like this, only by letting us, at last, take his real, incarnate hand. Only by becoming as one of us, in order to say,
I have always loved you, I have always been for you, ever since the beginning, but now I am with you, too. And I promise I will always be here to hold your hand.
Even when everything else slips away, even when everything you counted on seems to disappear, I am here. When you laugh and dance for joy, I will take your hand and dance with you. And when you are weak and afraid, I will be there, too, for my fingers are intertwined with yours now, my life is intertwined with yours now. Just hold on.
I don’t know about you, but in the uncertain times in which we find ourselves, when the preciousness and the precariousness of the present moment are both felt so keenly, I need this good news of Christmas more than ever. I need to be reminded that even in a broken world, there is hope, and that God is still with us.
In the birth of Jesus–the birth of God among us –our outstretched hands brush against the glory of heaven. In the birth of Jesus, we find that the whole world is full of sacramental possibility, especially in those simple actions of love that make up our lives—the wound mended, the bread broken, the injustice addressed, and yes, the hand held. All, now, instruments of grace, because God has taken them on as the work of God’s own hands.
What a gift to be given. And what a gift to pass on to others. Because, essentially, that is what we are trying to do here at Trinity, as followers of this holy child of Bethlehem, this Savior born for us—we are showing up for one another and for our neighbors and for our community, especially the most vulnerable in our midst, extending our hands in love. We are facing life together, we are celebrating and mourning together, studying and praising together, hands clasped in prayer, hands clasped in greeting, hands clasped in solidarity, hands clasped in trust.
All because, on this beautiful, silent night, when even the loveliest words ultimately fail to express the fullness of our joy, a hand reaches out to us, a tiny hand from the manger, yes, but in truth a hand reaching out from across eternity, down through garlands of stars, down through the centuries of longing, down from the hidden source of our deepest wonder. And it gently caresses our own, a love so deeply inscribed into it that not even death will inhibit its expression, holding us, softly, but firmly,
as if to say, quite simply,
It’s going to be ok. I am here. Just hold on.
4 thoughts on “Hands: A Christmas Eve Sermon”
Dear Phillip, What a beautiful and meaningful message! We just buried my 96-year-old father less than two weeks ago, and this is certainly a difficult Christmas for our whole family. Your words provide comfort and hope. Have a very blessed Christmas.Helena Helena Fitch-Snyder firstname.lastname@example.org
Helena, my deepest condolences on the death of your father; sending my love to you and Will and your family this Christmas. Thank you so much for reading the sermon!
My mother and my aunt, both from out of state and visiting for Christmas, attended Christmas Eve service at Trinity – my aunt for the first time and my mother for the third (the first two being for the baptisms of her grandchildren). They were in awe of the beauty of the church and the service and both talked the rest of their visit (and I’m sure continue to do so) of how moved they were by your sermon. I must agree with them. Thank you for your beautiful and touching message on the unfathomable love and comfort of God at a time when it is so desperately needed.
Thank you so much, Lisa! Wishing you and your family a blessed new year.