Christmas, 2007

ADVENT'S WAITING ENDS: CHRIST IS BORN!

“You believe that Christ has come among us,
sharing our humanity;
you look for him to come again.
May his promise give you hope,
and may his coming bring you freedom!”
(From the Solemn Blessing used at the end of Mass in Advent)

The One who is never absent in his power
is made present to us now in his weakness.
“God’s weakness is strength for the lowly.
From his exalted loftiness he made the world;
by his lowly humility he conquered the world.”
(Augustine, Sermon 196A,1)

The Incarnation of the Word of God
“proclaims the grace of God coming to us
without our having deserved it in any way,”
bringing “gifts of wisdom and knowledge.”
(Augustine, The Trinity XIII, 23&24)

The Gospel This Year

On the First Sunday of Advent we began the year of reading from St Matthew’s Gospel. We put away Luke for another two years – after Matthew this year and Mark next. (John, of course, we read in Eastertime every year.)

In the season of Christmas, we will read from Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth and infancy – the story of the Three Kings, for example – and from John’s magnificent Prologue about the Word of God becoming flesh. But, even in this particular year of scripture readings at Mass – Matthew’s year – we will turn to Luke for the best known and best loved account of Christ’s coming in human flesh.

To Become Part of the Story

“At that time a decree went out from Caesar Augustus….” As with all our well loved passages in literature or music, the very sound of those words brings to our mind in an instant the whole story – here, of course, Luke’s story of that first Christmas. That opening phrase acts as a symbol: it suddenly conjures up a whole world of meaning; it suddenly transports us into another world, another place, another time. It breaks into our ordinary life and lets us see other, new possibilities; it expands our minds and our hearts. It allows that story of two thousand years ago to become part of the experiences that we have lived through.

You know that hymn, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” Well, no, I wasn’t there in my physical body. It was too long ago.

But, yes, I was there. I am human, you see, and I have been many places I haven’t been. (Yes, you did read that sentence right.) I have never seen Mt. Fuji but if you brought me to it now by some kind of teleportation, I would know exactly what I’m looking at. Ayers Rock in Australia – Uluru, the native people call it – or the Parthenon in Athens or the ancient Sphinx of Egypt – same thing.

Christ Present for Us

But there’s something else here, something more profound – more human, really, because it’s not so automatic as learning what a far-off place looks like.

I have taken part in the celebration of Eucharist. Now, that celebration looks a bit like Jesus’ Last Supper. (It’s supposed to; Jesus set it up that way.) But we celebrate it – indeed Jesus celebrated it – to make present for us his death and resurrection: the “mystery of faith” – “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!”

“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” you ask me? Yes. Yes, I was. (I was even part of the reason it happened. You, too!)

The stories of Scripture are also supposed to give us the feeling that we were there. On Passover the Jewish people say, It is not our ancestors that escaped from slavery, it is we ourselves. They – and we – were there.

The Little Town of Bethlehem

Have you been to Bethlehem? I have not – bodily. I suspect I won’t get to go. National Geographic recently did a piece on poor Bethlehem. These days Mary and Joseph couldn’t get in.

It’s a Palestinian city, walled in, with an Israeli check-point as you enter. The only Jewish people allowed in these days are the army on official business. Not people like Mary and Joseph.

Matthew’s Gospel gives a high number of Bethlehem children killed by Herod after he learned through the Wise Men the likely birth date of that new and dangerous King that had been born in Bethlehem of Judea. Some people question whether the number could possibly be that high.

Never mind. Whatever number ancient Herod missed in his purge has been more than made up by people over the centuries who have continued killing off the descendants of those old Bethlehemites. In our century, too.

But the old town of Bethlehem? Yeah, we were there – there on that night when human history changed forever, that night that made everything different from then on.

Warmth and Light

Luke’s story of Christ’s birth is gentler than today’s situation. There is a warmth in his telling. Matthew and Mark can be impersonal sometimes, not Luke. Luke – praise God that we read him now, in the dark of the year; that’s when we need him.

We spoke in an earlier season about the stories Luke’s Gospel recounts as we drew near the end of Lent and toward the Passion of Christ, stories of forgiveness, compassion, and mercy. Luke provides a good light in which to see Jesus’ love and gentle care. We talked of light that shines not just vertically, but washes over things in a sort of horizontal, human fashion, and brings out unexpected colors, new ways of seeing things. That new-seeing, not-so-vertical light brought blessing to the woman taken in adultery and to the Prodigal Son.

Evening and Autumn

Such is the light of autumn. Such is the light of evening – of the sacred evening time that begins each new Hebrew day. A paradoxical light it is, for it is evening and it is beginning, the setting of the sun and the start of a fresh new day.

Luke shows us something else about the paradoxical, horizontal light of evening that begins the day. That light can illumine dark December nights on Judean hillsides. That light can bend around the corners of our human seeing and shine light into a dark womb, one too old or one too new to have its own life and light.

It is a light that can enter anywhere, fill any life, a young virgin’s or a sadly childless old woman’s, Mary’s or Elizabeth’s. Or ours.

The Sweep of Luke’s Story

As Luke tells us the Christmas stories, we see the great expanses of the universal heavens – and we see the cozy, protective wrapping of tiny swaddling clothes. The story begins:

“The angel Gabriel was sent from God
to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,
to a virgin betrothed to man named Joseph,
of the house of David,
and the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Lk 1:26)

In the heights of Heaven the angel is sent – to Galilee, the province, we’re first told, then to Nazareth the town – to a virgin first, some yet unnamed virgin – then, passing by her husband and his royal ancestor, Luke gives us her name in the gentlest, most reverent way: “and the virgin’s name was Mary.”

What a beautiful phrase! Sometimes it would be nice if English had all the nuances of reverence, awe, and respect of, say, Japanese. But even in English, the gentle and reverent phrasing of that line stands out.

But Luke begins again at the most private, then transcends all private life, taking us back up to Heaven’s heights: “in your womb,” “will be born” – so intimate; then “name him” for the public – then the “throne of David, his father,” “rule over Jacob,” “his kingdom… forever.”

In the story of Christmas itself – the Gospel we read at midnight – Luke narrows in from the whole Roman Empire – “the whole world”! – to a manger and swaddling clothes. But then – out again to the hills (Remember the description of the coming Messiah: “the desire of the everlasting hills”?) – and from there to the “highest” heaven and the angel choirs.

A Melody of Color, a Palette of Sound

Luke plays. He plays with light; he plays with words. Not like poker or Monopoly. He plays a symphony, a concerto, a great improvisation of jazz. He gives us the colors and the music of Christmas. (It’s even true, isn’t it? Christmas “sounds like” passages from Luke’s Gospel!)

But all the color and all the musical harmony and even the unresolved, as-yet dis-harmony – they are from Luke, right? Almost all, anyhow; we do get a lot of unaccustomed color and swaying Asian rhythms from Matthew’s Three Kings, don’t we?

God’s Compassion

How fitting it is to see here the same kind of oblique light that animates the stories of the Prodigal and of the woman they brought before Jesus. How appropriately we leave aside clear, well demarcated legal notions of justice and procedure. They’d be out of place in the Christmas story.

Christmas is the antithesis of such an approach to righteousness. We need Luke’s oblique light and nuanced notions. It’s already hard enough to try to make sense out of a God who sets divinity aside to empty himself and come in human form. Luke’s peremptory imperial tax and Bethlehem’s inhospitable hostelry and beastly manger – we need those images to understand what God is really doing.

God, with infinite generosity and unquenchable love, sets aside the clear logic of justice on Christmas night and shines his divine light into places where light has never been. In that divine light things before unknown come to pass – in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem and Judea, and unto the ends of the earth.

If we don’t catch sight, for at least a moment, of poor, pregnant Mary bouncing along the ways of Judea on a donkey; if we don’t suddenly smell a whiff of oxen, sheep and donkeys grazing and sleeping nearby; if we don’t recall how lowly the scruffy night-guard shepherds were in the pecking order of ancient Israel – if none of that happens, it’ll be hard to appreciate what God is doing for us Christmas night.

But Luke Doesn’t Say….

There is one thing we add that Luke does not say. I’m sure it never occurred to him. But it helps us understand Christmas and how such a thing comes about.

Snow.

Yes, weather historians tell us that it was a particularly cool time in the Near East, back around the year of Christ’s birth. But that’s only a matter of a few degrees.

Yet, so, so often, when we depict the manger scene of Bethlehem, we put snow in the picture.

Snow – especially to a child, but also to child-like eyes in a wise old head – often seems to be a kind of blessing, a caress that heaven gives to earth as it falls. And snow lying in peace on the soil of earth seems a sabbath out of season, an extra, unexpected reminder that all does not come merely by human willing. Snow is Nature’s Season of Advent. For snow brings waiting into our lives.

Maybe that’s why we so oddly depict the angels of God with their message of hope and love hovering over a very un-Bethlehemlike snowscape. Maybe it’s our way of showing our faith in the great Gift their message brings.

It Is God’s Act; We Wait

We know that what they are announcing is sheer Gift; we know we could not bring it about ourselves. We know we can only wait in expectation of a radically new reality breaking into our world.

All we can do is wait – wait and be ready. We can’t go get Christ if he seems to be too late for our expectation. We can’t force him to come at our preferred time.

Christ will only come like the snow, a Blessing from Heaven.

Christmas proclaims that Christ has come –
and that he will come again.
May God fill your heart and life with that Blessing!

Have a very joyful Christmas!

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