As a child, I impatiently waited for Christmas to come; in more recent years, I eagerly wait for Christmas to be past. It is not that I do not love much about Christmas, for indeed I do, as you do, too. But Christmas is so packed with meanings and memories that the entire event called “Christmas” feels overwhelming. Seemingly out of nowhere, as we approach our Christmas celebrations, emotions flood one’s soul. Tears unused to flow suddenly well up at the sound of an old favorite Christmas song. Memories of Christmases past, and especially of “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,” come powerfully and vividly to mind. With the joy and grace of Christmas come hours of “remembrance of things past,” and then you and I intensely miss the presence of those whom we have loved, and who are now absent from us physically. More than any other day on the calendar, Christmas is emotionally demanding year after year. And it can even be emotionally draining. To make matters worse, all sorts of folks show up for our church services, and expect to hear some refreshing, enlightening, or just upbeat sermon.Then here am I, an aging man, filled with memories, and having to speak in public when my feelings urge me to retreat in silence.
In silence I am happy, one, and free;
In silence what becomes begins to be.
Although each of us may express our feelings differently, I think that many of us feel the surge of similar strong emotions at Christmas: love, joy, peace, renewal, refreshment, delight—and sorrow. The sheer beauty of Christmas—not just the music, or the feastings, or the quiet joys of nature sleeping, but the story of Jesus Christ, of God come among us—so much beauty and meaning packed into several days each year. The sight or sound of Beauty itself has the power to draw out tears. And there is so much beauty in Christmas to stir the heart with sudden showers—even the beauty of the earth stripped bare, awaiting renewal:
“In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter, long ago.” [Christina Rossetti}
Long ago. And yet today. Time is telescoped at Christmas, with past, present, future all present together at once. That was not the point of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” but one sees this fusion of time in that story, too. All of our Christmases past are present today, and what will come is present, too, even though we do not see it clearly yet, “for now we see through a glass, darkly.” Indeed, Eternity itself is present to us here and now, whether known or unknown to us, and that presencing of God is the core meaning and beauty of Christmas. Light streams into the human heart, even in one dwelling in darkness, living under the shadow of death. Light streams in, just as surely as the stars send down their lights to chilly earth. Light and joy stream in, and one feels the frozen ground of heart and mind begin to thaw, and the rivers of one’s life flow in ways beyond all telling. What was dark, begins to shine; what was heavy, lightens up; what was frigid, is warmed; what was dying, is renewed; what was numb with pain, begins to throb with Life again. Such is Christmas. In famous words from Eliot’s “Four Quartets”:
“The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered and reconciled…”.
O holy Night, when Christ is born. O holy Night, when the light of Christ floods into a human soul, longing for God, hoping, waiting. O holy Night, O holy Now, when sweet divine peace stills and consoles the human heart.
To all who have come to worship the living God with us, we wish a very Merry Christmas. On behalf of our parishes of St. Mark’s, St. Mary’s, and Holy Trinity: May you receive God’s blessing to you personally, and so become a blessing to all whom you know. Merry Christmas!
For the One, eternal God to be present in space-time, He needs a receiver, a receptacle. God is present, and all is present to God, as the ultimate cause of all that exists. God’s “personal presence,” if we can use this language, depends on human cooperation, for God and man meet in the in-between of the divine-human. The Almighty seeks carriers, human beings in whom He may dwell, and through whom He may act. For the ancient Israelites and the devout Jews before Jesus, God was experienced as dwelling especially in chosen men and women as prophets, as those who “spoke the Word of God.” And God was understood to dwell on occasion in certain chosen individuals into whom His Spirit rushed, leading to action on behalf of God’s People, Israel. Israelite and Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament) provide much evidence of the belief in God’s presence as a spirit of power, charisma, insight, vision, and decisive action. Finally, the magnificent stories that open the Book of Genesis (chapters 1-2)present the belief of Jewish spiritualists that what we recognize as human being is essentially that into which God inbreathes his spirit or breath (ruach). To be human is to carry God.
What God does apart from His action as the ultimate cause of all that exists, and His presencing action in particular human beings, we do not know, for we cannot experience God in Himself. To speak to you, God needs a human carrier. God in effect borrows a voice, an image, silent thoughts stirring in your heart. That which is utterly silent needs a voice to be heard by human ears, and that which is pure Love needs a loving receiver of His love to bless human beings. Although God has indeed “spoken to us in many and various ways” as we read in the opening of the Letter to the Hebrews, there remains the unique God-bearer: According to our Gospels, Mary is the human being who utterly disposed herself of God, and through whom God directly entered our human condition—a truth expressed in the belief that God took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. She clung to nothing of her own—no ego, knowledge, reputation. Mary allowed herself to become an active-docile receiver of the God who is ever coming, that is, always presenting himself to human beings. And so we honor her as the Godbearer par excellence: as the mother of God in the flesh, as the mother of Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist loves God as the Almighty, as the Just Judge of the world, and in his preaching John presents what he imagines as the coming wrath of God to destroy evil and evil-doers. In the same Gospels we see that John had difficulty accepting Jesus as the coming of God, because Jesus did not bring destruction to evil-doers, but mercy and conversion to those who welcomed his word. And we see that Mary’s way is simpler than John’s: Mary loves God as the One who has presented Himself to her, in her, as the One we call Christ. John proclaims; Mary adores. John speaks of what he partially knows; Mary loves the One who is utterly intimate to her. The Church cannot dispense with either John or Mary: John as the voice warning us in the wilderness of our lives; Mary as the most humble, loving servant of the One who “has come to set us free” from bondage to sin, self, death. Her head is bowed, she sits in silence, she beholds with a wide-open heart Christ Jesus dwelling in her. As St. Bernard wisely wrote, “Mary conceived Christ in her mind before she conceived him in her womb.” And conceive she does. By silent adoration Mary understands more of God than can ever be reached by prophets, philosophers, spiritualists, or knowers of one kind or another. Mary has become, by God’s sheer grace, the home of God in the world. She is the human manger, she is the stable, she is the womb where Life itself grows in sheer silence. Her response is quiet, still, “filled with love beyond all telling.”
Apart from Mary, we do not have, we do not know, the Gift of God that is Jesus Christ. God did not use Mary and throw her away. This young woman of Nazareth has become for all time the chosen vessel through which Christ entered the world in divine fullness. And His entrance began, not as an adult, nor as a child, not even as an infant in Mary’s arms. Christ’s entrance in the world began as the unseen Presence, the conceptus-fetus-infant growing in Mary’s womb. With the most childlike, loving faith, Mary conceived Christ in her womb, and adored the unsurpassable Gift of God.
The eternal God presents himself in time. The prophets of Israel and of Greece, and of other cultures, heard the word of God in their minds, and communicated that word to their people. Sages and mystics through the centuries lovingly opened their hearts and minds to the presence of the eternal God in their souls. Philosophers in ancient Greece discovered the divine intellect moving and radiating into their minds, and they explored the effects of God’s reason in structuring reality around them as they used science to explore the wonders of nature. Through the centuries, lovers of truth have responded to the divine presence both in-yet-beyond the borders of their souls, and as the cause of beauty and order in the world. Those who explore the presence of the divine within are prophets, mystics, philosophers; those who explore the effects of the divine intellect in the cosmos are philosophers and scientists.
God Himself is both ever present and ever beyond the searching mind. What we call God is that which draws us to seek truth, beauty, and goodness beyond our confined selves. To those who seek God, He is both the cause of the seeking and the One being sought, both the One who is utterly and simply present and the One ever beyond our questing. The mystery of God can be discovered by human beings, and has been; but it ever remains beyond any final grasp or comprehension. In the wise words of the Apostle Paul to his disciples, “Now that you have come to know God—or rather, to be known by God…”. The lover of God is ever discovering the face of the Beloved Lover here, there; but the human lover also knows that the Lover sought is still greater than the Lover found. All that one can experience or know of God is as a drop of water in the vast ocean, or as a single sand on the sides of the sea. The true lover of God, and of human being, knows that his or her love “has only just begun,” is ever blossoming into greater loving, further knowing, and ever-deepening joy.
Many have speculated on the coming of God in particular ways, at particular times, and they invariably are disappointed. For God’s comings are never fully expected, nor accurately predicted. For we are human beings, not God. John the Baptist was a lover of God, who expected the just God to appear quickly with blazing wrath to destroy evil and evil-doers. And then came Jesus, and John was puzzled. He sensed the presence of God in Jesus, but Jesus did not fit John’s expectations: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” “Go and tell John what you see,” Jesus declares. “Open your eyes to what God is doing here and now, even in me, and relax your futuristic speculations.” Perhaps in prison John discovered the One he proclaimed, present in Christ, and present in the depths of his soul. “Behold, I am the One whom you are seeking, here and now, moving you in your quest. Be at peace, John, for you are mine, and I will never abandon you. Even when a foolish evil-doer has you beheaded, John, you are mine, and I am yours. I AM ever now.”
There is a strong tension in our readings today, between the prophet Isaiah’s metastatic dream of universal peace, when “the lion lies down with the lamb,” and the urgent, intense cry of John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Produce good fruits as evidence of your genuine repentance!” In their zeal for God, prophets and the faithful must struggle against allowing their imaginations to lose grip on reality: Isaiah’s dream of complete peace on earth—of a radical change in reality—is an illusion, which the Church Fathers corrected by projecting the blissful state to the realm beyond death, into eternity. Secular souls, bound to a temporal perspective, still get drunk on Isaiah’s illusions of radical change. John the Baptist’s imagination of the coming wrath of God clashed head-on with the coming of God in Christ Jesus, whose merciful deeds and words tasted of wrath only in those who hated him, and rejected God. And still one encounters preachers of the word who are overly absorbed in visions of wrath, and seek to “scare the living dickens” out of their flock. Love and truth are far more powerful agents of change for the better.