Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Present

Luke 2:1-20

I often wonder when we come to Christmas what you out in the pews are thinking.

The cat leapt out of the bag last Sunday and suddenly the whole congregation knew that I was marking forty years that I have been a priest. That means for forty years I have been engaged each Christmas in examining the story, listening to it, pondering it, sometimes fretting over it, all with a need to open it up afresh and find in it the thing that will make the whole festival somehow come alive, move, inspire, speak to—to whom? To you, but equally to me. It is not unlike the annual drama of Christmas morning. People go digging into presents, tearing through wrappings and popping off ribbons, pulling out things that sometimes call for gasps—oohs, ahs, “Darling, you shouldn’t have, you shouldn’t have”—a tumultuous party of surprises and delights, if, of course, you’re lucky enough to be able to have all that. Well, that is the kind of experience, though in a spiritual idiom, that I itch for Christmas to be on this holy candlelit night. For that to happen, somebody, though not necessarily I, must arrange a moment of connection. That in turn forces the question of who needs and wants to connect, with what or whom, and how.

Over the decades I have gathered a little information on what you are thinking, though it seems awfully sketchy to me. It appears, for instance, that many folks assume that the tale of Jesus’ birth is a piece of biography, much like any birth narrative. And, since popular imagination stitches together the very distinct and in some ways incompatible accounts of the two gospels with birth stories, the popular mind imagines that shepherds, wise men, angels, Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus were all right there somewhat on top of each other. Add “manger” and soon you have a full-blown barnyard, with oxen, asses, camels, lowing cattle, even chickens and the occasional duck or goose. It is all quite a lot of fun; and preachers, for example, don’t get very far by trying to deconstruct the entire scene. “That is just the way it all happened,” the average worshiper might say.

Still, people wander into church on Christmas, looking for only God knows what, and I wonder about them—about you, if you are one of that number. Is it the power of the old carols to awaken dormant memories of your youth? Is it the smell of greens and the flicker of candles that can transport you to a space where Mystery does not have to elbow its way through mindless crowds in order to draw you in, warm your heart and stir your soul? Do such as you give a dip of figgy pudding about somebody’s doctrine of the Virgin Birth or the meaning of the word “Savior”? Or do you deep down wish someone would explain those things to you because you sense that they might actually have to do with the Truth you need to live your life by?

The default position of the Church has long been that it is up to us insiders, and especially the learned, professional caste, to put on the show and tell the story, and let the audience get what it will. And that might not be too bad an idea. But suppose we want to push the boundaries a bit. Suppose we might wish to pause the tape and rerun a slice of the dialogue, and run it again to get a closer, sharper view of the characters in the story. Is it possible that there actually might be a layer or two of meaning that we never have considered? And might one or more of those layers of meaning actually help us, change us, alter us so that we get to, say, New Year’s Day and find that our whole approach to life has shifted ever so slightly, or even more than slightly?

In some ways the most intriguing feature of Luke’s story is the presence of shepherds. It really is not strange, considering that Luke’s setting is Bethlehem, the City of David, who himself was out keeping the sheep when the prophet and king-maker Samuel came, obeying the Word of God, looking for a potential king among Jesse’s sons. The shepherd, who happened to be the youngest, was exactly the one whom Samuel was looking for, as it turned out. And now, centuries later, perhaps in those very fields, other shepherds were minding their business when suddenly an angel appears with a peculiar announcement. The story is different, but the parallels are obvious enough to evoke a connection between an ancient anointing and this birth of one who has sprung from Jesse’s root, a new Davidic king. But something else is in play, too. Shepherds in first century Jewish society were among the least powerful and respected people. That fits very nicely into the gospel that Luke is proclaiming, with its continual emphasis on the marginal, the misfits, the underestimated, even the despised. The words of the Magnificat, the pregnant Mary’s song, are still ringing in the ears of the reader: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the humble and meek.” The shepherds are a case in point.
Romanian Shepherds, photo by Dennis Carlyle Darling

They become the very first ones in Luke’s gospel narrative to go looking for Jesus. Imagine. In the middle of the night shift, nothing much going on, suddenly they are in the middle of an other-worldly episode, seeing and hearing an alien being, having an eerie experience which can only be described as “glory” shining round about them, filling them with fear. And after a multitude of angels have appeared and then disappeared, the shepherds say to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing.” And they go in search of the child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.

It is not only the shepherds who are key to this story; it is the search they undertake in the middle of the night. It will not do simply to have a birth unremarkable and unremarked. The Messiah does not show up in any way that could be expected, much less in a manner that is self-explanatory. No, that is the point. The birth of this marvelous person is so ordinary, so commonplace that it could be entirely missed. William Cowper’s words are sometimes taken to be scripture themselves: “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” That is true. But the most mysterious thing of all is the way God performs wonders through very natural processes, like human birth, processes that are so much a part of the fabric of the universe that there is no reason to stop and pay attention to them at all.

Whether you have heard the message of Christmas so much and so often that it has become a part of you, or whether you have only the vaguest clue as to what it has to do with you if anything, the search is not only possible but highly rewarding. But be sure of one thing: it is a search. Bethlehem is even today not all that big a place, but you may be certain that running around trying to find a baby in a manger is no cinch. Luke does not tell us how many hours it took to find the Christ, nor how many alleys the shepherds ran down only to find nothing, nor how they might have made mistakes by following the sounds of other infants’ cries. We only know that the shepherds left their field and went to Bethlehem, seeking.

So the search is what ultimately leads to Christ and thus to the Great Joy which shall be to all people. That is a challenge for many people in our culture to get their minds around. We are not used to searching, but rather to having our desires instantly gratified. Even those who fancy themselves committed to a certain rigor in their faith and in their way of living have difficulty sometimes understanding that the meaning of the Messiah is not something that one can pick up by a quick internet search or a rapid read-through of a paperback edition of a paraphrased Bible. And why, you may wonder, does the search for Christ have to be hard? It is not the difficulty of the search that distinguishes it. It is rather the nature of the one being sought. Searching for Christ is not exactly like searching for the best bottle of wine for the money, or for precisely the right gift for the one who has everything. It is not quite like the scholar’s search for an obscure manuscript, nor like the researcher’s quest for the drug that will cure a disease, nor the explorer’s combing unknown territory to probe its secrets. Although searches are searches and share some things in common, the search for Christ is different because it is fundamentally a search for you.

And here is where the search of the shepherds is not necessarily the pattern for you and me. They are looking for something that matches the sign which has been given them by the angel. They are looking for somebody or something that, however important or even divine, is outside themselves. You and I can search for the Savior too, but the search means rifling through the bits and pieces of our lives, filtering the experiences that we have had and are having. If you are going to find God, you are going to find God in the details of your own life. True, you might decide to go on a pilgrimage to some holy island or sacred mountain. You can go on a retreat or go work among the poor—but these are only settings for your life, contexts for the search. The search itself, no matter on what island or mountain or sofa or desktop, is a search through the recesses and corners of your own life. The Bethlehems to which we go are inevitably the hard places in our lives. It is generally the places where we are sore from suffering, where we are most challenged, where some addiction is bleeding us, where some weakness has worn us thin. These are frequently the places we need to look for God’s gift. Don’t be surprised if these Bethlehems, these places where God shows up in your life, are not too far from the places where you are quite strong, where your passions burn the brightest, where your talents shine. For they, too, are places where you can and often will find the startling Babe.

This is what real Christmas, and therefore real Christianity, is about. It is not about going through the motions approved by society or family or even church. It is about searching for and ultimately finding Christ and therefore finding God and therefore finding this Peace on Earth and therefore discovering the One who can save us from uselessness and meaninglessness and deadly boredom and living hell. It is about opening yourself to the possibility of Mystery. It is searching for Christ even if it means fearlessly calling into question the points of view you hold dear, the habits that are the most comfortable to wear, the structures that frame your everyday routines. This baby lying in the manger, when he grew to become a man, said in one of his most shocking pronouncements, “except you become as children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” And that is what we are searching for: the child, the infant, the new life in ourselves, new life that is often struggling to be born in a dark night, new life that we find in unlikely places, like a manger, like a cross.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

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