Shared at Church of the Apostles, Seattle
December 24, 2011
Earlier this week, while stuck in holiday traffic, I heard a story on NPR about birds and noise. Apparently the ever louder, human-created sounds of the city are making it almost impossible for birds to recognize each other’s songs. Intrigued, I read some more in articles titled: “To Flirt In Cities, Birds Adjust Their Pitch” and “Noise Pollution Causing Songbirds To Cheat On Each Other.” A more scholarly version put it this way: “Human-generated noise pollution now permeates natural habitats worldwide, presenting evolutionarily novel acoustic conditions unprecedented to most landscapes.”
Now, maybe the analogy is a stretch, but at Christmas, I feel a little like those songbirds trying to hear the true call of their beloved – amid counterfeit melodies that masquerade as the real thing. We seem to be surrounded by competing versions of the “Christmas spirit.” Idyllic scenes of family around the fireplace. Doorbuster sales, set to a soundtrack that tells us this is the “most wonderful time of the year.” Even at church, we have cute pageants complete with shepherds in bathrobes and sheep with cotton ball noses. We sing songs about silent nights and silent babies, away in a manger.
But is any of this real? Is this what Christmas is about?
Some bolder souls remind us to keep Christ in Christmas, to remember the reason for the season. Even bolder still, one church in New Zealand posted a billboard by the highway with an exasperated Mary looking at a pregnancy test – to remind us all that Jesus was a real baby, with a real birth. And in this season of economic struggle and political protest, listening to stories of a homeless couple with a newborn child, or a divine messenger at risk from imperial powers, seem to ring truer than usual.
Still, we are always at risk of creating Christmas, and Christ, in our own image. The great anti-heroes of the season, Scrooge with his bah-humbug and the Grinch (cuddly as a cactus, charming as an eel) remind me, at least, that our attitudes toward this Nativity of Christ, this feast of joy, are shaped, formed, by the stories we hear, the songs we sing, and the ones sung – often loudly – to us.
Of all the Christian holidays, Christmas has always been the most controversial one. Rarely celebrated at all until the 4th century, the birth of Jesus became entwined with local customs, pagan festivals, and ancient traditions marking the darkest night of the year. In the middle ages, Christmas services were followed by drunken, raucous partying in the streets, where the poor would demand gifts from the rich; overturning the classes of society. The Puritans outlawed Christmas altogether, in an effort to “rid England of decadence.” And even the United States managed to last nearly a hundred years, before Christmas was made an official holiday in 1870. And the image of Christmas as a nostalgic, child-centered time of family togetherness came later still.
So what are we to make of all this?
My patron saint of Christmas (and most other times of the year) has always been Charlie Brown “I think there must be something wrong with me” he says to Linus, “Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy, I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel … just another dang Christmas I guess, I like getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating the tree and all that but I’m still not happy, I always end up getting depressed… Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Maybe it’s easy for you to get into the Christmas spirit, to feel, deep down, the joy of this night. But for me, it’s always a struggle. Always a search to glimpse the presence of God amid the swirl of family and shopping and church and presents and travel; not to mention news of war and famine, and the knowledge that the little town of Bethlehem does not lie still, in peace, tonight. Always a risk, to believe that in the midst of all this, into the crazy, wonderful reality of life, God has come.
In a way, the cozy darkness of Advent is easier, for me. The waiting, watching, hoping, yearning, longing, for God’s arrival is the way I often lead my spiritual life. Along what the mystics call the apophatic tradition, the negative path – rooted in the sense that God is, by definition, outside all human categories, beyond any attempt at understanding, where time and space, existence and nonexistence all fail before the mystery that is the source of life.
“In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God,” the Gospel writer John tells us. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
On this Christmas night, we rewind back to the foundations of the universe, to the time before all time when the One before all others, spoke this world into being and called it good. A word, a light, which all the darknes-ses of this world could never overcome. A Word, through whom all was made, and yet that same Word was made into flesh. “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be” we will sing later on, in one of the oldest Christmas hymns.
The mystery of this night is the joining together of the eternal Father’s first love at the dawning of the universe, and the love of the mother Mary for her new-born child. The writer of Hebrews tells us that the Son, Jesus, is the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” This night is not just about a baby in a manger, or shepherds or angels, but about humanity’s closest glimpse at the unknowable mystery of God.
Not a mystery that is coming, but a presence that has come. No more waiting tonight, no more watching, longing, hoping. Tonight we look and see and feel the reality of the gift of Emmanuel, God-with-us.
And lest we get too nostalgic again, this presence came once in a real baby – one who, I’m sure, cried through the night, spit up his food, kicked his mother, glowed as he took his first steps, chased the family sheep, broke a few of his father’s tools, laughed with friends, cried at disappointments. The author of Hebrews, in the next chapter, reminds us that Jesus was “like us in every way, yet with out sin.” In every way, like us, this savior of the world, this reflection of God, born the king of angels.
Where is God present for you tonight? Where is light beginning to flicker? Where is joy finding room in your heart? Where is hope coming alive? Where is life pushing away death?
Tonight God came to me in the voice of Dima, a Muslim teenager from Jerusalem. She sent a Facebook message to some of us who work together for a better future there, saying “another chapter of this city has come to an end. Will we at last start the new one with words of peace?” Dima has known a lot of suffering. She has every reason to be angry, bitter or hopeless – as do many others, there and here. And yet, amid all that brokenness and hurt, a word of hope, possibility.
And maybe that’s the message of Christmas, not that we can ever see a perfect reflection of the eternal Word of God, but that we find unlikely occasions of joy, moments when the light of the world manages to come through. “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem,” Isaiah tells his people, and us. God has returned, even though walls still crumble, and hearts still break, and families still find that there is no room at the inn. We are bold to say this, but we believe that it is true.
Here at Church of the Apostles, we do our best to follow this Son of God – Jesus, the anointed one. We do it always imperfectly, always broken, always distracted by the other voices of this world that lure us from the song of our Beloved. And yet we return, to learn to hear again. To hear the cry of the babe, to hear the Word that created the worlds, to hear the hopes and fears of our world, as we join with God to heal it, into a new creation, now and to the end of the ages.