Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Gleanings

I spent a pleasant Christmas morning doing some blog-surfing, and found several wonderful gifts.

Simple Massing Priest tells a delightful tale at "Searching for the Christ Child." He begins: "The title isn't quite so allegorical as you think. We actually spent about ten minutes before the Christmas Eve service desperately seeking the Baby Jesus for the main crèche at the parish where I serve as interim priest." Read it all. I think they have the coolest approach to "staging" the events through Christmastide.

The Nativity
Lorenzo Lotto, 1523
(Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art)
I confess: I nicked this image from Grandmère Mimi, who has such refined taste.

Caminante shares her Christmas Eve sermon. Here are just a few excerpts.

In the form of a child, God comes to humanity. Jesus — the crossroads where God’s descending road and humanity’s ascending road meet — the bearer of hope, the redeemer and reconciler of us all, our saviour, comes to us tonight as a vulnerable child. In this child we find our hope, something that at times can be as fragile and vulnerable as a child.

And this:

In the nativity, Christ comes first in great humility but this is in anticipation of his coming again in majesty and glory.

It is this point that is crucial to our understanding of Christmas. There is more to Christmas than a baby in a crib in a stable. For we stay but a moment at the crib before moving on. What happens at the nativity that we remember tonight is but the beginning of the complete coming of Christ, and the whole of God’s saving act in Christ. Christ is God turned to us in grace and salvation. We remember at the crib the cross and the resurrection as well.

Christmas calls a community back to its origins by remembering Jesus’ own beginnings as a human child, a prophet of God’s reign. What the parish celebrates during this season is not primarily a birthday, but the beginning of a decisive new phase in the tempestuous history of God’s hunger for human companions. … Christmas does not ask us to pretend we are back in Bethlehem, kneeling before a crib; it asks us to recognize that the wood of the crib became the wood of the cross.

Do go read the entire text, especially Caminante's marvelous paean to hope in the concluding movement of her sermon.

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Add Father Jake's Christmas Eve sermon to your must-read list, too. Here are just a few sections that caught my heart and my imagination.

Jesus doesn’t have to do anything to be a reason for us to rejoice. Just being born is enough.

We sometimes refer to the birth of Jesus as “the Incarnation” – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. For me, this is the reason I’m a Christian. Actually, it’s the only reason I even pay any attention to organized religion.

The whole idea of God seems to me to be at best an interesting philosophical concept, and at worst not much more than wishful thinking. I’m a creature who has been destined to dwell in this world; the world of physical laws, with real life consequences if those laws are not respected. It is through hard work and sheer determination that we who trod this earth have made ourselves into the masters of this physical realm. Talk of a God who dwells some place in heaven doesn’t really have much impact on the real world, from my perspective. Let God rule heaven. But down here on earth, we’ve got work to do, and this God stuff is just a distraction, and maybe even a waste of time.

But, when God chooses to enter the physical realm, to walk among us, work alongside us, to share the joy and the pain of being a creature trapped in this world, now that gets my attention.


When God chose to take on human form, he wasn’t just pretending. He wasn’t acting out some role in a divine drama. Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, chose to completely surrender his power and glory to be born like any other baby, with the same needs and limits as any other newborn child. Wow.

That means that God knows what it means to be hungry and helpless, knows how it feels to be held when confused and afraid, knows what it means to be fully dependent on others for every aspect of existence.

This is a real flesh and blood baby we’re talking about, not some manifestation of wishful thinking. This is not an indifferent God dwelling somewhere up and heaven. Heaven and earth have been joined. There is no longer any separation between us and God. That is the source of our wonder and awe on this holy night.

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In the Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas sermon (posted at the Episcopal Café), he has a wonderful phrase about St. John of the Cross using poetry and folksong "to convey the biblical story of the love affair between God and creation." The core of his message recaps a poem sequence in which John of the Cross tells "the story of the world from the beginning to the first Christmas – but very daringly telling this story from God’s point of view."

God was living eternally in heaven, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, with perfect love flowing uninterrupted between them. And out of the sheer overflowing energy of his love, God the Father decides that he will create a ‘Bride’ for his Son. The imagery is powerful and direct: there will be someone created who will be able, says God the Father, to ‘sit down and eat bread with us at one table, the same bread that I eat.’

And so the world is made as a home for the Bride. Who is this Bride? It is the whole world of beings who are capable of love and understanding, the angels and the human race. In the rich diversity of the world, the heavens and the earth together, God makes an environment in which love and intelligence may grow, until they are capable of receiving the full impact of God’s presence. And so the world waits for the moment when God can at last descend and – in a beautiful turning upside-down of the earlier image – can sit at the same table and share the same bread as created beings.

As the ages pass on earth, the longing grows and intensifies for this moment to arrive; and at last God the Father tells the Son that it is time for him to meet his Bride face to face on earth, so that, as he looks at her directly, she may reflect his own likeness. When God has become human, then humanity will recognise in his face, in Jesus’ face, its own true nature and destiny. And the angels sing at the wedding in Bethlehem, the marriage of heaven and earth, where, in the haunting final stanza of the great poetic sequence, humanity senses the joy of God himself, and the only one in the scene who is weeping is the child, the child who is God in the flesh: ‘The tears of man in God, the gladness in man, the sorrow and the joy that used to be such strangers to each other.’

Then the Archbishop offers these reflections:

The coming of Christ is not first and foremost a response to human crisis; there is remarkably little about sin in these verses. . . . But the vision takes us further back into God’s purpose. The whole point of creation is that there should be persons, made up of spirit and body, in God’s image and likeness . . . who are capable of intimacy with God – not so that God can gain something but so that these created beings may live in joy. And God’s way of making sure that this joy is fully available is to join humanity on earth so that human beings may recognise what they are and what they are for. . . .

We are right to think about the seriousness of sin, in other words; but we see it properly and in perspective only when we have our eyes firmly on the greatness and unchanging purpose of God’s eternal plan for the marriage of heaven and earth. It is a perspective that is necessary when our own sins or those of a failing and suffering world fill the horizon for us, so that we can hardly believe the situation can be transformed. For if God’s purpose is what it is, and if God has the power and freedom to enter our world and meet us face to face, there is nothing that can destroy that initial divine vision of what the world is for and what we human beings are for. . . .

The world around us is created as a framework within which we may learn the first beginnings of growing up towards what God wants for us. It is the way it is so that we can be directed towards God. And so this is how we must see the world. Yes, it exists in one sense for humanity’s sake; but it exists in its own independence and beauty for humanity’s sake – not as a warehouse of resources to serve humanity’s selfishness. To grasp that God has made the material world, ‘composed’, says John of the Cross, ‘of infinite differences’, so that human beings can see his glory is to accept that the diversity and mysteriousness of the world around is something precious in itself. To reduce this diversity and to try and empty out the mysteriousness is to fail to allow God to speak through the things of creation as he means to.

Every person and every diverse sort of person exists for a unique joy, the joy of being who they are in relation to God, a joy which each person will experience differently. And when I encounter another, I encounter one who is called to such a unique joy; my relation with them is part of God’s purpose in bringing that joy to perfection – in me and in the other. This doesn’t rule out the tension and conflict that are unavoidable in human affairs – sometimes we challenge each other precisely so that we can break through what it is in each other that gets in the way of God’s joy, so that we can set each other free for this joy.

This, surely, is where peace on earth, the peace the angels promise to the shepherds, begins, here and nowhere else, here where we understand what human beings are for and what they can do for each other. The delighted reverence and amazement we should have towards the things of creation is intensified many times where human beings are concerned. And if peace is to be more than a pause in open conflict, it must be grounded in this passionate amazed reverence for others.

The birth of Jesus, in which that power which holds the universe together in coherence takes shape in history as a single human body and soul, is an event of cosmic importance. It announces that creation as a whole has found its purpose and meaning, and that the flowing together of all things for the joyful transfiguration of our humanity is at last made visible on earth.

‘So God henceforth will be human, and human beings caught up in God. He will walk around in their company, eat with them and drink with them. He will stay with them always, the same for ever alongside them, until this world is wrapped up and done with’.

Y'know … when he is speaking as a pastor and not as some sort of "instrument of unity," the Archbishop is clear, insightful, and (IMNSHO) magnificent.

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[Thanks to Elizabeth, from whom I nicked this just-perfect image.]

There's a phrase I recall, about "breaking open the Scriptures for us." Caminante, Father Jake, and Archbishop Williams did that for me quite movingly today. I give thanks for them – and for all the clergy who work so hard during this Advent and now Christmas season to help us understand the great mystery of God's choosing to dwell among and within us.

May the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Christmas blessings to you all.


Blogger Ann said...

We were mid blessing of the creche when I noticed that Jesus was missing from his bed in the manger. Naughty boy had taken off to find the cookies I imagine --- in reality he had been forgotten until one of the alert altar guild noticed - ran to find him - he arrived just as we finished the blessing prayers.

12/25/2007 5:35 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Meanwhile ( an appropriate word as it begins with "mean") the holier-than-G-d types chose Christmas to announce a holy people only conference in the weeks before Lambeth. Invitation only, one must be holy enough after all, and oh so much more important.

As our friend Louie says, "Joy anyway!"

I wrote a small piece on Christmas and as always would appreciate your thoughts.

Happy Christmas!


12/25/2007 10:01 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

LOL, Ann! I don't have enough energy to describe all the foul-ups in our 5:00 "family service" on Christmas Eve. As usual, it was barely-controlled pandemonium, with people filling roles for which they hadn't trained, and many a slip-up. But, in the end, God was worshipped and the body and blood of Christ was shared. I'm so glad I don't belong to an organized religion. {grin}

12/26/2007 2:02 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Jim, thanks for the heads-up. Oh goody! (Not!) Yet another entrant in the Alphabet Soup contest.

And you are doing some fine writing on your blog. I appreciate your dropping in here.

12/26/2007 2:05 AM  
Blogger Caminante said...

I must say that the image of God's crossroad and the hard wood of the cross comes from Leonard Boff. His writings heavily influence my thinking about the nativity and the incarnation.

12/26/2007 10:25 AM  
Blogger liturgy said...

“In Mary God has grown small to make us great.”
St. Ephrem (d. 373)

Christmas blessings from one Anglican blog to another
Bosco Peters

12/26/2007 2:17 PM  

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