Christmas would not be Christmas (perhaps for many of us) without our singing Adeste Fideles, this cherished hymn with which we began our liturgy this evening. I suspect that many of us here may even know the hymn mostly by heart:
O Come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O Come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come, and behold him, born the King of angels;
O come let us adore him…
The words of this hymn were penned in the mid 1700s, a very different world than we know today. [i] A good many of us brothers here in the monastery have actually spent time in the little town of Bethlehem during the last year or so. In most quarters of Bethlehem there is more fear than joy on this night, more despair than hope. The phrase we have just sung, repeated many times, O come all ye faithful… to Bethlehem, is a desire at best and perhaps just a tease. It is very difficult these days to get into Bethlehem , and it is very difficult to get out. Bethlehem is more like a fortress town than a manger village. And if there actually were shepherds in the surrounding fields keeping watch this night, they probably could not get in at all; nor could the wisemen. It’s against the law, or it’s against the wall, and it’s probably not going to happen, not on this holy night. It seems to me, lest this evening only be a journey back down the memory roads to our own childhoods, evoking a certain nostalgia for when things seemed simpler or when we seemed more innocent, if this evening’s celebration is to have integrity with what we are also reading these days in our newspapers and hearing on NPR, we need to re-member this holy night not just in the past tense, but also in the present and subjunctive tenses.
The subjunctive tense is used in many languages to express where there is doubt, or possibility, or necessity, or desire for something to hopefully be realized in a future time. The subjunctive tense expresses something that has not happened and may not happen unless certain conditions come to be. I want to say that we, here, help frame those conditions. If it were so that peace were to prevail on earth, what specifically is your own calling in that peace plan? If it were so that, as we shall sing, “On this day earth shall ring with the song of children,” [ii] what would that mean? So many millions of children face this silent night because they have lost their loved ones and caregivers to AIDS or in battle, or are silent this night because they are starving. What would be your own calling for the world’s children given what we sing in our hymns this night? What would “ joy to the world” look like for them?
I’m suggesting our reading and singing the familiar and endearing Christmas texts in the subjunctive tense lest we pretend something different about our world this Christmas night, or lest we despair that it could not be otherwise than it is. I would say that tonight is an answer to prayer, and the prayer is God’s own. We are an answer to God’s prayer. We are God’s messengers to bring about the peace and goodwill on earth, and with justice, and provision, and the dignity of love. That we not just believe in the Christ but that we bear the Christ to a world dying to know the very things promised of the Messiah. We are the Christmas gift. What is God’s calling on your own life just now? Why is it that you’ve been given breath for yet another day, yet another season, except to be an answer to God’s own prayer for justice, and peace, and provision for this world that God so loves. We will sing at end of the liturgy tonight, “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he…! [iii] Alpha and omega: what God had in mind in the beginning, and what shall be in all eternity, we re-present in this mean time… Our being an answer to God’s prayer would translate our subjunctive reading of all these Christmas texts into the real present.
And so the same for the Lord’s Prayer which we shall pray (by heart) in just a few moments. When we pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done,” you are an answer to that prayer as an usher to “God’s kingdom” where all the peoples of the earth will know justice, and peace, and provision, and the dignity of love. When we pray, “Give us today our daily bread,” if you personally already have the assurance of bread at your own Christmas table and don’t particularly need to pray that line for yourself, maybe your prayer would be something like, “give them today their daily bread” or maybe even, for some of us, “give them today our daily bread…” and then to add a prayer for the clarity and courage to know what that would mean for you. It seems to me that the invitation from God is for us to be an answer to God’s prayer which we hear on Jesus’ lips in the Lord’s Prayer, and to make the subjunctive sense of this and so many of our other sacred texts present.
What would it mean, that we here are an answer to God’s prayer for justice and peace on this earth, for a sense of God’s provision, for all to know the dignity of love from God? It certainly is my own question, and it is a daunting question given the news. It seems to me that some of us may know our calling in the context of where we find ourselves right now. Some of us, by virtue of our vocations, may have the potential for a very broad impact on the world, in our own vocation in politics or corporate life, in social activism, or perhaps in the realms of education or religion. Some of us, maybe so, have potential for wide impact on a large constituency. I suspect for most of us, we live in a much smaller world, and I think that this day invites us to small, faithful responses to God. It seems to me that we can take both solace and inspiration in how we celebrate God’s coming to us at Christmas in the face and form Jesus. We say that the birth of Jesus is “good news,” but it is small good news. Jesus is a baby. If you will pardon the pun, today invites our taking baby steps, our bearing the Christ of justice and peace, provision and love first and foremostly to those who are near: our relatives and friends, our neighbors, our co-workers, the people who are obliged to wait on us in stores and restaurants, along toll roads, in hospitals and at service stations, the people standing on our street corners…. We are the Christmas gift to them… if not in big ways, then in small, faithful ways, whose effect will refract throughout the world. How is it for you this season to bear the witness of Christ amidst such critical needs for justice and peace, for provision and love? If you don’t have right now an “operating plan,” then start small, start near, start now.
Nearly 150 years ago a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church name Philaret, then the Metropolitan of Moscow, lived in a time of enormous challenge, strife, and opportunity. Many people had been trafficked into serfdom; the governance was inequitable; the integrity of the church’s witness was challenged from within and without. Familiar themes. Philaret, this holy man, served as a diplomat, a scholar, and a consummate pastor. A prayer, his own prayer which guided his day, begins:
Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace…
And the prayer continues,
In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings…
Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others… [iv]
I find those simple lines both arresting and endearing: “Grant me to greet the coming day in peace…”, and “ Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others…” They are profoundly simple ways of both respecting our own dignity and then respecting the dignity of other human beings, every other human being. It’s a very small start, a profoundly simple way to bear the long-awaited promises of the Messiah for justice, peace, and provision for our world dying to be loved and not far away.
Maybe you would even want to write your own prayer this Christmas season, to say ‘yes’ to God in your own way for the gift of Christmas… that you are, making the Christmas presence present here and now.
[i] Hymnal 1982 , hymn 83, Adeste Fideles , written by John Francis Wade (1711-1786).
[ii] Hymnal 1982 , hymn 92, Piae Cantiones , from 1582.
[iii] Hymnal 1982 , hymn 82, written by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-410?).
[iv] Vasily Drosdov Philaret ( 1782?-1867), author and pastor, became archbishop of Tver and a member of the Holy Synod in 1819 and Metropolitan of Moscow in 1826. He worked tirelessly for the abolition of serfdom. The complete text to the prayer referenced:
A PRAYER OF PHILARET
Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace.
Help me in all things to rely on your holy will.
In every hour of the day reveal your will to me.
Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul,
and with firm conviction that your will governs everything.
In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings.
In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by you.
Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.
Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring.
Direct my will.
Teach me to pray.
Pray yourself in me.
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