This evening, during the serving of Holy Communion, we will be invited to sing the very familiar, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!” The words of this hymn were penned by the great Boston preacher, Phillips Brooks, in the 19th century, a very different world than we know today.i
Most of us brothers here in the Monastery have spent time in the little town of Bethlehem during the last several years. On this night, in most quarters of Bethlehem – 80% of whose population is Christian – there is more fear than joy, more despair than hope. And when we sing in Christmastide,“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem,” this is a desire at best; in reality it is almost just a tease. It is very difficult to get into Bethlehem these days, and it is very difficult to get out. Bethlehem is part of the occupied territories. Bethlehem is more like a fortress town than a manger village. And if there actually were shepherds in the surrounding fields keeping watch by night, they probably could not get in at all; nor could the wisemen coming from the east.ii It’s against the law; it’s against the wall. And it’s probably not going to happen, not on this holy night. Lest this Christmas Eve only be a journey back down the memory roads of our childhoods, evoking a certain nostalgia for when things seemed simpler or when we were more innocent, if this evening’s celebration is to have integrity with what we are also reading in our newspapers and hearing on NPR, we need to remember this holy night not just in the past tense, but also in the present tense and subjunctive voice.
The subjunctive is used in many languages to express the possibility, but not the certainty, that something will happen in the future. The subjunctive expresses something that has not yet happened and may not happen unless certain conditions come to be. We, here, help frame those conditions for the promises of the Messiah to be realized. I’m saying, if justice and peace were to prevail on earth, what specifically is our own calling in that peace plan? When we sing in Christmastide, “On this day, earth shall ring with the song of children,”iii what would that mean for you and me? So many millions of children face this silent night because they have lost their loved ones and caregivers to AIDS, or to cholera or malaria, or in battle; and children are silent this night, not because they are praying but because they are starving; and children are silent this night because they are afraid they will lose their family home… even here in this country. What would “joy to the world” look like for them?
For these reasons, we should read and sing the familiar and endearing Christmas ballads with a subjunctive understanding, of what could be and should be. 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 the glad tidings about justice, peace, and goodwill on earth. We don’t just believe in Christ, we also bear Christ to a world dying to know the very things promised of the Messiah.iv We are the Christmas gift. What is God’s calling on your own life just now? Why is it that you have been given breath for yet another day, except to be an answer to God’s own prayer for justice, and peace, and provision for this world that God so loves.
What our world today is going to know about Jesus will be through us and because of us. Saint Teresa of Avila spoke of this very thing. She said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless all people now.”v Saint Teresa of Avila, in the 16th century. It’s still true. Christ has no body now on earth but yours. We are the body of Christ, which we will affirm when we are invited to receive Holy Communion, the sacrament of bread and wine: “Behold what you are: the Body of Christ. May we become what we receive: the Body of Christ.”vi
How are you an answer to God’s prayer for our suffering world which God so loves? It certainly is my own question, and it is a daunting question given the news from Zimbabwe, from the Congo, from Iraq and Afghanistan, from Haiti and elsewhere. Some of us here may have the potential for a wide impact on a large constituency in the world, through our own vocation in government or corporate life, in social activism, or in the realms of education or religion. Most of us live in a much smaller world, and so this Christmas celebration invites us to small, faithful responses to God. The birth of Jesus we celebrate this night is called “good news,” but it is small good news. Jesus is a baby. Please pardon the pun: this night invites our taking baby steps, our bearing Christ’s love to those who are already 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, and the people standing on our street corners…. We are the Christmas gift to them… if not in big ways, then in small, faithful ways, an effect which will ripple throughout the world.
I recall some years ago Mother Teresa of Calcutta saying, “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”viiWe are the Christmas gift, to bring Jesus’ good news of justice, peace and provision to this earth. Be this Christmas gift. Start small; start near; start now.
iPhillips Brooks (1835-1893), sometime rector of Trinity Church Boston, then Bishop of Massachusetts, in Hymnal 1982, hymn 79.
ii Bethlehem (lit. House of Bread) is situated only 6 miles south of Jerusalem, and 5 miles west of the town of Beit Sahour (lit. Place of the Night Watch), near the shepherds’ fields. Bethlehem and Beit Sahour are Palestinian towns, both with populations about 80% Christian and 20% Muslim.
iii Hymnal 1982, hymn 92, Piae Cantiones, from 1582.
iv Meister Eckhart, the 14th century German Dominican Friar, said, “What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”
v Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Spanish Carmelite nun and mystic.
vi These words can be traced back to Saint Augustine (354-430), who preached a sermon on the Eucharist [Sermon 57, “On the Holy Eucharist”] in which he reflected on “one of the deep truths of Christian faith: through our participation in the sacraments (particularly baptism and Eucharist), we are transformed into the Body of Christ, given for the world.”
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