Most people will say that they remember exactly where they were and whom they were with at the time of an epic historical event, such as a tragedy or something shocking and unbelievable. Usually it is when the life of the world is altered in a split second, leaving no one unchanged. My mother would tell the story of how, as a young teenager, she was at Junior All-County Band clinic when she and the other students found out that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. In my own lifetime, the Challenger disaster and of course 9/11 are etched in my mind in vivid detail. Not only was 9/11 shocking, but it invoked a great deal of fear that shook the world. No one was the same after that day and we all recalled our stories to each other as we tried to process our emotions and begin the very long journey to healing.
I imagine that this is probably the experience of the shepherds in our gospel lesson from Luke this morning. This particular evening was just another speck in the sea of time, poised to be like all the others, keeping watch over the sheep in their care. These men were country dwellers who lived on the margins of society. To the temple leaders and social elite, they were among the dregs of society, unclean due to the nature of their profession. Because their jobs allowed them little time away, they were unable to make the appropriate temple sacrifices with any kind of regularity. They were literal outcasts because they tended the flocks in the rural regions on the perimeter of town. Yet, it was their job to see to the well-being of sheep that were most likely to be presented in the temple for sacrifice by people who could afford it.
Growing up, I shared a bedroom with my older brothers, Charlie and Chris. This wasn’t a problem, except when it was. On one occasion, they and their friends decided to play parachute, jumping from the top bunk, where Chris slept, down onto my bed. By the time my mother got home and discovered what we had been up to, my bed was a wreck, and my mother was furious. Needless to say, a new mattress and bedspring had to be purchased in order to make my bed usable again.
More problematic, at least for me, was the closet. As the youngest of the three boys, I went to bed earlier than Charlie and Chris. By the time they came to bed an hour or so later then I, it was usually much darker, and the darkest place of all was the closet directly opposite the foot of my bed. Now, I wasn’t afraid of the dark … well, not much at least. What I was certainly afraid of was the darkness of the closet. It seemed like a great gaping black hole, and I was terrified of it. I thought that I could get lost in that darkness forever. I would only be able to fall asleep again if the closet door was closed. And that was the problem. Either on purpose or accidentally Charlie and Chris would frequently leave the door open and I would have to timidly ask them to close it. By then they too were in bed with the lights out, and they would sometimes refuse to get up and do my bidding, so in fear and trepidation I would either whimper until they did so, or steel up my courage and do it myself, scurrying back to bed as quickly as I could, once the dreaded task was completed.
That was a long time ago, and by now, most of us are too old, or too sophisticated to be afraid of the dark. We no longer need big brothers to protect us from whatever is lurking in the back of the dark closet. We no longer dread falling asleep with the closet door open, with that great gaping darkness threatening to swallow us whole. We’re no longer afraid of the dark … well, not much at least.
Isaiah 52:7-10 & John 1:1-14
We are here to celebrate Christ, to rejoice and revel in the revelation of the Word made Flesh, to fall headlong into belief for the first time, or the five-thousandth time. You are here, probably, to listen – for the first or the five-thousandth time, to “hear the good news of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation,” in the words of Isaiah. But, probably, you are also drawn to see. To see and exclaim, even before hearing, How beautiful. How beautiful: the messenger’s feet upon the mountains. How beautiful: the holy arm which the Lord has bared. My God, how beautiful: this Child we have sought with the eyes of our hearts for so long.
Christmas, for Christians in the West, is the foremost opportunity to re-embrace the Medieval impulse to look and to touch; to show things of great meaning first, then to tell as commentary on the showing. As the faith of Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America remains to this day, the faith of the Medieval West was unabashedly sensory. Looking and touching and tasting were essential to believing, and they are even more so today.
Grandmothers, at least my grandmothers, are quite wonderful! I have many fond memories of them. One of them, whom we all called Nanny, had the softest skin of anyone I have ever known. I loved to snuggle up with her when she came for a visit, and feel the softness of her cheeks. The other, whom we all called Grandma, took an interest in everything around her. Even when she was well into her eighties, she was always taking trips here and there, exploring the country with this friend or that one. Over the years she enrolled in countless classes, or joined book clubs and attended poetry writing workshops. She took film classes, and practiced her drawing, and went on bird watching expeditions.
The summer I was 20, I lived with Grandma, and over supper in the evening, she and I would talk books. I had discovered Thomas Merton that summer, and was reading The Seven Story Mountain. Grandma had discovered Hans Kung, and was reading On Being a Christian, and so our evening conversations were about theology and spirituality. Pretty heady stuff for a 20 year old and his grandmother!
Isaiah 40: 1 – 11
Psalm 85: 1 – 2, 8 – 13
2 Peter 3: 8 – 15a
Mark 1: 1 – 8
Each year I get a little crankier and a little more annoyed by Christmas.
Now, don’t get me wrong, before you write me off as some kind of a monastic Scrooge, let me explain what I mean.
If truth be told, I actually love Christmas. I love the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. I love the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking, (perhaps especially the baking!). I love Christmas. What makes me cranky, and annoyed, is that what many people really just want are the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. What many people really just want are the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking. What many people really just want is the baby and the celebration. What many people don’t want is a saviour. But isn’t that the whole point of Christmas? And you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
For many, Christmas is about a cute, pudgy, sweet smelling baby, nestled in a bed of clean straw, in a romantically quaint, clean, rustic looking barn, amidst softly falling snow, much as we had yesterday. What they don’t want, is a saviour. And they don’t want a saviour, because that would suggest that we need saving. That would suggest that life isn’t all that we so often pretend it to be. And who wants to admit that life, especially my life, is not perfect, or that I can’t fix it?