In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” – Luke 2:8-14
When I was a child, I could hardly wait for Christmas. It was the best! My cousins and I, with our families, would gather at the home of my Swedish grandmother, Anna Marie. She was widowed and lived in an enormous mansion with her two sisters, my Great Aunt Gerda (also a widow), and another Great Aunt, Ingeborg – the Selander sisters. They had arrived as young children on the American shores year 1900. The three Swedish sisters were a kind of triumvirate of love. At Christmas, on our arrival, they would greet us in their front parlor, so beautifully decorated, and teeming with the most wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen.
Christmas is here – this silent and holy night. We are here together in this lovely church to be still before a great and mighty wonder. On this holy night God spoke one word, which was his Son. And the word was made flesh – and we have come to worship and adore him.
Spread out before us is this beautiful crèche, lovingly made from olive wood by woodcarvers in Bethlehem. I love to just stand and gaze at it – with wide-eyed wonder, like a child. I love the shepherd at the end, playing the pipes. And the shepherd gazing at Jesus, while gently and with immense care and affection, holding his sheep. And right at the far end the straggler camel, coming behind everyone else. And there, right in the middle, the beautiful figure of Joseph, with his hands cupped, looking at Mary and Jesus with adoration, amazement, wonder.
As an almost daily grocery shopper I have become quite well known at the local Shaw’s in Newburyport. Each time I go someone on the staff calls out a greeting to me. Colin, at the fish counter is always asking me to bless his pens. He thinks that I have some kind of ‘in’ with God, so that if I bless his pens he’ll be more likely to win at the race tracks. Joyce, Jennifer, and Brandylee are always curious about how many guests we have at Emery House, and Ron and Jim at the meat counter have told me some pretty fabulous ways to cook various kinds of meat. If what I want isn’t out they gladly do up a special order for me. Just ask me sometime about Jim’s recipe for ribs wrapped in plastic and foil! In the last few months the manager has also begun to greet me whenever he sees me. By now most of them know I run a retreat centre. Some of them know I am a priest. A few of them know I am a monk. Curiously enough, it is not because I told them those things about me. Somehow they have figured that out. Now every so often one of them will ask me to pray for them, or they will tell me something that I don’t think they would tell one of their other customers.
Meister Eckhart was a 13th century German Dominican who distinguished himself as a theologian and mystic. He taught that the real meaning of Christmas is not only that God’s Son was born in a stable, but that Christ is born in us. His most famous sermon, usually presented first in collections of his writings, was preached on Christmas morning. It begins with this summary:
Here in time we celebrate the eternal birth that God the Father bore and still bears constantly in eternity, and which is also now born in time, in human nature. St. Augustine says that this birth is happening continually. We should ask ourselves: If it doesn’t happen in me, what good is that birth after all? What ultimately matters is that God’s birth should happen in me.
Memories are a powerful force in the human psyche. They have the ability to trap and imprison, but they have also the ability to liberate and free. They have the power to make one weep in despair or grief and to laugh with the delight of a child. They have the power to shape and mold a life and in hindsight to help make sense of all that was and is, and even is to be. As we all know, it doesn’t take much to trigger a memory: a sound, a taste, a smell, an image, even just a word or phrase and suddenly we are back there as if it were happening this very instant.
I have one such memory that crops up in my mind and heart on a regular basis and it happens many days at Morning Prayer. Had I known it at the time, the event itself was to be a harbinger of things to come. As a memory it continues to delight and console, and even assure me.
Christmas is here! The prophet Isaiah proclaims it with ringing words of joy: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who live in a land of deep darkness – on them has light shined.”(Isa 9:2) Tonight we celebrate with great joy the birth of Jesus, the coming of a great light to a land of deep darkness.
I love the lights of Christmas. I love Christmas tree lights, the lights I saw a few weeks ago along Fifth Avenue and at Rockefeller Center. I even love – and this is a new one for me – the Christmas lights in people’s front yards and all over their houses – illuminated Father Christmases, glowing reindeer, pulsating stars and flashing greeting signs. My all time favorite is one a friend sent me on the internet. It’s amazing. A house and yard in Ohio are covered with 45,000 lights and operated by 176 computer channels. The display is synchronized to a rock version of Amazing Grace. It’s so popular there are huge traffic jams in the area, and there is a crew of three policemen to manage the traffic!
2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 18; Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 26-38
Every year at this time I am caught off guard, and it happened again yesterday. For the last several weeks we have been reading lessons, which frankly can terrify me:
But the bridegroom replied, “Truly I tell you, I do now know you.1
You that are accursed depart from me, into the eternal fire prepared
for the devil and his angels.2
… for you do not know when the master of the house will come … [and]
he may find you asleep…. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.3
And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to [John the Baptist], and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.4
These gospel lessons, beginning toward the end of the Pentecost cycle are not all that fun to ponder. After all, who among us wants to be reminded week after week that it is quite possible to be denied, especially if we have denied; to be left out, when we have left others out; to fall asleep when we have been charged to keep alert.
But suddenly everything has changed, and I am caught off guard. It happened once again yesterday.
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the
son of Abraham.5
For the last several weeks we have been pondering lessons which point us to the coming of Christ at the end of time to be judge and ruler of all. Suddenly, suddenly our focus shifts and we are invited to ponder the coming of Christ, not in glory at the end of time, but in lowliness in time as the babe of Bethlehem. We are invited to ponder Jesus, not as judge, but as messiah; not as ruler, but as savior and we do that today by pondering the familiar story of Mary’s strange encounter with Gabriel; a story which we remember here at the monastery three times each day.
The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary:
And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you….6
We remember this encounter because it both fulfills and begins a whole sequence of events reaching back to one garden and forward to another, from one tree to another: from Eden to Gethsemane; from the tree of life to the wood of the cross and beyond. Mary’s ‘yes’ spans time and space and opened her to become the temple of the Lord that David longed to build. In spite of David’s desire to build, it was in Mary that God chose to dwell, for the building blocks of the temple are not wood and stone and gold, but flesh and blood and a heart full of love. And that is precisely what God found in Mary.
By saying ‘yes’ to God and becoming the Mother of the Saviour, Mary made room for God not only in her womb, but in her heart. Because of this act of great love she became, as Orthodox tradition calls her, More Spacious than the Heavens for “He whom not even the universe could contain was contained within the womb of a virgin, making her more spacious than the Heavens.”7
David longed to build a temple fit for God to reside and in the heart of an unwed teenager, God found that temple not because she was a master builder in wood and stone but because she was a master builder in love.
Like that day two thousand years ago, God longs for a temple in which to reside. He longs for a temple, not of stone and light, no matter how glorious, but of flesh and blood and a heart of full of love. Like Mary, you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you8 for when you say ‘yes’ to God you open yourself to God and God’s glory abides in you; when you say ‘yes’ to God, the Word is made flesh and dwells among us.9
Although everyone loves a baby, Christmas is not actually about babies. Christmas is about saying ‘yes’ to God. Christmas is about making space for God. Christmas is about becoming God’s temple. Christmas is about becoming, like Mary, ‘more spacious than the heavens.’ Christmas is about opening the temple of your heart to the love, and life and light of God.
We have just a week to get ready for Christmas and there is a lot to do: there are presents to buy; trees to decorate; puddings and cakes and cookies to make; gifts to wrap; parties to attend; cards to send. But the most important thing to do is that there is a ‘yes’ to say and a temple to build.
Only you can say ‘yes’ to God and only you can open your heart to God. Only you can build that temple in your heart where the one whom the heavens cannot contain may dwell.
Two thousand years ago, Gabriel appeared to Mary looking for a heart of love where God might dwell, and all creation waited with bated breath for her ‘yes’. Today the sound of angel wings stir the air and Gabriel is once again looking for someone whose heart is full of love. Won’t you this Christmas open your heart to God and say ‘yes’ so that the Word might once more become flesh and dwell among us? Won’t you say ‘yes’ to God and offer him the temple of your heart? Won’t you say ‘yes’ to God and make space in your heart so that like Mary’s heart yours too will be more spacious than the heavens? Won’t you say ‘yes’ to Gabriel so that God’s light and life and love might dwell in you?
Won’t you say ‘yes’ to God? Gabriel and all creation are waiting with bated breath for your answer.
Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Isaiah 42: 1 – 9; Psalm 29; Acts 10: 34 – 43; Matthew 3: 13 – 17
I don’t know if I actually saw it the first time. I think I did, but I can’t swear to it. It was on my first visit to Jerusalem and the course I was taking at St. George’s College had spent a few days in and around the Old City. We had then departed for Egypt and had been to Cairo and then on to St. Anthony’s Monastery and to St. Catharine’s in the Sinai. We had crossed the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea and had visited Madaba, Petra and Nebo in Jordan. We were finally heading back to Jerusalem and had just passed through the border crossing into the West Bank and were driving over the Allenby Bridge when our course director announced that at that moment we were crossing the Jordon River. Luckily I had a window seat, but even in the moment it took me to turn my head and look out the window, we were over the river and all that could be seen as we drove off was the lush growth of trees, scrub and brush that outlined the river bank. I remember seeing that, but I don’t actually remember seeing any water, much less anything that passed as a river, at least to my mind.