Is 62: 6-12; Ps 97; Ti 3: 4-7; LUKE 2: 1-20
Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place. AMEN.
Merry Christmas and welcome here this happy morning.
Sometimes I wonder about swapping seasonal hymns—wouldn’t “Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say” suit this day as would many other Easter hymns, although there are often stanzas and verses about the crucifixion which would suit less well, because that’s looking too far ahead. This morning, we’re only at “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” Christmas hymns are allowed sweet sentiments, and even sentimental images, and yet they need not to stop there. The risk is of seeing an image of Mother and Child, and stopping at that ordinary, gentle, and familiar scene, and forgetting the complex reality of that seemingly recognizable family picture.
The wonder is not of the bond between this mother and baby, but of the unseen bond between Parent and child. When God thought to test out living a human life, it seemed right to start at the beginning, and live, through a mother, into a regular life. It’s such a large idea, that the smaller and more specifically real we make it, the easier it is to grasp as real. We only glimpse that specificity or a metaphorical less- real theological image. Nativity scenes often, if not usually, reflect the culture of their makers or owners—the Baby in our manger scene has blue eyes for example. It’s hard to imagine the look of a baby with God as parent and a young Jewish woman— which parent would he look like, and how would God’s characteristics show up recognizably? Perhaps that everyman look, culture to culture, does catch those in whom God does live—each/all of us, and all of our cultures and roots. It’s a scene either easy to picture, of a known sort of Mother and her infant, or a sketch of, is it more generic, or more majestically universal, and what would that look like in paint, statue, word, sound, or picture?
It’s easier to fixate on the look of the Mother and Child than to imagine them as real people. There are so many specifics we’d like to know in order to put him into a real picture, we divert ourselves from the mystery of his person. What color were his eyes, after all, and what did his DNA say about his parents, and was he from the House of David through his Mother or father and more, but those are questions of our age. They may be good questions or silly ones, either way, they are unanswerable and I’d say unimportant. God the Creator of the Infinite chose to live in the finite, and we don’t get to know much more.
If we can’t even imagine God’s child, God as a child, it’s hard to imagine the rest of God’s mission, identity, and plan: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sad, visit prisoners, and/or know peace. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine—to jump ahead—specific ways our ecclesiastical authorities, our bishops enter our lives, theologically. They want to be a source of calling, and offer pastoring. Our bishops do well. They send each priest a box of absolutely favorite chocolates and yesterday Bishop Gayle sent this reflection from Mark Smith:
Peace in our time.
Love without borders.
Broken bits healed.
Delighting in difference.
Communion, holy union.
God dwelling among us.
Plows over swords.
Redemption the norm.
On earth, as in heaven.
Hope seeks only permission.
Hear the knock? Clear the path.
From imagine, expect. From expect, demand.
The dream of God, as near as our hands.
When imagining and imaging a mystery, spare poetry seems right, because it gives us each the brush, marker, pixels, notes, substance, and tools to fill it in. We’re more of an age to want history, facts, MRI’s, details, specifics, and replicable, verifiable information of not any, but every kind. It’s a mystery. My head doesn’t go satisfactorily around mystery, so I poke and prod. Is it not healthy, a relief, and right and proper that the mystery of God should trump my/ each of our wants and needs, be bigger than my imagination and my/our own imagined and projected God?
The ache and clarity of “Lo, how a rose” is as good as it gets for me, and I imagine, too, each of us has an image through which we reach toward, lean to, and approach God and the coming of the Christ child. The variety of those longings travels us into the mystery from every sort and kind of human, from every race, creed, and culture, time and space, here and there, and those points of longing focus into an everyman/universal sort of Mother and Child, a computerized identikit kind of person, and yet Jesus was as specific as one real baby can be, could be. The distance between those two babies, the real and the imagined one, is infinite and mysterious. Let it alone. The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head— I love thee Lord Jesus…
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.
In some ways this is the quintessence of sweetness, almost to the point of cloying unreality, but it is exactly the program for us in relationship with Jesus, the Christ. It is what God chose and promised for each and all of us; we are God’s own universal dear children. Jesus came into the world to live as one of us, exactly, precisely, impossibly mysteriously, “to fit us for Heaven.” What more, what better—
So “Go tell it on the mountains; go tell it on the mountains: Jesus Christ is born this day.” Merry Christmas!
© Katharine C. Black Christmas Day 2012
St. John the Evangelist Church, Boston, MA