Monday, December 24, 2007
O Holy Night
Many years ago when I was in my twenties I made my living teaching school and playing French horn in various orchestras. I played Church gigs a lot—they paid pretty well and the Christmas season provided a boost to my rather paltry income. I had not been raised with much religion. I respected it. I believed in a god and knew the basics of Christianity, but faith didn’t enter into my life.
I had been asked by a nun who sat next to me in the French horn section in one of the orchestras I played in to play for the Christmas Eve Mass at her convent. It was at midnight so I could play for a gig for the Methodists, who paid pretty well, early in the evening and still do that gig. “Sure,” I said. I would do a favor for Sister.
I hadn’t been in a convent chapel before. It might be interesting, I thought. I got there half an hour before the gig as the professional musician’s code demanded. The chapel was dark, warm and quiet. The nuns all were sitting there praying. Some lay people came in, but still it was quiet. Under the Altar was a crèche that was lighted and everyone’s eyes were on it. In hushed tones I checked in with Sister who was directing. I sat there in my black dress—oh so professional, and began to soak in the evening.
As the service began, I followed the service. Most of it was in English but some was in the kind of Latin that I had learned by being a musician—like the Ave Maria we heard at the beginning of the service tonight. There was something important going on but I couldn’t figure out what. I not only watched what the priest was doing, listened to his sermon and the words of the service. But it was in the faces of those who were attending that I began to understand the reality of what I was doing. I played the parts that Sister gave me but as the night progressed, it was no longer a performance, it was gift. No longer was what I doing was playing—it was service, to God and those who were attending. I moved from being a jaded professional to being a suplicant. I got the worst case of stage fright I have ever had because what I had to offer was my best but even then I found it wanting.
I had found out what the season meant. Something changed in me that night. I went from observing to living out what this night means. The God who had always been “up there” was firmly rooted in me after that night. And even though that happened almost 40 years ago, I know that Christianity moved from a being a religion to a relationship. It moved from a series of beliefs to a friendship with the holy. No longer did I need proofs for the unprovable. No longer did I have to have answers to the questions that plague us all when we are in our twenties. I KNEW that somehow God knew me and had touched me. I understood the meaning of the Feast of the Incarnation—the infleshment of God.
Now, even though I understand the meaning of Incarnation I cannot explain it. If I could explain it I would be teaching in some great school of theology, or preaching in some great pulpit somewhere. I can no more articulate what it means for God to become man—to take on what it means to be human—than I can describe what it means to be faithful. But every week I stand up and try to do that. It is what you pay me the big bucks for!
All I can do is offer to you the opportunity for you to make yourselves available to that touch of God. I do understand what God’s becoming human says about what it means to be human. I believe that in God’s willingness to come to be born among us says that humanity has been touched with the divine for all time. For God to participate in the human experience says that for all time, we humans have a direct link to that which is beyond us.
When I was a seminarian I spent a summer internship at a big church in Ithaca. During my first sermon in that big church with its high and lifted-up pulpit, a small child got away from her parents and crawled under the pews and proceeded to climb up the steps to the chancel. I learned something about preaching that day. I have learned NEVER to try to compete with children! Every eye in that church was on that little child. NO one was listening to my sermon.
Christmas has us focus on a child born in Bethlehem. Jesus catches our eyes just as Isaac, Cadon, Hannah and Cristina take our hearts and eyes here in the parish. We never hear of Jesus being obstreperous, but I believe that he gave his parents a tough time of it too. Take heart, parents! I don’t even think that Jesus was a perfect child, because Jesus came to become one of us—-human with all that that entails.
This metaphor—this mystery of faith—that God became human reminds us that in our humanity we are touched with the Divine. We no longer have to worry about death. We no longer have to worry about being saved. We no longer have to strive for righteousness for its own sake. We do not even have to be good. With this act of God touching humanity by becoming a little Child, says that we who are human have a chance to walk with God. We do not have to wait for heaven to know that God. By becoming human in the conventional way God reminds us that we may not think of ourselves as less than what we are.
I am not sure what people thought of themselves in the First Century. But I do know that by the early Middle Ages, humanity was seen as damned. It is interesting that the concept of Original Sin does not figure in Judaism. Neither Jesus, nor his followers thought of themselves as fallen. Sinners in need of repentance?-- yes, but not damned. It has been a mistake in our theology throughout the history of Christianity that we have come to an idea that humanity is totally depraved. Luther struggled with this. He finally came to the opinion that even though Humanity was depraved, God’s sacrifice redeemed all humanity.
One of the things that has disturbed me about this Christian position is that all too often I see people, good Christians constantly putting themselves down, seeing only the sinner part of themselves rather than being willing to accept the blessedness that God has bestowed upon them. In Christ all are called to Sainthood. Luther understood this touch of God when he said that we are both Saint and Sinner. But somehow all folks seem to have heard was that we are sinners. And that is why I think it is important for us all to hear the promise of Christmas.
The promise of Christmas is not about Ipods, or new clothes, or fascinating toys. The promise of Christmas says that humanity is raised to a new level. We who are human can call upon ourselves to live a humane life. We are called by a Child born in a barn to a life that not only has meaning, but that to be human means that we are invited to live a life open to the Divine. We are called into relationship with all that is holy. We can encounter the sacred in our lives everywhere if we but prepare ourselves.
In choosing to appear to us on earth as a child God has opened our eyes and our hearts to hear and receive that message that cannot be articulated but can only be KNOWN in that non cognitive way. God has come to us in a wee child, to draw our attention not to might, not to the flashy, not to the grandiose. We are to know the power of the powerlessness of the child. We are to experience the magnificence in the lowliness of a stable. We are to embrace our own humanity just as surely as Jesus embraced it—through selfless love.
My prayer for you tonight is that somehow during this season—perhaps even at this service that God will touch your humanity with Divinity. My hope is that you will once again know the power of the child to draw your eye to dream. And my wish for you that you know how honored it is to be human when God can be infleshed for the sake of the world. May the Christ who came to us as a tiny child enliven in you a faith in God and in yourself that we can be about loving this world in to peace for the sake of us all. AMEN