Christmas Eve 2009 St. Paul’s Church, Bellingham, WA
Dear friends, Merry Christmas.
Some years ago the book Children’s Letters to God was published, and it contained this gem:
Are you real? Some people don't believe it. If you are, you'd better do something quick.
—Love, Harriet Anne[i]
Harriet Anne speaks for all of us at some time or other, even those of us who proclaim publicly our faith. We all at times wonder where God is when the latest outrage hits the front page, or when sudden calamity strikes nearby.
Harriet Anne asks the question that summarizes the Advent Season, the season of waiting for God’s deliverance.
“You’d better do something quick”, Harriet Anne insists. Implicit here is her understanding that we cannot seem to save ourselves from ourselves.
The twentieth-century mystic Simone Weil agrees.
“We cannot take one step towards the heavens. God crosses the universe and comes to us.”[ii]
Tonight the Season of Advent is ended for another year, and we celebrate beginning tonight the Season of the Incarnation; Christmas. Tonight Holy Church joyfully proclaims that God has come in all the active goodness and compassion of Jesus of Nazareth. Because of this, we call him Jesus Christ: Jesus the “anointed one” of God, who in himself is the very fullness of God in bodily form.
It is true, as Harriet Anne observes, that some people don’t believe this. This may be due to the distressing humility of God’s coming. He comes, not with the right hand of power to force us. To so come would be merely to satisfy our projections onto God. He comes with the mysterious left-handed power of love, by which he teaches us that the only answer to our predicament is sacrificial love for one another.
The Anglican mystic Maggie Ross makes this observation about the character of God as revealed in Jesus:
“The heart of Christianity is the self-emptying, kenotic humility of God expressed through Jesus Christ…. At the heart of God’s humility is this: God willingly is wounded.” [iii]
This humility of God’s coming begins right in our story. There is no room for his birth in the inn; Mary must give birth to him in a manger with the cattle standing by. And as Jesus grows up and begins his ministry, we will see again and again the humility of God, going right through cross and grave to resurrection life. God is with us as one who knows our weakness, our sadness, our longing for home, our sometimes secret knowledge that we are helpless apart from someone loving us.
So God is among us. God crosses the heavens to come to us. This is cause for rejoicing and celebration, friends. This is cause to renew our response to this generosity.
Harriet Anne’s challenge to God was this:
“You’d better do something quick.”
It’s a good challenge for us. The Book of Common Prayer tells us the meaning of this season is that God gives us power to become Children of God.
The world is waiting – whether all realize it or not – for us to become children of God. When we do, the world’s dark night of sin and alienation recedes.
So let’s do something quick.
Let’s receive him, so that at his coming tonight he’ll find room. Let's receive him, for the power to become children of God.
Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is thy right,
To man of all beasts be not thou a stranger:
Furnish and deck my soul, that thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack*, or grave.[iv]
[i][i] Children’s Letters to God, by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall. (Workman Publishing, 1991).
[ii] Quoted in Seeds of the Spirit: Wisdom of the TwentiethCentury. Ed.Richard H. Bell with Barbara L. Battin.(Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p 108.
[iii] Ibid, p. 108.
[iv] Christmas 1 1by George Herbert from “The Temple”. The Classics of Western Spirituality. (New York, Paulist Press, 1981), p. 198-199.
image: Madonna and Child with four saints by Alvise Vivarini (Gallera Nazionale della Marche, Urbino)