Posts Tagged ‘Christmas Eve’

When the 16th century reformer Martin Luther said of the Christmas story that he would rather be one of the shepherds than any Pope, he was not only casting aspersions on the papacy. He was making a statement about the way God works in the world, where God shows up and how.

What Luther was saying then and we can say now is that God defies all expectations. God does not show up where expected, in the places necessarily valued by the culture. God does not show up in the political halls of power and empire. God does not show up in the temple or among religious structures. God does not show up on Wall Street and centers of commerce. God does not show up where news crews assume it’s happening. God does not show up in the great centers of learning. God does not show up according to our time tables and schedules. God does not show up by force or coercion. However one might expect it, God shows up in none of these places.

No, in this story God shows up in the most unlikely of places. God shows up among shepherds. And the first thing we must ask ourselves is just where the shepherds were located.

Shepherds were living outside urban areas, far from the centers of power. Within their own agrarian peasant class they were at the bottom of the social ladder, a place often reserved for the very young or very poor. They lived where they worked which was wherever the flock needed to be. They lived in the fields. They were often migrants, shifting with the seasons to different grazing lands, without permanent home. In every respect they lived on the edge of everything.

And why, you might be wondering, do the angels make their appearance there and to them? Why is so much revealed far from the center of presumed power, enterprise, attention and religious virtue?

And what is this carefully crafted message from angels for shepherds in the fields?

What are they expected to hear through their terror, hear and pass on? What they hear is that they should not be afraid. In fact, the message is for them. What they hear is a sacred song luring them from the edge all the way to a baby who barely has a toehold in this world. Why in the world would such a message be entrusted to such as these? Why would Luther rather be one of these shepherds than every priest, pope or king who ever lived?

The answer is disarmingly simple: If the good news of great joy is going to make it to all the people it will have to start at the edge and work toward the center. It never works the other way around. Herod won’t pass it on. Neither will the High Priest. All those who broker such things will inevitably keep and use and hoard them. This is the human inclination to territory, to self-serving control.

Thankfully, God never uses a trickle-down approach. Against all expectations, God employs a different divine economy, a trickle up plan.

The good news of great joy that causes the heavenly host to sing “glory to God in the highest” starts with shepherds at the farthest edge and works toward all the people from there. It is to these unsuspecting and shocked shepherds that the good news is entrusted, not by virtue of any status, power, wealth or learning. They have been entrusted with the precious news because they have nothing to lose; because they are the least inclined to misuse and distort it for their own purposes. They run with empty hands toward Bethlehem, no agenda other than delivering the news.

You can only imagine the difference this makes to the holy family, these peasants who have traveled far for the census. The news is born by those on the edge, shepherds with nothing to defend or claim as their own. They come wanting to see for themselves what has been told them. And so they do.

When someone on the edge, out of nowhere, with no discernible agenda appears, there is epiphany.

So it was for the young mother of the baby and her husband and all the Bethlehem family gathered in the courtyard of the house, because there was no guest room available. They, too, were on the edge of everything, God’s preferred revelation locale.

It was a peasant-to-peasant call they made that night, and everyone – from the shepherds to the family – were stunned by the way the Spirit was working everything out. There was no rule book. No star performers. And yet God was starkly, palpably, purposefully present.

Of course, that dramatic contrast between the edge and the center, the contrast set in the beginning of the story, would stay that way until the end. God just kept showing up at every edge life contained until off the edge the world decided to throw him.

Whenever we wonder why our sense of the Presence of God has grown stale or cold we might consider that we may have grown much too comfortable with the center of life as we know it.

We may need to go to the edge of the known to find what is hidden. We may need to look for God out beyond the expected and familiar and orthodox. We may need to go out with the shepherds, with those who claim nothing for themselves in order that we might receive much.

Angels still sing for those who will listen. But we will never hear them with hearts tuned to the frequency adopted by the world. Rather, we will hear when our hearts are open to the wide open spaces beyond our control, out at the edge where God still chooses to come, baffling all those who continue to predict how and where and when it will happen next.

Run, shepherds, from field to town, from town to room, from room to manger, from edge to edge. Take us with you. It’s time to leave this place and bow down at the simplest, most beautiful altar on the edge of the world.

Christmas Eve Meditation 2012

Posted: December 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

I always find it interesting how specific Luke is about his historic context when telling the story of the birth of Jesus. He goes into some detail and says this guy was the king and this other guy was the governor. The government was doing that. The people had to respond by doing this. And by the way, Joseph needed to go to that city because he was of this blood line going back to a particular person, David.

What Luke does is to locate the story for us. By putting everything in its historical context he says something important. He insists that when you say something about God you also have to say something about where God is going. It’s not beside the point.

If we were the Gospel writers telling the birth of Jesus today we would include all the coordinates that mark our own time.

We just had an election and these people are in office. People have been wondering if they are going to fall off the fiscal cliff or, according to the Mayan calendar, there won’t be a cliff to fall off of. There has been another slaughter of the innocents by a madman and Rachel is still weeping for her children. There are wars and rumors of wars.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. Polarization was stronger than ever in the U.S. congress. This was the first enrollment when Quirinius was governor of Syria. The troops were drawing down from Afghanistan.

When Luke says Jesus was born into the world it was into the actual world, not an imaginary one with a pretend stage. When God showed up in the flesh it was real flesh rubbing our flesh. And that’s the only way, really, to catch the flavor of this radical story.

Jesus was born into the middle of the mess, not alongside it, not into a Christmas program or a carol or a crèche.

Jesus was born into an actual world were people suffer and have great triumphs, where tyrants rule and the conflict du jour lines up to take the place of the one that preceded it yesterday. Christ is born here, not somewhere else, in a place that often has little room for him.

By coming to the real world, all the way down in the muck, it becomes possible for the world not only to contemplate a creator but connect with one. And it’s that connection that is the thing. Without connection, things are just things, lives are lumps of clay.

One time John Oliver (Giver of Life, Paraclete, 2011, 83) asked his readers to imagine receiving a huge box that has been delivered to your house. Inside of the box is an appliance that either you or Santa ordered. As you feverishly remove the appliance and pore over the owner’s manual, you discover all the nifty things your new appliance can do. You’ve educated yourself on all its features.

Then you just sit and look at it because you are so proud: It’s so shiny, powerful and just perfect for what you’ve needed.

Now, Oliver continues, just imagine that you never plug your new appliance into the wall socket. There it sits, disconnected from the source of power that can make all those features and directions mean something. So it just sits there, taking up space, unable to perform a thing it was designed to do. And why is that? Because it’s not connected. That’s the first question that the IT support people ask you on the phone when you can’t get your devise to work, right? “Is it plugged in?”

Jesus is about making sure the appliance is plugged into the power source. And he does that by being becoming the appliance and power at the same time and connecting the two in his life. You’d never imagine it by looking at a little birth coming into the real, big, bad world. But that’s exactly what we say happened and happens.

Christians have always understood ourselves to be something like those appliances. Authentic Christian life is not possible unless we are connected, plugged into the God who created us. Without that we just take up space on the counter. This connection doesn’t happen automatically any more than the plug of an appliance finds its own way to an outlet. Somewhere in the mystery of Christ, God with us, a hidden hand of grace draws together the two, appliance and source, so that we might become what we were created to be in the first place.

The thing about that particular connection is that it only happens heart-to-heart according to the invisible cords of love. God comes in such a way that our hearts are broken, the armored plating falls away, and we fall in love. We fall in love through a veil of tears, or laughter, or silence, through the incredible discovery that the beating of this little child’s heart in the manger causes ours to come to life until we sing like angels.

All of that takes place in the year of Caesar Augustus or when predictions of the Mayan Calendar proved false or tragedy came to an elementary school. It always comes into the real world where life is underway and has been, and when it arrives it always finds the same need on parade, the need for the beloved to return to the Divine Lover.

You can second guess God if you like, question the efficiency of such a move, or try to devise a better plan yourself. But when it comes down to it the things of God that last and change the world are like the proverbial butterfly wings: they beat in one corner of the universe and cause storms to rage thousands of miles away. God majors in the incredibly small things, like an atom, for instance. It’s small, like a baby’s cry, but when released, its potential lights up the sky with a thousand suns.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem and wherever the mess of life is happening, and love is let out to prowl around and do its work. And when it finally finds your heart you don’t have a chance. He’s plugged in the toaster and nothing will ever be the same again.