A Christmas Eve Meditation
Friday Evening, December 24, 2010
And this is what the young man did: Every day he would enter a town just before noon, when the market squares were most crowded. And he’d cry out: “Does anyone want to hear about God’s challenge and consolation?” Always there would be someone, an elder, who would step forward and say: “Yes, we will hear you speak on this topic.” And the elder would take the young man to his house and, after the supper meal, some people would gather. But not many. And a few would come late, and others would leave early; and the young man sensed they were listening to him only out of duty, without real interest. So after each session, he’d go back to his lodging feeling kind of empty, discouraged, and thinking that these surely were not the people to whom he’d been called to minister.
So it went on: for some time. Each day the cycle would repeat itself. He’d go into a town, cry out, ask if anyone was interested in hearing about God’s challenge and consolation. Always an elder would step forward and take the young man to his house; and each night a small group would gather, some would arrive late and others leave early. They’d listen to him politely, engage him with a few routine questions; and he’d leave feeling empty and discouraged.
Until one day, the young man entered a town just as he always did, cried out just as he always did, and an elder stepped forward just as an elder always did. But this time, things were different. Instead of taking him to his house, the elder took the young man to the town square where a platform had been erected and a large number of seats set up. That evening, the whole square filled with people and no one arrived late, and no one left early, and they listened to him intently and engaged him in deep questions long into the night.
Well, the young man went back to his lodging that night filled with energy; and all the next day, he worked enthusiastically at preparing what he’d say that night. And, when he got to the town square that evening, it was just as the night before, a huge crowd had gathered. But, just as he was about to step up to speak, the elder tugged at his sleeve and said: “Someone else will speak tonight, not you.” And it was just as the night before, nobody came late, and nobody left early, and everyone listened intently and engaged the new speaker deep into the night.
But the young man, he felt empty and listened without enthusiasm. And when it was over, he returned to his lodging nursing a dull, bruising frustration. Early the next morning, he packed his few belongings and began to walk out of the town. But then, just at its edge, the elder stopped him and asked: “Why? Why are you leaving us?” The young man replied: “It seems you don’t need me to preach to you—you have others.”
But the elder took him by the sleeve and said to him gently: “Let me give you some counsel. The person who was so full of himself two nights ago and the person who was so empty and discouraged last night—neither of those persons is you. Stay with us a while and let us teach you who you are.”
I’m quite sure this story was never intended as a Christmas story. And I’ll tell you why in just a moment. But tonight this story speaks to me on all kinds of levels—and it’s this last invitation that moves me most. “Stay with us,” the elder said, “and let us teach you who you are.” Now I don’t know about you, but I have so much still to learn about myself, about who I really am. I’m so easily bounced around by successes and failures, by the fickle praise of some and the disapproval of others. I so quickly lose track of the mystery, the spirit, the stuff in the center. I’m like the young preacher in the story: full of myself one day and demoralized the next. Ego, ego, ego.
But who am I, really? I have so much still to learn. I want to know the source. I want to trust my heart. Is there something unshakable, something sacred inside? I want to know who I am.
So when the elder in the story says, “Stay with us and let us teach you who you are,” I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking, ‘Yes, I’ll stay.’ Yes, I want so desperately to learn. Take me to the wise souls who can show me. Take me to the visionaries who already see. I want to know the source. I want to find it inside, inside here.
It might surprise you to know that this old story comes from the great mystical tradition of Islam. Islam. Because Islam means ‘surrender,’ after all. Surrender. In the end, every one of us must yield, surrender – to the truth, to the reality, to the love that is larger than ourselves. It’s just as true, I think, for Christians and Jews, for Buddhists and atheists, as it is for Muslims. And that’s what Islam means: surrender.
But here’s a young preacher – in the story – who’s still hanging on: hanging on to his own needs, hanging on to his own weakness, hanging on to his own press clippings, hanging on to his own mercurial ego.
But maybe, maybe this is his chance. Maybe this time he’ll stay. Maybe this time he’ll stay long enough to surrender that mercurial ego. Maybe these wise elders, steeped in grace, will lead him to a more beautiful truth. A larger truth. His truth. But he’s going to have to surrender. He’s going to have to let everything else go.
Christmas Eve, friends. And this is not the night to count up your successes, and it’s not the night to lick your wounds. You’ve experienced plenty of each, I imagine, plenty of highs and plenty of lows, plenty of thrilling accomplishments and plenty of sad frustrations. But this is not the night for counting or licking. What you are, who you are, has just about nothing to do with your resumé and nothing whatsoever to do with your defeats. It’s Christmas Eve. And this is a night, simply, to receive God’s gift. Life. Your life. This is a night, simply, to receive it. And then, to surrender to it. And then, to start again.
Now no one needs this advice any more than I do. We preachers are legendary in getting too full of ourselves when things go well and in getting bitterly disappointed when they don’t. One Catholic writer calls it “living in the ego-drama.” I’m living in the ego-drama when I’m drawing all this energy from my ego and from the highs and lows my ego experiences every day. I’m a good minister when the reviews are good in the receiving line. I’m a good-for-nothing when no one shows for a class I’ve worked on for weeks. I imagine I’m not the only one. In that ego-drama, we tend to feel pretty good about ourselves when things are hopping and depressed, deflated when they’re not.
But there’s something happening, something happening tonight, that turns all that inside out and sets our hearts freer than we’d ever thought possible. Jesus is born again tonight. In the sacred womb of your soul. Not as some kind of reward for all your successes. And not as some kind of pity on your frustrations. Jesus is born tonight in the sacred womb of your soul—because Jesus chooses to live in you and in me. In our broken hearts. In our messed up relationships. In our noble dreams of peace. In daring acts of kindness. Jesus chooses to live in us. Not out of some kind of maudlin mania. But out of love. And, friends, that makes all kinds of things possible.
Here’s how one theologian, Avery Dulles, puts it: “For the Christian, just as for everyone else, there will be cold, lonely seasons, seasons of sickness, seasons of frustration, and a season within which we will die. Christmas does not give us a ladder to climb out of the human condition. It gives us a drill that lets us burrow into the heart of everything that is and, there, find it shimmering with divinity.” Think about that for a minute. This whole Christmas thing is no magical ladder, no free pass out of life’s hardship and pain. Quite the opposite, actually. Christmas gives us a drill that lets us burrow into the heart of everything—the heart of everything—and find it shimmering with divinity. Shimmering with divinity. This night has nothing at all to do with your accomplishments, nothing at all to do with your failures and shortcomings. Christmas drills into the heart of everything you are—your flesh, your heart, your dreams, your needs, everything—and reveals your life for what it is. A gift. A simple, extraordinary gift.
So just start here. Take a moment right here and say to yourself: “My life is a gift. My life is a shimmering gift.” Go ahead. Do that. “My life is a gift. My life is a shimmering gift.” Turn to the person beside you, and try that out. “My life is a gift. My life is a shimmering gift.” There you said it. So what are you going to do now? With that gift? What are you going to do with the gift of your life?
Because here’s the thing. Tomorrow, when you wake up on Christmas morning, you’ve got an honest-to-God choice. You don’t have to live in that ego-drama any more. Nope. Don’t have to. You can, if you like, choose the ‘theo-drama’ instead. It’s a whole different thing. In a world that shimmers with grace. In this theo-drama, you’re breathing God’s breath, love’s breath. In this theo-drama, God chooses you, God honors the sacred womb in you, God is born again in you. In your frailty and your eccentricity. In your fragmented prayers and unfinished dreams. You don’t have to wait for a good day or a big accomplishment or a compliment in the receiving line. Because who you are, who you will always be—it’s all about God, it’s all about God, it’s all about this wondrous gift of grace and peace and a little baby born in a broken down manger.
So there’s no magical ladder. No magical ladder out of these crazy relationships and Tea Party politics and leaking budgets and aching joints. What there is on Christmas Eve is so much better than a magical ladder. Christmas gives us this drill that lets us burrow into the heart of everything that is—everything that is—and, there, find it shimmering with divinity. That’s what’s waiting for us tomorrow. Under your tree. Under every tree. Amen.