A Meditation on Christmas Eve 2014
There’s a strange and telling tension in the story tonight: between the shepherds’ raucous response to the baby in the manger and Mother Mary’s contemplative choice. The shepherds return to their fields transformed, revitalized and all fired up with praise. They tell everyone they meet about the angels and the promise of peace and the king in the crib. But Mary chooses quiet devotion, and sweet thanksgiving, even silence. “She keeps all these things to herself,” the story says, “holding them dear, deep within herself.”
There’s no doubt that Christmas is a time for caroling in the streets and yucking it up at office parties and blasting Bing Crosby on the stereo at home. And it’s got to be time for unprecedented journeys and fearless visions and brave new initiatives for peace on earth. Christmas is a season for shepherds and for letting loose and letting God do new things, holy things, daring things in our lives.
But Mary reminds us of another dimension, a way of cultivating mystery and grace and wonder. She’s surrounded by activity, the wild singing of shepherds and the hovering wonder of angels and the murmuring (OK, maybe the wailing) of a newborn. But in that whirlwind of life and birth and responsibility and joy, Mary closes her eyes. She closes her eyes and sees God in the darkness and breathes God’s Spirit into her lungs and cherishes her life.
Life doesn’t get any busier, any louder than it is for a mother in a cave, moments after giving birth. Life doesn’t get any weirder, any wilder than it is for Mother Mary entertaining stinky shepherds from the fields and singing angels from the heavens, moments after giving birth. But even so, she closes her eyes. In that whirlwind of life and birth and responsibility, Mary closes her eyes. And she cherishes her life. And all the other lives gathering round.
This is not the end for Mary. Not by a long shot. She has a child to nurse and a boy to raise. She has prayers to teach him and visions of justice and jubilee to show him. Mary will suffer, and the people she loves will suffer too. But this night, this holy night, she ponders all these things, she holds them dear and deep within herself. And she remembers who she is, she remembers whose she is. And she is glad.
She’s glad like an exhausted mom who’s just given birth is glad. She’s glad like a woman who sees God in shepherds and stars is glad. She’s glad like a believer who feels God’s love, God’s grace, God’s passion beating in her own heart is glad. Gladness is all there is.
I wish for every one of you similar moments tonight and tomorrow and throughout these twelve days of Christmas. I wish for you moments of sweet stillness and holy silence and deep rich darkness. I know you’ve got places to go, people to meet, songs to sing. But I wish for you something like Mary’s stillness in the midst of it all. And in these mystery moments, let’s call them mystery moments, I hope you’ll ponder things as Mary does. I hope you’ll hold your life close and hold it dear and cherish it deeply. I hope you’ll hear the Spirit rising and falling in your own sweet breath. And I hope you’ll sense new life, new hope, even some kind of new birth coming to be in your own heart. For the baby is not only born in Bethlehem. The baby is born in you. That’s the wonder in all this. That’s the wonder of Christmas. It all begins again. Right here. Right now.
Now there is all kinds of work to be done. And this church, Peace United Church: we’re committed and passionate about all of it. We’re going to be part of the national conversation on race and racism and ways to heal at last the divisions among us. And we’re going to be part of the faith community’s response to poverty and homelessness. And we’re going to be part of peacemaking in the Middle East. But tonight we keep watch with Mary. Tonight we kneel before the manger. Tonight we remember who we are, and whose we are, and we are glad. There’s work to be done. But it begins tonight in gladness. It’s gladness that opens our hearts to tenderness and compassion. It’s gladness that stirs in our hearts visions of a better world. And it’s gladness that makes our humanness holy.
The great Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, once said, “If one wishes to be sure of the road she travels on, she must close her eyes and walk in the dark.” If one wishes to be sure of the road she travels on, she must close her eyes and walk in the dark. Christmas is a time for walking in the dark. Not without intelligence, mind you; and not without courage or smarts or hutzpah. But Christmas is a time for walking in the dark: pondering the great mysteries of the universe, cherishing the sweet privilege of life itself, choosing to live not by calculation but by grace, not by fear but by compassion. Like Mary, like Elizabeth, throwing caution to the wind and partnering with the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus, resisting bitterness and forgiving his captors, praying for their salvation. And like all the other saints who live by tenderness and a stubborn confidence in the promise of peace.
So close your eyes tonight, my friends. Close your eyes and unplug and feel damp December on your cheeks. Close your eyes and see in the darkness the face of God. Close your eyes and know that Jesus the Christ is born in you, is born to give you a second birth. Jesus comes to take your hand. Jesus comes to make your life new again. So close your eyes and walk tonight with him.