Friday, December 25, 2020


A Meditation for Christmas Eve
Christmas 2020

My first visit to the Basilica of the Annunciation in the old city of Nazareth, in the Galilee, was in 2008.  I’d been given a Lilly Endowment Grant to do some travel and study that year, and my first stop was the Galilee in the north of Israel, and a visit with my good friends Ghassan and Leila Manasra and their extraordinary family there.

It was Ghassan who picked me up that first morning—it happened to be my birthday; and he took me, by the hand I think, to see the great Basilica at the heart of the old city.  Nazareth.  Where the angel appeared to Mary.  Jesus’ hometown.  

And Ghassan could barely contain his glee, his delight in introducing the church with its hundreds of bright mosaics to his friend from the West.  As I say, I think he took my hand that morning and never once let go.  You see, when it was designed, not so long ago, the Basilica commissioned mosaics from all over the world.  I beg you to go online and take a peek; you can do that in 2020 (just click the picture here)!  Every one is a depiction of Mother Mary and the baby Jesus, a unique and delightful imagining of what they look like, how they face the future, how they dress, how they pray.  Ghassan led me from alcove to alcove, from mosaic to mosaic to mosaic: the huge vision of Mary and Jesus in Thailand, the bright colors of Maria and Jesus in Guatemala, the stunning courage of Mary and Jesus in Poland and in Greece and in Croatia, and the exuberance of Mary and Jesus in Kenya and South Africa.  I was moved, maybe even to the point of conversion, to a moment of spiritual rebirth, by the beauty and wonder of these mosaics.  By the grace and power of Mary and Jesus together.  Her YES and his birth.

Now here’s the thing that really moves me still, moves me to this day.  My friend Ghassan, my guide to the deepest mysteries of the annunciation, my handholding teacher that day—my friend Ghassan is a Muslim sheikh, a gifted and devoted Muslim teacher, a Sufi whose faith in Allah and devotion to the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) run deep and true in his body, brain and spirit.  I’ve prayed with Ghassan.  I’ve touched the Holy One in conversation and study with Ghassan.  And it was Ghassan, this brave and tender Muslim sheikh, who turned me on to the mystery of Mary, and the tenderness of the Christ at the Basilica in Nazareth.  On my birthday no less!  I think of him every Christmas.

Mary’s YES is a holy and human YES.  And she bravely bears that YES in her body, with her commitments, in her devotion to communion and community.  Mary’s YES is not a narrow YES, a YES that chooses to love some but not all, a YES that embraces the divine in some traditions but denies that it exists at all in others.  Mary’s YES is a holy and human YES.  As Ghassan guided me through the Basilica in Nazareth, I experienced in my heart Mary’s YES—a YES that risks brokenness for a bigger, wider, deeper LOVE.  As my sheikh held my hand that day, I experienced in my heart JESUS’ GOSPEL too—a GOSPEL that schools us in sisterhood and brotherhood, a GOSPEL that joins us in a global community of solidarity and friendship.

You see, friends, the GOSPEL is revealed to us not in the usual trappings of Christmas, not in the expected carols and the ordinary trees and the classically wrapped presents, but in the unexpected neighbors and friends—whose different beliefs illuminate our deepest convictions, whose radiant faith reveals our own, whose pain and suffering call us to service and witness and prayer.  Mostly that.  There’s no doubt in my mind, or in my heart, that my friend Ghassan Manasra, the Muslim sheikh, the Sufi teacher, the Palestinian prophet, pulled my very spirit open that day, and made space for the Gospel of Jesus Christ there.  Isn’t that stunning?  Isn’t that good news?  Isn’t that grace?

And I want to offer this to you tonight.  That this is what Christmas is really all about.  That light shines in our midst, Christ’s light, and illuminates the love we’re made for.  Muslim sheikhs for Christian pastors.  And Christian pastors for Muslim sheikhs.  Jewish rabbis for Buddhist priests.  Gay friends for straight friends, and trans friends for those questioning everything and evolving in their own unique ways.  White mothers in New Hampshire for Black mothers in cities like Minneapolis and Philly and Boston.

In Mary’s YES, we see and we cherish those Black mothers and we dedicate our energies to their futures and their communities.  They speak to us of faith, and discipleship and our path to justice and peace.  In Mary’s YES, we see and we cherish those suffering with COVID this December, and those suffering with cancer this Christmas, and those wrestling with addiction and despair.  And we dedicate our energies to their healing, and to their journeys into the night.  They too speak to us faith, and discipleship and our path to salvation and peace.  We have so much to learn together.
Yes, the light that shines tonight in our midst—in the Child born of Mary—this light illuminates the love we’re made for.  As a GOSPEL people, as disciples of that Christ’s light, we open our hearts and minds to the love that will make us whole.  Though we’ve been broken and busted by this pandemic.  Though we’ve been tempted to isolate ourselves and think proudly of our traditions.  As a GOSPEL people, we open our hearts and minds to the love that will make us whole.  

And that love will come for you tonight: through an unexpected visitor, or a Muslim sheikh, or a strange knock on the door, or a dream that begs reflection, or restlessness that insists on partnership and action.  That love is coming for you tonight.  For Christ is born.  And the light shines in our midst.  Illuminating the love you’re made for.