Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20
In those days a decree went out from the Emperor Augustus… Such familiar words; almost like Once upon a time…– a trigger for so many memories, both joyous and painful. For many of us, there are memories of many midnight masses and many Christmas pageants in the parish hall, with children costumed as angels and shepherds, as Mary and Joseph, and as all manner of people in 2000 year-old Middle Eastern garb. And also for many of us, there are painful memories of old cycles of family conflict and trauma that became particularly acute at Christmastime. Nostalgia isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. But regardless of the personal emotional charge of the memories sparked by these opening words of Luke’s nativity story, they inevitably carry us back into the past. And in our liturgical celebrations, it is easy for us to do the same. It is easy for us to fall into the habit of thinking that tonight we are celebrating a special event that reportedly occurred in and around Bethlehem 2019 years ago. Of course, we are remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and we do this at this same time every year. Indeed, our whole liturgical year is, from one point of view, a remembrance of the temporal life, death, and eternal life of the person who is the exemplar of how we are related to God, to ourselves, and to one another; the ideal of how we should live and die. That’s one way of interpreting what we are doing here tonight, and I don’t want to diminish it in any way. But I’m going to take the risk of sounding a bit like the contemplative Grinch who stole Christmas, by reflecting on what this feast might mean for us now and for every moment of our lives.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to be reminded by two different friends of the Christmas sermons of the 13th. century Dominican, Meister Eckhart. Eckhart was a mystic who has made quite a comeback in recent decades, and certainly since his heresy trial in 1327. Eckhart’s words offer a contemplative view of our Christmas feast that I really can’t improve upon; he says:
What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago if I do not also give birth to the Son of God? We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born. Cherish in yourself the birth of God. In this birth, you partake of the divine stream. Christ is conceived in your core, your inmost recess….In this Birth, God pours into you, and the light at the core of your soul grows so strong, it spills out. The light overflows into your body, which becomes radiant with it. For the eternal Birth which occurred at one point in time, occurs every day in the inmost core of the soul.
Let me repeat that last line: “…the eternal Birth which occurred at one point in time, occurs every day in the inmost core of the soul.” Mmmm…Every day! In the inmost core of the soul. That means your soul and my soul. That means every one of us! That’s the deep message of Christmas for me tonight. In every moment, God is being born in and through each of us here tonight, and in every moment of every night and every day. This eternal birth is, indeed, our very being, in every moment of our lives, regardless of our own knowing and our own willing. As Thomas Merton puts it at the end of his book, New Seeds of Contemplation:
…we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
The deep purpose of our liturgy tonight, and of the whole cycle of liturgies in this Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season, is to put us in intimate touch with the fact of the eternal presence of the Light of God in ourselves and in the world. This night’s liturgy, and every liturgy, is a finite vehicle through which we might awaken to this eternal reality. There is no escaping it; there is only our failure to know it. Emmanuel, God-with-us, whom we invited to come to us through the last week of Advent, is always coming, is always with us. It is only our sleepy, dreamy forgetfulness of this truth which keeps us from realizing it. Tonight we are invited to awaken. Just like the shepherds living in the fields, we are invited to awaken…to awaken from our inner darkness and see a great light…to awaken, to feel, to realize in the depths of our hearts, the rhythm of our God who is always beating within us, between us, and among us. Let us awaken and welcome the Christ who is newly born in each person around us tonight and every night. Let us sleepers awaken and sing Glory to God in the highest heaven and a Merry Christmas to us all. Amen.