Presence, wonder, and praise at Christmas


This Christmas, I am grateful to be able to celebrate Christmas twice. On Sunday the prison at which I volunteer had its Christmas Mass, as the prison is closed to outsiders on Christmas Eve and Day. So, I attended and shared in word and sacrament with this community of men and volunteers that I have grown to know and care about over the years. Tonight, on Christmas Eve, I plan to attend church services with my immediate family, as well as my mother and her husband, and will be grateful to be in church with family members that I do not ordinarily enjoy this experience with on a weekly basis. Sitting here in the airport, with considerable time on my hands, I am praying for those present at my side, and others present in my heart, and reflecting on the Christmas story.

In some ways, the Nativity story of Luke’s gospel is not so distant. For one thing, there is still all the travel. As I type this, I am sitting in a crowded airport. My oldest adult child is upset because TSA security took away pricy toiletries that were not in the right sized containers for carry-on luggage. A boy who looks about five or six years old across from me is crying, since his mother explained to him, “Sometimes adults don’t respect children who are waiting in line, and they expect only adults to be there.” This provoked heaving sobs in him, and so his mom hugged and comforted him. The TSA official who checked off my boarding pass explained that he was not being paid for his job, when I asked him how the government shutdown is affecting him. He did not look happy. Meanwhile, the CNN story on the tv screens tells of the latest drop in the stock market.

Although the specifics of the world around us change, Christmas has always taken place in a world that has its own conflicts and fears, both large and small, both political and personal. God comes into the world precisely because of the need to transform this world and to accompany us in it: perhaps not over the state of the stock market specifically, but certainly for the everyday common human struggles that we experience in our families, communities, and world.

When we consider the Nativity story, we might consider the that Joseph and Mary experienced difficulties in their own travels: first, it’s hard to imagine a woman nine months pregnant feeling comfortable when traveling any distance, whether on a donkey or walking.  Then there must have been worries about finding a place to stay once they arrived, and fears about disease when people were suddenly brought together in tight quarters for the census count. Finally, I imagine Mary must have wondered about what that first experience of giving birth would be like—a process that is painful, wonderful, often dangerous, always extraordinary.

Yet when Christmas arrives, all of these things drop away in the celebration of Jesus’ birth. As is true with all new moms and dads, once a baby is delivered, everything else disappears from sight and we are simply lost in admiration of the beauty of new life in its innocence and goodness.  God comes into the world as a baby: vulnerable, fragile, with tiny fingers and toes, a healthy cry, the sweet scent of a newborn. God comes to live out a human life among us and to experience all that we do, so that we are alone in nothing. When Jesus is born, in a way, God’s words, spoken over all of creation ring true again: “It is good.” At Christmas we are invited to rest in the essential goodness of God’s gift of love.

In the nativity story the shepherds represent the poorest of society. Their presence as the first to visit Mary, Joseph, and Jesus show that the Savior does not come mostly for the rich and comfortable, but rather for the humble, the powerless, those whom no one else notices. Jesus also comes for the shepherd within all of us, for we all have places that are weak, vulnerable, and that go unnoticed by anyone except God. The Incarnation was not only in the 1st century in the Middle East, but also here today, in the sacraments and in our most ordinary actions with one another.

Christ was and is present in word and sacrament in the celebration of Mass in uncomfortable seats of a drafty auditorium of a prison. Christ is in the face of the prisoner who is estranged from his family at the holidays, and in the generosity of the inmate who is offering everyone peppermint candies from a bucket carried around by the service dog in training. Christ is present in the hug of the mother at the airport comforting her son who is not sure why grownups are unkind and impatient, and in the smile of the unpaid TSA agent who wishes happily holidays to harried customers picking up their luggage from the conveyor belt. Although the holiday is not about material gifts, Christ is present in the little gestures of love that gifts often are: the sweater a kid picks out for their mom, or the sharing of a meaningful book with a friend.

When the shepherds come to visit the Christ child, we see two kinds of response to this Presence of Love: Mary’s pondering, and the shepherds giving praise. We, too, are invited to both ponder and to praise.

We ponder because the mystery of God’s unfolding Love is not always easy to name or to grasp. God works in very mysterious ways at which we can only stand back and wonder, like the shepherds. We cannot, any more than Mary, control or anticipate how God’s action in the world will take place. We are not in control, but God is. We are only here to cooperate with God’s graceful action, and to go along for the ride. We can also praise: praise as we notice all those places that God’s love, healing, and redemption are present in our world. We praise God for the ways that we can trust in God’s promise, a promise of Love.

 

Merry Christmas, dear readers, and may your celebrations be full of wonder and praise.

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