In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We have been told all Advent to watch, to “stay awake” and to “be prepared.” Yet we are still sleepy, are we not? We are human beings. We are not God. We get tired of watching, we get distracted, we drift off. It is what we do. Even Abraham fell asleep while God was sealing his covenant (Genesis 15). Father Abraham fell into a deep sleep and God still spoke words of covenant grace over him, and his descendants.
Here we are, at the threshold of Christmas Eve, perhaps tired, perhaps sorrowful. Maybe both. Things like shopping, baking, partying, caroling have taken up our Advent to a great degree. Work, family, ministry, school, and/or medical treatments, family challenges, or financial struggles have not gone magically away because of the upcoming feast days and holidays. They are still there.
Christmas will still arrive in all its glory and splendor and mystery nonetheless. The sound of the bells, the carols, and the merrymaking will wake us up, even but for a moment. Many will laugh, and many will feast. Just as many will cry and be sad. They will not feast, nor will they be with family. But both groups of people have one thing in common: the joy of Christmas will not be there. Christ will not be in the hearts and minds of those who make merry or who are in despair.
In a few hours, we will find ourselves at the Christmas Eve Liturgy and, for the first time, sing the Troparion of the Nativity before a single lit candle, representative of Christ our Light coming into the world. We will bless the Christmas creche. We will gaze at the beautiful Virgin Mary, kneeling in expectation. We will see Joseph standing by, watching and supporting. We will gaze at the empty crib, knowing that soon, a child will be placed in there, wrapped in swaddling clothes. We will see the shepherds and the holy star, and the animals. Possibly we will laugh at the historically inaccurate animals, or cry with sorrow at the injustice of Joseph’s poverty and desperation, or shout with joy as Angels sing hymns of adoration and worship. We will wake up for that moment.
The Divine Services of the Nativity of Our Lord call upon God to stir up His power within us, and to come to us in His great might. We do not conjure up God. We do not make Him be present. He arrives. He comes in power and wakes us up. He shows up, and we bow down. What a mighty God we serve! He does not do this just to manifest His glory and majesty. He does it to come among us, to be with us. He comes to be one of us, and live among us.
We are sorely hindered, that is for sure. The race of life exhausts us. But God’s grace in Christ is inexhaustible. Bountiful, speedy grace that helps and delivers. Our sins are heavy weights, but God’s grace is a continual help and flow, removing the weights of shame, guilt, and fear. Grace is not a limited resource, it is the constant and continual face of God, redeeming and renewing the world.
In the upcoming feast of Christmas, we are awakened, graced, and empowered through this Christ Child who came, and will come again. As Mary heard this news, she sang of God working through the poor and the outcast, the weak and the feeble, the ignorant and marginalized. Those who know they have no strength. Those who know they need His grace. Those who know they sorrow. Those who know they fall asleep.
Mary herself is traditionally pictured as asleep when the Angel appeared by night to announce that she would bear the Messiah. She knew about God’s power to wake us up and stir up His power within us. She also knew what it means to trust God to work through our weaknesses, and to speedily deliver us.
We are almost there! If you feel like sleeping, you are part of a long tradition that stretches from Father Abraham through the Twelve, and on to today. We are sleepers, but God will awaken us through His Son, who is coming to us as a child.
This Christmas, stumble into worship if you must. In your sorrow or exhaustion or fear or joy or pain, God will stir up His power within you at His altar. He will give you His very presence at His Holy Table. He will speak His Word to you, the Word of His bountiful grace and speedy power. He will deliver you.
There is a real place in the scheme of things for us to receive the Holy Child with deep sentiment; a sentiment with which we would receive any child and with which we would hope every child would be received. But there is a big problem is sentimentality alone defines our Christmas experience. For even as sentimentality can lead us to deep devotion and even adoration, sentimentality can also easily misdirect and mislead us.
Ass we know, there are millions of people throughout the world, and even in the Church, who celebrate Christmas void of any faith. For some, Christmas is about skiing vacations and taking their children to see Santa Claus at the local mall or to see the “Nutcracker.” Others look for meaning in terms of family get-togethers with feasts of food and lots of presents. But this is not the real face of Christmas.
Christmas is a mystery, a mystery that forces us to see not only the cute little baby Jesus in a crib but the reality that one day this cute baby grew up and was eventually nailed to a not so cute cross. We must remember that the holy birth did not begin in Nazareth with an angel’s announcement to a Virgin named Mary betrothed to a man named Joseph. Rather, the holy birth begins with eternity. It begins before time. It begins with a mystery without a beginning or an end. It begins in the mystery we dare to call God.
St. John tells us in his Gospel that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This beginning of John’s Gospel says it all. The reality of the Nativity begins with God’s choice to go outside of Himself, to relate beyond Himself, to transcend Himself. God spoke and there was a starry explosion of creative love.
St. John continues: All things were made through the Word and without the Wor4d, nothing has come to be that was made.” This Word, in its going forth from God, becomes the creative power through which all creation comes into existence. It is not unusual for people to be awed by the grandeur of the universe, whether they understand it as a purposeful expression of God’s Divine Love or an accident of molecular action and reaction. But for people of faith, however, the world came to be in all its magnificent splendor, it is but a prelude to an even bigger cosmic event.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The more literal translation is more eloquent: “The Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us.” The creative Word spoken in the beginning became the Incarnate Word, the enfleshed Word, and as Jesus pitched His tent among us, even as He continued to live in the bosom of the Father and continued to live in this Mystery of mysteries. God made a choice to contain Himself within our flesh. God chooses to render Himself not only vulnerable but absolutely vulnerable as a newborn baby who shivers in the night cold and wishes to be fed by His Mother when hungry.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, yet the world which was made through Him knew Him not. He came to His own, and His own people received Him not.” No truer words were ever spoken. Christmas has no meaning for many because they do not know Christ, they have not received Him. Thus, sadness, depression, loneliness, grief, and despair all permeate abundantly during the Christmas season. Yet, Christmas is our hope. It is medicine for the soul, and not just for some, but for all.
Christ comes to be one of us; He comes to share our joys and sorrows, our laughter and tears, our hopes and dreams, our successes and failures. In taking our flesh upon Himself, He became an outcast from religious society, as well as a refugee from His country of birth because of Herod’s desire to end His life, thus forcing His family to flee to Egypt.
Jesus becomes one with all of us and most intimately with those who have been cast out: with those who were cast out of their mother’s womb. With those cast out because of a disability or illness they suffer. With those cast out because of who they are. With those cast out for what they believe. With those cast out because of whom they love. With those cast out for what they believe. With those cast out because they come from another country. With those cast out because of how they worship. With those cast out because of hatred and prejudice. With those cast out because they are not well-heeled, well-born, well-bred, or well-educated. And so, Christmas becomes the Feast of All Refugees and Outcasts, those whom the Gospel refers to as the poor, those marginalized in a world that values power, and money, and status above all things.
It is interesting, I believe, that the shepherds will be the first to experience the good news of God’s explosive love. It is interesting because they themselves are outcasts from Jewish religious society exactly because they were unable to fulfill all the duties, requirements, and obligations of religious law. But it was to the shepherds that God’s redemptive love was first revealed. And so, Christmas is also the Feast of Hope for all who sit in darkness; it is a light that shines in the darkness, a darkness, however, that can never overpower the Light which is Christ. Christ is a light that awakens the spiritually sleeping. It is a light that energizes and makes all things new.
In our day, God will stir up His sleeping Church. Where it is sorely hindered by sin, He will speedily help it. Behold, He brings good news of great joy, which shall be to all people! We will rejoice in His bountiful grace, and see His Church arise from sleep. And the Church arises from Her sleep, She will awaken the world with such a brightness that it will be impossible to ignore. Again, and again, and again, He has done this. He will do so again.
And what a grace and power He gives. We will be a light to the world. We will triumph in Him. We will witness His Incarnation. We will rest in His love. We will be a holy people,because He will do it again through Jesus Christ our Lord.