Messy Manger

Isaiah 9:1-13
Psalm 96:1-13
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

An Infant Is Born

For unto us a child is born,/unto us a son is given ...

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Tonight, in the outer reaches of the cold, dark Hebrides, where the Arctic wind and snow beat down in late December, the lullaby, Taladh ar Slanaigheir, is sung in ancient stone churches and oratories. In the quiet strains of Celtic lament, we hear these words (among its 29 verses):
You are my God and helpless son, High Ruler of Mankind.
The scene is otherworldly — the lowly and humble Mary gazing upon the Infant Jesus, the King of the Universe, Who depends entirely upon her. Yes, He is God, but He is also defenseless and dearly needs her arms and body to protect Him. Mary cannot know of all that lies ahead: the fleeing from Judea, the long journey on foot to Egypt, the life led in strict secrecy, for no one must learn of this child.

For many centuries and far to the south in England, an Anglo-Catholic carol is sung, performed as part of a mystery play performed at Christmas:

Lully, lulla, thow littell tine child,
By by, lully, lullay thow littell tyne child,
By by, lully, lullay!

That wo is me, pore child, for thee,
And ever morne and may
For thi parting nether say nor singe,
By by, lully, lullay.
"Little, tiny child" — the phrase repeats over and over midst the plaintive words, "Bye, bye, lullee, lullay." This very old Christmas carol poses a question: since God has appeared before us in the form of a tiny and vulnerable child, what will we do? Whoever has read St. Matthew's Gospel knows that the official response carried out by royal authority was to kill every child in Judea and beyond in the hope of murdering Him. We can only imagine, therefore, Joseph's apprehension as three mysterious and royal personages approach the baby's crib in the night. They lay down costly gifts of frankincense and gold .... but also of myrrh, which was used for embalming in the ancient world.

God as a helpless and homeless child? Outlandish! So strange is this tale that when it was first told, it was rejected out of hand by Romans, Greeks, and Jews who heard it as being ... too strange, too alien to the sensible mind and from social norms and expectations ... too much to ask of the civilized man. And what is that you say?! Moreover, God will die as an ignominious beggar and criminal? Of course, once we get past the strangeness, we are able to see the marks of it all over the Sacred Scriptures, for the Scriptures themselves are often plaintive and frequently tell a cosmic tale of disappointed love. The tale of a God Whose essential properties are creativity and love, Who brings about an entire lifeworld of fellow creatures with Whom He seeks to share these same, divine faculties. What did we read in our Epistle lesson just now? ".... to purify a people for Himself zealous for good deeds." Therefore, they too will plumb with this divine creativity the deepest depths and with a creative soul and mind will discover the godly dimensions of love. Indeed, like Him, humans will be granted the power to create life, then, loving that little life, will discover the highest form of love which is self-sacrifice, freeing humans from the confines of ego and selfishness. Do we stretch by saying that this alone is God's kind of love? No, not at Christmas. It is tonight especially that we ponder the ultimate gift of self-sacrifice and a love that is divine.

Throughout human history, God has carefully prepared us for this night, that we might know what this gift means to God the Father. We have seen the patient and understanding Father waiting, in his disappointed love, at a roadside watching for the return of his prodigal son. Throughout the Psalms we have read of God's awesome power but also of His tenderness towards us. We are taught from the beginning that He created us and a marvelous world of beauty to share His love with Him ... and that His eye is also on the fall of even a sparrow. Perhaps most amazing, He hears us and attends to our every word .... spoken to Him from a sincere heart. Indeed, when His Son teaches us how to pray, "He said unto them, When ye pray say, Our Father which art in Heaven..." (Lk 11:2). He is our Father. And we are to speak to Him.

Not infrequently, I will hear someone say that they don't bother to pray, for God already knows all their needs, attempting to suggest an intimacy with God that surpasses words. But in saying this, they do not understand themselves, for our unvoiced minds and souls together form a deep and dark ocean of darting forms and schools of fish that vanish all too quickly. A form surfaces in the ever-changing sea of our feelings and thoughts, rises to the surface, and then disappears again below the dark waters. You see, a genius of God's human creation is that we must venture into action, including spoken words, to engage the world and Him. Being a child of God does not mean that we have entered an emerald city where our every need is met before we can say it. No! Being a Christian means that we have encountered a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and in that meeting have been called to all the depths and heights and joys and trials of relationship, for love is intimate and factual and rooted in the details of life. And, yes, God calls us to articulate our interior lives, committing ourselves to the actual and the real.

Br. Roger, the founder of the Taize community, said that, "God does not need our prayers. It is a mystery that He sets such store by them." When I began seminary I was told during the first week that a priest (including all seminarians) must pray the Divine Office. And I will never forget the clarity with which the following was enunciated: "The Office is said, not read." The message came through loud and clear: relationship with God does not include lying on the sofa or reading through one's breviary in an easy chair. Come to your feet! Pull up your socks! God is active and creative and attentive. And we must be, too.

It did not surprise me the following week when that same elderly priest, who was a wisdom figure at Yale (revered by Henri Nouwen), presented a reflection to the first-year seminarians on the subject of reaching spiritual maturity. He asked us if we had ever read the poem, "Footprints." Of course, every hand went up. He then asked us to contemplate the pattern of two sets of footprints in the sand: first there are two walking side by side; then there is one; finally, there are two sets of footprints again. The poem comes to an initial conclusion: that God had abandoned His fellow traveler during times of challenge and sadness. But then it arrives to a revised, second conclusion: that during these same times, far from being alienated, the Lord had carried His companion through these trials, which is why there is one set of prints. "This is fine," the old priest said. "This is a perfectly decent conclusion when one is at the very beginning of spiritual life. But Heaven help us, he added, if after many years of spiritual journey, we find ourselves climbing into His arms like a child over and over and over again. You see, there is a third conclusion suggested by the patterns of footprints. And that is that we have grown in our spiritual development to the point when we seek always to carry Him."

And it hit me like a thunderbolt. We begin our journey giving thanks for all that God has done for us. Those who have come to the spiritual life seriously know of His miraculous power. He is our Father, and we glory in our lineage taking heart that everything finally is in His hands. But then He does something completely unexpected: He enters the world in the form of a helpless child. He needs us. He needs us to protect Him and all that He represents to the world. Yes, first we must kneel, for He is our King and our God. But then we must pick Him up and defend Him. We must bear Him as Mary did. We must carry Him as St. Christopher, the "Christ-bearer," did. God chose not the mighty Roman Empire to change the world, much less a puppet regime in Herod's palace. To change the course of world history, God chose a little band of wanderers from Eden, so to speak — a teenage girl born with out sin; two infants, Jesus and His cousin John; and one old woman who stumbled into the company of a renewed Eden. He chose them them to conquer the world. And they did.

We Franciscans take joy in seeing St. Anthony of Padua pick up this child. A piece of his bone in buried in our Franciscan Altar here at the Hermitage. Our Bishop Protector, a Franciscan tertiary for nearly a half-century, sets this tag line on all his emails, a quotation of St. Teresa of Avila: "Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which His Compassion looks out upon the world. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do Good. Yours are the hands with which he Blesses all the world."

Yes, God is the giver, but He is also the gift. And on Christmas especially, He exhorts us to open this gift. And in the box we find a mirror, for He has given us the gift that God alone can give: ourselves. We are the ones who must pick Him up. We are to be the Father or Mother. He relies on us alone to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, He will help us, but it is ourselves whom He calls. Pick up this Child! And, if we must, let us lay down our lives for Him, for what mother would not do that for the Child Whom she loves best? He is the Light of the world. And He has called us to walk in His marvelous light! Merry Christmas.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.