I think we moderns need Christmas more than our ancient ancestors did.
Why? Because we have fashioned for ourselves a world more profane than sacred — a universe with little room for the holy… and therefore less room for everything else.
Probably inadvertantly. Not what we intended. Mostly a by-product of our relentless pursuit of knowledge. Ok, maybe there’s a little hubris in there too. But in trying to figure so many things inside and out, we divested them of any significance greater than the limits our understanding.
Gone are the thin places of past days, those borders between our everyday and the holy. How, after all, can one have a meeting of the sacred and the profane when we’ve banished or eclipsed the former. Gone is the sacredness mountaintops, not to mention the heavens themselves, once held. And the holiness of riverbanks and seashores where precious waters flowed. Gone are the spirits we used to either fear haunting us or petition to protect us.
Sometimes I worry, we are even robbing ourselves of the wonder humans can recognize in themselves and others — that little reflection or spark of the Divine.
What’s this leave us with? A cold, mechanistic world of cause and effect. A realm of things that interact predictably. Men and women who are severely limited — both as products and parts of a dreary, realistic world of objects.
I believe it was Howard Thurman who sketched a spiritual poverty something like this. He said it is as if we live in a forest of a million trees, where there is not one sacred grove, or even a clearing from which we can draw the relief of some distance or perspective.
Each tree is just one more “thing.” As such, it doesn’t matter if we see it, pass it, climb it, fell it or burn it. Because all its wonder as something mysterious and “other” has already been stripped. It’s without any greater meaning.
We end up equally diminished. Our lives become no more than an infinite list of meaningless tasks to be done. We know that list — like life itself — is somehow beyond us, longer than we can accomplish. We endlessly make our way from one tree to the next. It’s Sisyphean: the trees are indistinguishable; it makes no difference which one we tackle. There is no special tree. No significance in order. Or meaning in our accomplishment. And no way out of this forest. This meaninglessness reduces us too.
Formed by such a world, we hardly have eyes for anything profound or mysterious, that which is beyond us. Whatever we encounter is just one more thing. The dead bird you see on the ground is something useless, to be stepped over, no longer a reminder of the mysteries of life and death. Noisy children in the next room are a distraction, an annoyance, what we try to ignore — rather than an echo of the spirit of life to tune into. That rustling, maybe even whispering that comes suddenly out of nowhere and jostles the few leaves left on the trees and makes the branches click against each other or sigh and stretch… it’s just the wind.
I don’t mean to sound bleak. I do, however, mean to paint a picture and make a case. Life can be so much more. We moderns need Christmas more than our ancient forebears.
We need the promise that God can break into even the most insulated and protective lives we create. We need the news of God’s presence in the wonder of a child. Of God’s arrival quickening a world that has grown dark and cold. Of stars with messages. And skies filled with angel choruses. And peasants and kings gathered together. And people finding their way to the places we usually overlook. And animals that can talk. Where a peace which passes all understanding is born and begins to spread. And justice goes forth in his name…
We need Christmas: for the magic and mystery, charity, hope, grace and justice that expands our world, strengthens our eyesight, improves our hearing, heightens our spirits and imaginations.
We cannot enlarge our world or our capacities by ourselves. But God can…
Beloved, we are more, our world is more than we can touch or meets the eye. But we need help perceiving that. Help embracing what we can’t explain. Help not feeling we need to explain everything.
In fact, the most important secrets of life might be found in its mysteries. Where we can receive and trust what we can’t claim as anything we’ve done or have to do. Where we meet what is beyond us. For us, but not by us.
That’s what God is doing at Christmas. Something we could never do for ourselves. A child who is come to us, to set us free from ourselves and the limitations of our limitations.
See you in church,