Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Christmas Eve Homily (Delivered 12-24-12)

The reading comes from Mark Belletini’s meditation collection Sonata for Voice and Silence.

It’s the deepest part of the night now.
Many mothers give birth this night
in Mexico, in New York City, in Kuala Lumpur;
in Sinkiang, China, and Talinn Estonia.
Some are poor, some well to do.
Some call this Christmas,
some do not.

The midnight in Punta Arenas, Chile,
is scented with summer roses,
and groups of friends in Hobart, Tasmania,
gather for mint tea on the patio,
commenting on the beauty
of Christmas sunsets.
Some will never be mothers or fathers.
Some will.

Close to Irkutsk, in Siberia,
the dark ice of lake Baikal cracks,
while on the outskirts of Ulaan Bator, Mongolia,
children who have never heard of either Jesus or
candles dream of riding horses over the hills.

Over Montevideo, the Southern Cross rises
bright among the constellations
as midnight yields it ancient Spanish carols.
Over Montreal, Orion hovers,
it's belt a comforting sash across the icy-cold sky.
A new mother sees the stars from her hospital bed
and smiles.

The world is great, the world is glorious
and this wondrous night
tells only one small part of its story.,
Yet I say even this part of the story is great.
And each word in the story is great.
And the breath of silence between each word,
and the silence found
at both the beginning and the end of this story
is an emblem of a greatness and glory
yet to be discovered.

It is not exactly a profound thing to say, but Christmas feels different now that Anne and I have a baby.  Lydia is about to turn three months old, and Christmas feels different, but not in the sense of trying to do anything special because it’s Christmas.  She is obviously too young for us to feel like there are any special traditions we want her to have.  Special foods?  Not for her; solid food is still a ways off.  Special activities?  She’d either sleep or fuss.  To tell you the truth, we didn’t even manage to put up a single Christmas decoration in our home this year.  It just seemed like too much trouble.  Anne did manage to find a single, jingle bell and devised a game where we tie the bell to Lydia’s wrist with a ribbon, and Lydia thinks this is the best thing in the world as she smiles and laughs and waves her arm around.  This is what passes for big news around the Belote household these days.

I guess it is not so much that Christmas feels different now as it is that life feels different now.  Before Lydia came along, I had never really had any exposure to babies, so everything about this was all new to me.  In the first couple of weeks that we were home with her, I amazed myself with the various household activities that I could accomplish while holding a baby in one arm.  I could make coffee, pour a bowl of breakfast cereal, load the dishwasher, start laundry, and even type emails to church members all with a baby on one arm.  This was before I realized that the baby could actually be set down.  The first time I set her down in the crib to get something out of the refrigerator, I felt this pang of guilt like I was exposing her to some horrible danger.  It was as if I feared this newborn might jump out her crib.

Holding our daughter for the first time, I was struck by a powerful awareness of vulnerability.  This feeling had to do with the fact of her total and utter dependence on us for nourishment, care, and love.  This feeling had to do with the fragility of her smallness, her tiny nose and her tiny fingers.  If we’re being honest here, not all of the waking up we did in those first few weeks had to do with crying.  There was also the waking up and checking on her just to make sure she was breathing.  Such a fearful love.  If we’re being honest here, I will admit that the only thing that ran through my mind when I held her those first two weeks was a constant mantra:  “Don’t drop her.  Don’t break her.”  Her vulnerability was so real, so immediate, so absolute.

And, now I am aware that vulnerable is a word that described not only her condition, but described mine even more so.  I don’t just mean feeling vulnerable in terms of my own physical being and life, although there is some of that.  I became more vigilant about pulling out of the driveway in my car, more vigilant about crossing the street.  I can’t imagine I am the only person who has ever suffered from these new parent neuroses.  I am not, am I?  But, more than this awareness of the fragility and vulnerability of life, I was also aware of the vulnerability of love, the heart’s vulnerability.  My heart felt like this squishy, helpless, vulnerable new-born thing.

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue writes of becoming a parent for the first time, “I would have told anyone who asked that this child was God Herself, or as near to it as I would ever get, and she immediately became the focus for my passionate idolatry…  Through all my years working with various spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation, the heart of the practice was always to learn deeper attention…  in that respect, for all the attention I lavished on her as a new mom, I felt like I should be on the fast track to enlightenment.”

Those sentiments are true.  But every year, every Christmastide, and never more than now, I am always surprised anew that a religion would originate that would come to see a helpless child, born to poor parents without so much as a roof over their heads, as a divine being worthy of worship.  It is just not the normal way of the world to worship vulnerability or fragility. 

The normal way of the world worships, idolizes, and gives its fullest attention to the very opposite of vulnerability.  The normal way of the world worships power and prestige, influence and might.  It gives its attention to demonstrations of wealth.  The normal way of the world reserves its awe for the pyramids of Egypt or the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  God, according to such a worldview, is known the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and is enthroned in the highest heaven where even the streets are paved with gold.  And if such a God is an awesome God, the awe we feel has to do with the awe of majesty and the fear of great destructive power.

The Christmas story reminds us of a different kind of awe, a different kind of wonder.  It is awe, but it is awe that demands from us tenderness and gentleness.  It is fear, but it is trembling love before the fragility of life.  It is awe, but it is awe before the vulnerability of a child and the vulnerability of our own heart and our heart’s divine love.