The Blessed Light

Christmas Eve – 22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, describes the nativity scene at the birth of Jesus in the Quran (Surah 19) featuring a great tree.  It’s the first Christmas tree if you will—centuries before the tradition developed among Christians. The tree is not an evergreen, but rather, a date palm. Mary and baby Jesus rest beneath the shade of its branches. Fresh dates from the tree restore Mary’s strength after giving birth and a spring miraculously flowing from the base of the tree provides water for her to drink.

This Islamic nativity scene is striking—first—because the story exists at all, second, for how it reflects a very non-European cultural setting. I wonder, what might our Christmas traditions be like if they were somehow reconnected to their Middle Eastern roots?  Jesus was born in the city of David called Bethlehem. Our gospel was likely written in Antioch of Syria (which today is part of Turkey).  It is just sixty-five miles from Aleppo. Might we have more natural empathy with the suffering of people of Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan if our Christmas celebrations had less to do with snow, holly, and conifer and instead helped us “turn back” toward the birthplace of the nativity? (Mariam Sheikh Hakim, “The Little-Known Story of The Islamic Christmas Tree” Huffington Post, 12/16/16)

Like all the brightly colored gifts wrapped and waiting under the tree this year, we must unwrap the gift of Christmas to re-learn what it is. Peel away two millennia of culture and tradition—to re-discover the surprising/challenging/wonderful message of Christmas: People of every time and place share the same address and zip code.

Christ is our Alpha and Omega, the home we came from and the resting place toward which we inevitably travel. Christmas is good news of great joy for all people (Luke 2: 10b). Christ, our savior, took on flesh, was born, lived among us, and breathes life into weary hearts among us still.

If all this were not mysterious enough, our scripture casts the circle of oneness in Christ even wider. Maybe there is something else from long ago, which we forgot, or now need to reclaim. Push back the swaddling clothes to see that humankind is locked in cosmic union with all life, including rocks and hills, trees and meadows, earth and sky. The psalmist and the prophet Isaiah declare, the whole earth joins in singing a new song, and the trees of the field clap their hands (Psalm (96:1-3; Isaiah 55:12).

Yes. The story of Jesus’ birth is about union with God, union with one another, and union with all creation. With the incarnation God is not content to dwell in fullness only within you, or exclusively among us, but the Spirit of God pours out and fills all things with beauty, indelible dignity, and grace. The angels declared to poor shepherds good news for everyone. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.”

There’s an old preacher’s story about a newborn’s precocious four-year old sibling who announces to her parents she wants to talk to her little brother alone. After clearing the room the parents put their ears to the door and hear the little girl saying to her baby brother, “Quick, tell me who made you. Tell me where you came from. I’m beginning to forget!”

A child’s strange intuition probes deep in the Christmas mystery of God with us.  Have we forgotten?  How have we missed this?  Listen to the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; watch for the field to exult, and everything in it.  “…all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (Psalm 96:11-12). Let all Christians, Muslims, Jews, people of faith, and people of no faith, clasp hands and hearts.

Somehow, we seem out of touch with awareness of enchantment that came naturally to ancient peoples and persists to this day in cultures of the East, and also among native Americans, and others. The gift of Christmas Christ selected for you offers the perfect antidote. Look, Incarnation means everything sparkles with the fullness and presence of God.  Matter is not empty, but everything speaks of the one life we share.

Re-enchantment born of incarnation is urgently needed among us to restore health and balance.  When we become disconnected from the enchanted world we inhabit, from forests, meadows, mountains, oceans, sky—even from the suffering of entire species—it is easy for our world to empty into flatness. Is it any wonder then that people too can be treated as mere refuse to be held out of sight, isolated, and discarded? Look. Christ Jesus and the holy family became refugees fleeing violence, desperately seeking safety, and a home just like so many millions of families today. How shocking!  How startling, to pull back the blankets of someone sleeping in our streets today and see there, in flesh and blood, Jesus Christ, your Lord.

Most of us learn more from weakness than from strength, in hardship rather than success. It’s not that God intends for human weakness and suffering to be ends in themselves. Sometimes hardships and suffering simply overwhelm us and no good comes from them. But it’s also true that weakness can open the way for greater wisdom, self-reflection, and focus on what is essential.“Our weakness finally opens our eyes to the need for a Savior. Nothing prevents that more than our strength. No one has ever said, ‘I was so successful I just had to come to Jesus.’” (Craig Barnes, Princeton Theological Seminary) Power understood through the prism of the incarnation is different from how the world understands power. It’s the difference between power over others, and the power of connecting with others, which requires us to be open and vulnerable.

For Christmas, Jesus continually turns the world upside down. Jesus’ subversive gift challenges to human-crafted structures that oppress and bind. Jesus unlocks the human imagination to see a third way — the Jesus way—that takes us beyond either/or and into both/and. This way of Jesus brings healing to individuals, communities, and nations. (Pastor Renée Notkin, Union Church Seattle)

“What the incarnation represents is God entering history not as the screenwriter of the drama but as an actor within it. Jesus is the suffering protagonist. No one thought it would start quite this way, an infant placed in a manger in a troubled corner of a troubled world. You would have thought he [that baby] would be among the most inconsequential individuals ever. You would have been wrong.” (Peter Wehner, Christmas Should Humble Us, NYT, 12/24/19)

We wonder at these things.  Scripture only says, ‘Mary treasured all the words people said about Jesus and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19). At the communion rail, and the font, in scripture and in prayer, and wherever two are three are gathered in his name, you are midwife to the incarnation of grace God is bringing into being among us.  In Christ, you are light for the world.

The poet and liturgical artist Jan Richardson writes:

I cannot tell you how the light comes.

What I know is that it is more ancient than imagining.

That it travels across an astounding expanse to reach us.

That it loves searching out what is hidden, what is lost, what is forgotten or in peril or in pain.

That it has a fondness for the body, for finding its way toward the flesh, for tracing the edges of form, for shining forth through the eye, the hand, the heart.

I cannot tell you how the light comes, but that it does.

That it will.

That it works its way into the deepest dark that enfolds you, though it may seem long ages in coming or arrive in a shape you did not foresee.

And so, may we this day turn ourselves toward it.

May we lift our faces to let it find us.

May we bend our bodies to follow the arc it makes.

May we open and open more and open still to the blessed light

that comes.

(How The Light Comes, Jan Richardson, printed in Circle of Grace, p.59)