Friday, December 24, 2004

Christmas Eve

Ice and snow and temperatures down to zero. Branches and trees sheathed in shining glass, bent over under the weight or else just snapped off. One branch, a couple of hundred pounds of wood, fell about sixty feet onto our driveway, just a few seconds after my younger daughter scooted out of the way. She was fine (thought it a bit of an adventure), but the TV/computer cable was hit. Luckily, our electricity never failed, though it did for several of our friends, some of whom are still without power two days on. So various holiday plans have been recalibrated, and we'll have fifteen for Christmas dinner tomorrow. It will be more Christmas-ish than ever.

Once in a while I have the opportunity to preach a sermon at our church. Someday I will blog about what that is like. For now, here is the sermon I preached on the day before Christmas a few years ago. A Merry Christmas and every blessing to all of you.

Things seen and unseen
(sermon preached at Harcourt Parish, 24 December 2000)

Advent has been for us, as it always has been, a season of waiting, of anticipation, of preparation. But that means that Advent has been, as it always must be, about something that we do not yet fully see. It is about the thing that we are waiting for, that we anticipate, for which we prepare. Advent is about God’s promise to us. But the meaning of a promise can only be found in its fulfillment, a fulfillment that is yet to come.

I must confess to you that I do not find all of the seasons of our liturgical year equally meaningful. Epiphany I have never really figured out. The season after Pentecost is such a huge, amorphous thing that I’m not sure that there is anything to figure out. But Advent, I appreciate. I appreciate it, I think, because it is so much like the whole of our lives.

Kierkegaard said that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. So it is with Advent. We must traverse Advent from beginning to end, but its significance lies at the end, not the beginning. And that makes Advent a strangely empty season to me. A season of waiting must necessarily be a season of absence.

This is not a bad thing. Indeed, I think that it is a holy thing. If God is to fill us, we must be empty. If he is to lift us up, we must be low. If he is to reveal himself to us, he must be hidden.

We are surrounded by invisible realities. I am not for the moment talking about spiritual things; I speak scientifically. There are ten thousand physical things happening all around, but only a tiny fraction of them can be perceived by us.

Consider the light itself. This space is well-lit; we see very clearly; but most of the light in this room is light that is invisible to us. Its waves are too short or too long to affect our eyes. So narrow is the range of color that our eyes can see, it is as if we could hear musical notes only within a single octave, and were deaf to notes higher or lower than that. A few octaves up, in ultraviolet light, this is a very dim room. A few octaves down, in the infrared range, these lights and these candles are even brighter than we see them – though the windows, on a cold winter’s morning, are dark. And the faces and hands of the people around you are glowing with their own warmth. But we cannot see all that, for we are blind to those colors.

This sanctuary is teeming with electric and magnetic fields, slow and invisible currents of air, cosmic ray particles and neutrinos that zoom through us every moment. Our bodies are made of trillions of cells, each one too tiny to see, each one containing molecular machinery of astounding complexity. Weird quantum physics holds the atoms together and makes matter solid. All of this is concealed from us by the limitations of our five senses. And so the whole thing seems to us just a little bit fantastic.

I think that we human beings have trouble thinking about and understanding and believing in the invisible. It does not come easy to us. And even when we do accept in an intellectual way that there are realities we cannot touch or hear or see, that belief does not have for us the same emotional or imaginative force that we feel from the tangible world. It is easy not to believe in what you cannot see or touch; and even if you do believe, it is easy to act as if you didn’t.

And that, I find, is what Advent is about. There is so much in our lives that we do not understand – so much that seems strange or pointless or horrible. Our power of sight is so very imperfect. But in Advent, we remind ourselves of what we are, and where we are on our journey. We learn to live with the knowledge that our knowledge is limited. We live by faith, the assurance of things invisible. We live in hope, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise.

Yes, this is Advent. But these are after all the closing hours of Advent. The long wait is almost over. Tomorrow is Christmas. This is that time before dawn when the sky is already light, when we begin to see what the new day will be like.

God is doing something astounding, and Mary and Elizabeth are the first to know. And they are overwhelmed by it. Their joy and amazement seems to leap off the page of Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Who am I, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Mary answers her, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

The words of the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, are well-known to us. We have spoken them and sung them and read them throughout this and every Advent. They are among the most familiar words in all of Scripture. They are beautiful and profound.

Consequently, I find it a little difficult actually to hear them. Any text that you have heard or read a hundred times, that you know by heart, is oddly resistant to being read the hundred-and-first time. It’s like trying to pay close attention to the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” – and realizing that most of it is a single, long question. The words are worn so smooth in our memory that it takes effort to recover their meaning.

There is a world, the ostensible, common-sense world, in which the proud and mighty prevail, and the lowly stay lowly. The rich are fed, and the hungry go away empty. And it often seems that this is the world we inhabit. But Mary turns it all around. Not only has God blessed her, despite her lowly state; this is how God has always acted, how he will always act. God has always fed the hungry and sent the rich begging. If we once thought otherwise, we have been victims of a kind of optical illusion. We have forgotten the limitations of our own sight. Those who are proud before God are not great – they are insane. Those who are mighty are also mortal. Those who are rich have no place in their hearts to receive God’s grace.

In the great gift that God has given her, Mary recognizes the meaning, the reality of every gift that God has given. And the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says almost the same thing. Temple sacrifice and ritual were meaningless in themselves. The sacrifice of a bull or a goat did not really remove sin; the ritual was not in itself pleasing to God. But these things pointed beyond themselves, to the true sacrifice of Christ for us, to the life of obedience to which he draws us.

Listen closely to what Mary says. Our long Advent is almost at an end. The promises are beginning to be fulfilled. And this is what God’s promises to Israel, to Abraham and his descendants, really mean. This holy child, who even now begins to grow within her: This is who God really is.


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