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Christmas Eve Meditation on the Incarnation: A Reflection for Our Times

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

 

We are living in darkness and in the shadow of death. You don’t need a degree in environmental studies, political science, or international relations to know that the world is in a terrible mess. And despite our own efforts to put our own “best foot forward,” our own personal lives aren’t exactly perfect either. These days, insecurity and a profound sense of dread are palpable; they are everywhere around us as well as within us. We may pretend that life goes on as usual, but the smarter part of us knows better. Indeed, the encroaching darkness and the shadow of death threaten to trample our hope and strangle the breath right out of us.

SnowflakesBut out of the deep gloom comes a promise, and it is born out of the compassion of our God. It promises that the dawn will break and that we will be delivered to an unimaginable peace and freedom. While the source of this promise is founded in the compassion of our God, the means by which this will be accomplished takes us up short.  We are promised that the life of an individual human being—and on this night we say that the birth of a particular baby—will change everything. But can one human life turn such an overwhelming tide?

*

Now is the time when all of our narrower assumptions and most of our shortsighted expectations are being turned upside down. It’s not that the darkness we have been intuiting is not real or is not dark—it certainly is. It’s not that the present historical/political drama being enacted in our times isn’t profoundly disturbing—it certainly is. It’s just that there is another perspective—one that is larger and longer and deeper—that bursts forth like a shooting star across the night sky.

StarThis other perspective bespeaks light and coherence. Its light pierces the darkness. It does not destroy the darkness, but rather impregnates it with spaciousness. And the coherence takes what is shattered, broken, and fragmented on the surface of things and provides it with a hidden organizing principle that conjoins everything together on an unseen level. It’s as if something from some distant realm is making itself shockingly present—present at a depth in us with which we might be unfamiliar.

*

Tonight we are celebrating the Incarnation—that special color of the spiritual rainbow of the world’s religions that Christianity paints so beautifully. We have been taught that Incarnation means that God becomes manifest in the life of Jesus, born this night. All Christian churches will tell this familiar story tonight and throughout this season.  And we have been taught that all we have to do is to believe that this is true, and eternal life will be ours. I am affirming that that too is right on target. But I am also going to suggest that while that is true, it is true in a different way from how we have been taught. And I am also going to suggest that that is just the beginning.

You see, we are living in two understandings or conceptualizations of time. On the one hand, we mostly assume that our lives are being carried across a predictable straight linear line on which past time flows into the present and will then take us forward into future time. But if we then try to take our traditional understanding of Incarnation and place it within this linear time conceptualization, we will only get the most trivial sense of what this is all about.

If, on the other hand, we could sense that we are also living in a kairos moment—a moment of a whole different quality, depth, and dimension—a moment in which the past and future are saturating the fullness of this present moment—then we might be able to grasp the greater meaning and implications of the Incarnation.

This kairos moment includes the historical moment, but it also takes us beyond it. It sees and acknowledges the present dark times in which we are living, but it knows that, while these are very real, this is not the whole story. So while selfishness, greed, and narcissism are the forces pulling us down toward potential decline, collapse, and maybe even destruction—there is another strength, another power, that is pushing us forward in the Omega direction to which creation has been pointing all along. This direction—although it seems impossible to put into words—has something to do with the fulfillment of wholeness, bringing all the seemingly irreconcilable parts into loving relation with each other.

But here is where the unimaginable power of Incarnation comes in. It informs us that all this is more than a mental idea, a philosophy, or a theology. This deeper force that is moving creation forward has become shockingly manifest in a human being, this Jesus, in this kiaros moment. If you want to get a deeper sense of what this life is all about on its deepest and most meaningful level, get acquainted with this life, this Jesus. His life—lived as a gift to all in his loving gesture of surrender—tells us everything we need to know about what is essential in life and about this Omega direction in which we are heading.

But don’t stop with an historical study of Jesus. You see, because his birth comes in a kairos moment, it is not confined to a past moment 2,000 years ago.  Jesus is also born this very night in which the past and the future find their fullness and their completion in this present moment. Therefore, this person Jesus is fully available to us right now—not just in memory, but in presence and in truth as we make ourselves available to him—in prayer, in song, in silence, in loving service to others, and in care for the disenfranchised.

And that, then, delivers us to the implications of the Incarnation as it desires to deeply touch us.  As we open our hearts to this love we see in Jesus, something comes alive in our own deepest being. The heart of Jesus and our own hearts, we discover, are not separate—they beat as one. And that light that is born into the world this dark night is the light that we have always carried within us, but it is now ignited in a burst of recognition.

Although technically we can tune into this inner light anytime—sometimes, in order to sense this, we need to stop for a moment and step off our usual treadmill. This is a little like my internist putting his stethoscope to my chest to hear the beating of my heart. My heart certainly (thank God!) had been beating all along, but he just needed to tune into it more intentionally.

And that’s precisely what we do when we gather together on Christmas Eve or when we sit in silence in front of our candle this night. Our liturgy or our silence is our stethoscope, and we intentionally tune into this overwhelming reality before us.  For some of us, our own recognition will bring goosebumps; others of us will weep quietly; but each of us in our own way will know that we are looking into the deepest truth of life. And we will know that we and the whole creation—especially the most fragile among and those living in danger—are tenderly bound in the embrace of Love.

*

Remember the wise men following that dazzling star in that dark Judean night sky?  I wonder if they realized that that heavenly starlight matched the light in their own hearts—their hearts of desire that burst aflame when they found life in its most vulnerable and most open form…  For what could be more open and vulnerable than a newly born infant…?

What could be more open and vulnerable than…you…?

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Holly

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