Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Peter Rostron, OHC
Christmas 1 B, Wednesday, December 24, 2014
|And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God|
Today, as my Christian faith has matured and as I move further along in my monastic vocation, my experience of Advent and Christmas is quite different than it was then. It is quieter and simpler and it is about the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ rather than about getting and giving all the right gifts. And I’ve been pondering how these two different versions of Christmas might be related to one another. How do my childhood past and my adult present mesh as experiences of the same event? And what might that say about this event of Christmas?
A useful approach, I thought, might be to look at the stories that belong to each of them. Consider those old TV shows and movies, which are still remarkably popular today. They certainly do not seem to have much to do with the birth of Jesus, yet they genuinely resonate with people at this time of year, and they do seem to offer some of what Jesus represents: forgiveness, repentance, love, generosity, charity, even eternal life. Frosty melts away but lives on in the children’s hearts. The Grinch has a complete change of heart and becomes a loving and generous figure. George Bailey is pulled from the depths of despair to a renewed love of life by his guardian angel, Clarence. Even now, I still think of these stories fondly. They may not be biblical, but they do sit well as companions to a celebration of Christ’s life because of the truths that they speak.
And that is the essence and the function of a story: to speak truth to us, to tell us something about our condition, about our lives, about our hopes and fears and loves. And this is true for works of fiction or nonfiction, for books or movies, and regardless of whether or not they present actual events or accurate facts. Today’s gospel reading was a story of Jesus’s birth told by Luke. There is a different story in the gospel of Matthew. And even though these two stories are different in fact and detail, both speak the truth, of the miraculous birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Of an angel reassuring someone to not be afraid and giving them a path or a course of action to follow. Of people going on a journey in search of safety or new life. Of a child being born who is the Messiah. It’s not really important if this child was born in a barn or in a room in a house, nor whether it was shepherds or wise men or kings who came to greet him and to proclaim him. Whatever the details, the one truth that we are remembering and reliving tonight, the birth of the Messiah, comes to life in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. By immersing ourselves in these stories, we bring an event from 2000 years ago into the present. We experience some of the joy, amazement, hope, and love of that moment when Joseph and Mary welcomed their newborn son, the son of God.
And in doing so, this story of Jesus’s birth becomes part of our own story, our own truth. For stories do not exist just on paper or on film or, now, stored in digital files. They are being acted out all around us, and we soak them up. They play an integral role in how we see ourselves and how we make decisions. Consciously or not, we visualize ourselves in stories, we identify with characters, and our own decisions and behavior are inspired by the events in stories - in books we read, in TV shows and movies we watch, even in the gossip we hear and the video games we play and the sporting events we attend. We are immersed in stories, we absorb elements of them, and we are shaped by them as we write the stories of our own lives.
The birth of Jesus is the foundational story for us as Christians: God in human form. It is the essence of our faith that we are the body of Christ, that Jesus exists within each of us. I believe that when we celebrate and relive the birth of Christ at Christmas we are, in part, celebrating and reliving our own birth. And our own birth was and is part of God’s greater act of creation that is still ongoing. This is a living story, and it includes us. The universe is still expanding, and God is still creating, creating new life and new ideas and new ways of being. We are his agents in the world. You know that intense feeling of joy that one can experience in the presence of a newborn baby. That is a reflection, I believe, of a deep-seated awareness that we are each still in the process of being born, or perhaps you might say re-born, and Jesus with us. We desire and are capable of feeling the same freshness and sense of infinite possibility that sits at the beginning of a newborn’s life. Unlike a baby, of course, we are not innocent. We have a lifetime of accumulated hurts and disappointments and regrets and sins. As we stand in the presence of the newborn baby Jesus at Christmas, we are reminded of our intimate connection with God, of the joy of new life within us, of God’s creation within us. Jesus’s story is our story. Jesus’s birth is our birth.
That is the magic of Christmas. This baby, Jesus, was a great gift to us from God, a gift that is God, given by our creator as the most concrete expression of love imaginable or possible. It was given in the form of a man with the hope that through his life as God incarnate we might be freed from sin and shown the way to eternal life. The only way for us to make sense of and record and share such an amazing act is through the telling of a story. And this story of Jesus’s birth, whether it is Matthew’s or Luke’s or some combination thereof, is a story for and about and of us. And even those other Christmas stories - the ones told by cartoon specials and old black and white movies, the story of Santa Claus, and even our modern, misguided story of a consumerist frenzy of shopping and gift-giving - can be traced back to the same, single truth: the truth of God’s boundless love for us. The truth that was fully revealed to us in the birth of the baby Jesus: the ultimate gift, the ultimate story, a story worthy of being told and lived over and over again, forever. Merry Christmas!