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In-person Sunday morning services are temporarily postponed. We hope for a return in February.

Life is What Happens When…: The Nativity of the Lord

Friday, December 24, 2021:
Luke 2:1-20

“[A] decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” The writer sets the stage right off the bat, and we know a couple things about this world being described: there’s an authority, and there’s order. Orderliness. Structure. Planning. Control.

And then there’s literally everything else in this Gospel book — over twenty chapters — a story filled with walking, wandering, and rambling, and just dealing with reality as it arises. Eating with sinners, loving enemies, those deemed foreigners are the true neighbours, the lost sheep is found, and what was thought dead has come to life. It’s a story of surprises, or as we hear a lot these days, “pivoting.” It’s there at the beginning of the book, too: in the miraculous pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary. All of this betrays a rhythm of ‘surprise’ and then mature, compassionate response. And here we are, in our story tonight — this scene with a backdrop of orderliness and organization — but, we’re told, “While they were there, the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child.” I doubt that this is how the Holy Couple would have planned things, if they’d had a choice. And after the birth, as the carol goes, “no crib for a bed.” They improvise, they pivot.

It’s frustrating, not having a sense of control. It can be dangerous. But that’s what we’re given here. The important thing for us to retain in this story is not that people needed to be counted so that taxes could be collected. No, the important thing is: all of a sudden, a baby was born. Angels appeared out of nowhere. And the shepherds were terrified. Those are your take-aways. These things can’t be over-planned. I guess that’s how God works, sometimes. What’s that line in one of John Lennon’s songs? “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (Appropriately, the song’s called “Beautiful Boy.”)

The orderliness and regimentation that marks so much of our daily life right now is a veneer, a facade, masking the chaos and uncertainty (and fear) that’s lying much deeper. And so we yearn for a more natural, humane sort of order, or normalcy. And we reminisce about better times: when we didn’t have to be so vigilant. Or when we were less frustrated with those who aren’t vigilant enough. Or with those who are obsessively so.

Last year at this time I think there were five of us here, and everyone else joined by video. This year we’ve been spared cancellation, but we all know that things are hardly optimal. (Another song from the ’80s comes to mind: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”) So much of what brings us joy and meaning has been taken from us, and it’s times like this when we feel it most. Cancelling plans with family. Interpreting new rules creatively. Or just being exhausted by it all.

The last almost two years has been an experience of stripping away. We’ve seen it in our church life: fewer people, fewer readings, less music, shorter sermons. (So there’s a silver lining!) And in our wider lives: stay home, do less… there’s less to do. This impacts our habits, our labels, our identities. We ask: when is (real) life going to come into the world? And when it does, will we recognize it? [cf. John 1; 1 John 1]

This experience is not unlike what some of the mystics have described the spiritual journey: you keep your little rule, you keep your little fast, you pray, meditate, sit in silence, and try to be a better person. You’re climbing a spiritual mountain. And just when it feels like you’ve reached a ledge with a good view and a chance to catch your breath, you’re confronted with what they call “the dark night of the soul.” All of a sudden you’re hit with a blizzard. Or you find yourself back down below in a flat desert. It’s like a singer losing their voice, or a guitarist with debilitating arthritis. You ask: Who am I? Was I wasting my time? “And the shepherds were terrified.”

But this, we’re told, is part of the life of faith. The dark night is part of the climb. There can be life in the stripping away. Setting aside some of the stuff in the backpack that’s weighing us down. I think of a mentor of mine, who’s a priest and monk, who was diagnosed with dementia, maybe eight or ten years ago. And after he moved beyond the initial shock, he went about stripping everything away. All of his responsibilities, titles, identities. He didn’t throw them out, but he set them to the side. And then over time, reflecting and praying, he picked some of them back up. The criteria was not “what is perfect” or “what is easy,” but “is this really me, in this new reality?” (To this day he is still a priest, and monk.) Even in our terror, the angel, and the child in the manger, prompt questions about who we are.

So even if our existence right now can seem inadequate or unfulfilling, there is something of the mystery of God inviting us. The simplicity of the moment can teach us something about the simplicity of God. And that’s what tonight’s story is about: the spotlight pans away from the Emperor, away from the overly complicated system of registration. And it focusses instead on the unexpected visitor born in unideal circumstances. Completely vulnerable. One of our Anglican forebears, Lancelot Andrewes in the 16th or 17th century, described this baby as “the Word that cannot speak.” And Caryll Houselander — I mentioned her in my Christmas letter — much closer to our own day, wrote: “How small and gentle his coming was…. The night in which He came was noisy and crowded; it is unlikely that in the traffic of the travelers to Bethlehem the tiny wail of the newly-born could be heard.” Would we have recognized that simple, vulnerable baby as Saviour, Messiah, and Lord, without the intervention of a chorus of angels?

And she continues:

Before a child is born the question that everyone asks is, “What can I give him?” When he is born, he rejects every gift that is not the gift of self; everything that is not [unselfish] love. He rejects everything but that, because that is the only thing he can receive….

And this child calls for change in ourselves:

The sound of our voice must be modulated — the words that we use considered, our movements restrained, slowed down and trained to be both decisive and gentle.

Our rooms must be rearranged; everything that is superfluous and of no use to the infant must be thrown out; only what is simple and necessary to him must remain, and what remains must be placed in the best position, not for us, but for him….

There must be a new timing of our lives, a more holy ordering of our time, which is no longer to be ruled by our impulses and caprice, but by the rhythm of the little child.*

So while we yearn for the old days, or for a better future, what we find instead is more simple, immediate, and precious: life. Life itself. Vulnerable life. Exposed life. Surprising life. Even disappointing life. (“The Word that cannot speak.”) So much has been changed and stripped away: modulated, restrained, re-ordered. And all we have to give, and all that we can give or that can be accepted is ourselves. (Imperfect, not ideal, but our real selves.)

“How small and gentle his coming was…”

Amidst the traffic of the travelers… in the terror of the dark night… hidden underneath the distracting busyness of the census… …when we are busy making other plans… can the tiny wail of the newborn be heard?

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Caryll Houselander, The Passion of the Infant Christ: Critical Edition (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017), 31-33.