Saturday, December 27, 2008

from vision to vocation: the work of christmas

The prophet Isaiah speaks as the war comes to an end. He lives “in a land of deep darkness.” Eight centuries later followers of Jesus read the prophecy, and it seemed to speak of the rule of Herod and Caesar. Twenty centuries later there was the holocaust of the Jews and the imprisonment of many of their sympathizers; in our own century there is September 11 and the Tsunami and Katrina, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, genocide in Darfur, and political madness and spreading cholera now in Zimbabwe. Closer to home, but really across the planet there has been the economic crisis of this fall.

Darkness. Physicists speak of black holes, nothingness; engineers talk about the depletion of our energy resources; psychologists speak of depression, to use William Styron’s phrase, “darkness visible”; theologians reflect on the “dark night of the soul”; the poet confesses, “I have been one acquainted with the night.” In the last year we learned that Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose face seemed to communicate peace and joy, struggled with an overwhelming spiritual desolation for fifty years, which ended at her death. Darkness.

The optimism of the enlightenment has passed---Hiroshima, Holocaust, Vietnam, 9/11, Iraq, Wall Street. A new kind of bold atheism is flourishing---Europe is already there, the cathedrals empty except for a few tourists, and there is a kind of functional atheism in our own country. Darkness.

Here the Christian must be honest: there is much darkness in our world, and, yet the darkness is not only out there, but it is in here, within us. Three chapters earlier, in the book of Isaiah there is his call to be a prophet, and his confession: I am undone, I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. The darkness inside of us is the very reason we are able to perceive the darkness that is outside of us. Why are we most perplexed and bothered by particular sins and evils? Because those very realities reside within us. The good that I want to do, the apostle Paul admits, I do not do; and the evil that I do not want to do, I find myself doing.

And yet in the words of the prophet there is more than darkness: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Something---call it God, good fortune, hope, grace—something interrupts. We stare at the cold emptiness of the skies above and if we look closely we begin to see a star and another and another---there is a pattern. Or we open the newspaper or turn on the television and just when have almost given up on the world there is a sign of life.

Imagine hearing the good news or the prophet Isaiah in the 8th century that the war is over, that you are going to be able to return home. I recall a recent conversation with a friend whose son is home, and we talked about the incredible emotional relief when her son plants his feet on the ground and is safe. Imagine living in the 1st century, seeing the fulfillment of the promise that the Messiah has come. Or imagine that it is getting dark and cold, it is late in the afternoon, and you are somewhat disoriented, you have burned a few bridges, life has taken a strange turn, and you see the shelter where you will spend at least this night. Or imagine that you are pregnant, living in a formerly communist country, you are unmarried, you have no parents, what do you do? and someone tells you about a place where you will be accepted. Or imagine that deep in the heart of Zimbabwe there is a university that will give you the education that seems almost beyond your wildest dreams. Or imagine that you are a Haitian mother and there is no school in your community and someone tells you that a new school is going to begin, and there will be no cost; to come the next week and get a uniform for your young son; classes begin in two weeks. Or imagine that you are working in a local hospital and you see what you take to be the appearance of an angel.

Imagine the scripture: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in deep darkness, on them light has shined. The darkness is real and foreboding, and we are not in denial about the darkness, but by faith we keep vigil to look for the light. The biblical prophets have always helped us here, they have observed the hand of God in the history of their people. Isaiah tells us that where there was loss of life, now there will be childbirth; where there was hunger, now there will be a feast; where there was violence, now there will be peace. The Assyrian oppression has come to an end; the kingdom of God has come near.

How can this be? For unto us a child is born , unto us, a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulders; and his name shall be called: Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The light pierces the darkness in the form of a child, Jesus, born to Mary and Joseph. There is a legend that on a Christmas Eve long ago Saint Francis and his followers staged a nativity play. Living on the streets, they gathered their materials from the garbage piles of Assisi, made costumes from discarded rags and a manger from old boxes. They swept the streets to come up with the hay, and Francis placed an abandoned and damaged wooden doll that had once belonged to some child in the village into the manger scene. The legend has it that Francis as picked up the doll and began to speak about the mystery of the word becoming flesh, the child came to life.

In him was life, John’s gospel says, and the life was the light of all people (1.5). That legend has a simple lesson; Christians are to enter into the darkness, we are even called to love the darkness, because it is out of the darkness that light emerges. We gather in the very darkness to remind ourselves of the power of the light and our need for it.

We are here this evening, in part, to acknowledge the gifts---the gift of light and beauty and music and community and family and compassion and tradition and hope and peace and joy and love---we are here to acknowledge the gift of Jesus Christ, whose nativity we re-enact each year, because his birth is somehow connected to our own rebirth.

But there is more here than our rebirth, more here than our seeing a vision. And this is a part of what gives the Prophet a sense of hope. “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

The scripture moves from who the Messiah is to what the Messiah will do, from vision to vocation, from gift to mission. I love the reflection by Evelyn Underhill:

“The Christmas mystery has two parts: the nativity and the epiphany…In the first we commemorate God's humble entrance into human life, the emergence and birth of the holy, and in the second its manifestation to the world, the revelation of the supernatural made in that life. And the two phases concern our inner lives very closely too. The first only happens in order that the second may happen, and the second cannot happen without the first. Christ is a light to lighten the Gentiles as well as the glory of his people Israel. Think of what the Gentile was when these words were written--an absolute outsider. All cozy religious exclusiveness falls before that thought. The Light of the world is not the sanctuary lamp of your favorite church."

And so Christmas is not an ending, not the last day in an exhausing holiday calendar. Christmas is a beginning. Christmas is not an end in itself---“the Savior has come, all is right with me, I feel like it’s Christmas, I’m inspired, let’s go home”. Christmas is not an end itself. It is a means to a greater end. Imagine the light that shines upon Bethlehem spreading to all who live in the lands of deep darkness.

Each year I have shared at the conclusion of this service a Benediction, written by Howard Thurman. Howard Thurman was a mystic, he was Dean of the Boston University Chapel, he befriended Mahatma Gandhi, he was a classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr. and he mentored Martin Luther King, Jr.
The benediction is entitled “The Work of Christmas”

“When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart."

We have gathered not only to see the vision, but to claim our vocation, to be about the work of Christmas. One of my favorite possessions is a family picture. It is picture of my sister, my brother and me, standing in front of a small pine Christmas tree on Christmas morning. I suppose that I am about eleven, my brother is eight, my sister is five. I don’t recall much about that particular Christmas, but in the picture we are beaming. The tree, looking back a few years looks pretty meager, and we were your basic middle class family, so I can imagine what the morning would have been like, but in the picture we are beaming. We must have been the recipient of an amazing gift…. you can see it in our faces. The light is almost bursting through us.

In looking at this photograph I get the sense that, in this moment, we would do almost anything for our parents. An undeniable, inexpressible gratitude shines through our faces.

I wonder…What if you and I were overwhelmed, now, this evening, this Christmas, with the sense that, in a land of deep darkness, we have received a great gift, that the very light of the world has been placed in our hands? And what if you and I were moved to share that light with others? What if, now, the work of Christmas begins? I realize on Christmas eve each year that there is an idealism about this evening, about the moment when we hold the light in our hands and raise it to the sky, but it is an idealism that is grounded in the Christmas story, the Christmas truth itself: the light shines in the darkness, as John’s gospel says it, and the darkness did not overcome it. And so, you and I have before us this unfinished work:

To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart."

It can seem idealistic, it can seem like a dream, and yet it is the very dream and vision of God, who imagines a differente world, who transforms human idealism into divine vocation, and so we finally place our confidence in the power of God. And to put an exclamation point on it there is the promise of the prophet. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

And so, the work of Christmas begins.

Sources: Watch For The Light (Evelyn Underhill); Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessings. Paul Jones, “Toward A Post-Christian Spirituality”, Weavings, Jan/Feb 09. Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas”.


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