The Nativity of the Lord
[Scripture Readings: Gen 3:9-15; 1 Chron 17:7-14; Micah 5:2-5a; Is 9:1-7; Titus 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14 ]
In the monastery everyone has a main job or two and many have a few minor responsibilities. So a monk can be guestmaster and also in charge of the car keys or responsible for making coffee in the morning. These little jobs help the monastery function smoothly. We even have a monk in charge of posting the weather report every morning. This monk has a mathematical inclination and likes statistics, so the weather report is often accompanied by some statistical report. Today’s report reminds us that so far in December we have had 29 1/2 inches of snow. The record set in 1887 is 32 inches, so we need 2 1/2 inches to tie the record and we have seven days to go. Tonight could be a record cold.
It is nice to have a white Christmas, but enough is enough. There is white and there is white! Madison Avenue makes us think of Christmas in terms of white fluffy snow and warm fuzzy feelings. Never mind that it almost never snows in Palestine and the Holy Family was basically homeless.
Speaking of Madison Avenue, I have a nephew who has lived in New York for the past twenty years. Even though he was raised in Iowa, he has acquired a “New York attitude” — if you know what I mean. He is in Des Moines now for the holidays and has declared that it is “ecologically impossible to sustain life in this climate.” But hey, this is a typical Iowa winter. This is what makes us the stalwarts we are. A couple of feel of snow — twenty below zero. No big deal.
Winter in Iowa offers us fierce resistance and overcoming resistance is what builds character. I would say our guests here tonight are people of great character! We salute you; all the monks had to do to get here was roll out of bed and walk down the cloister. You had to overcome a lot of resistance to be here at midnight on one of the coldest nights of the year!
We all know why we are here: to celebrate the birth of Christ. We have just listened to the Christmas story. The description of Christ’s birth as told by Luke the Evangelist. The way Luke describes it we can easily imagine what it was like. We are familiar with every detail of the story: the journey of the Holy Family, no place in the inn, the birth, the shepherds, the angels. But really we don’t have to come to church to hear this. We can read it ourselves in our Bible. There is something very special about coming together tonight to celebrate the Birth of Christ. What is it?
One time a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus at night to talk to him. In the course of the conversation Jesus told him, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again from above.” Nicodemus wondered how someone his age could be born again. “Is it possible,” he said, “to go back into the womb and be born?”
We might have a similar question about our participating in the birth of Christ. Is it possible to participate in an event that happened two thousand years ago? We can in our imagination, and we should as we read and meditate on this Gospel. Luke wrote in such a way that the reader is invited to participate. Luke was a gentile and very sensitive to including outsiders in his stories. Samaritans, the poor and dispossessed, even the shepherds at the crib. Shepherds were low on the ladder of success. When we read Luke we can easily consider ourselves invited into the story — take our place alongside the shepherds and adore the Christ Child. But this is not the same as celebrating the birth of Christ as an assembly.
We are still left with the ‘Nicodemus dilemma.’ Can we be born again? Can Christ be born again? Can we share in that event? We must remember we are entering a different concept of time this evening because we are celebrating a sacramental liturgy; we are not simply recalling the past, we are making it present.
When the angel was taking leave of the shepherds, he told them: “Here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The body of Christ as a babe is a sign of God with us, our Emmanuel. In a few moments we will take bread and wine and they will become the body and blood of Christ — signs that make Christ present in our midst — the whole Christ: the infant child, the suffering man, the risen savior, the total Christ. Christ with us — our Emmanuel. And how do we respond?
A few days ago we had a reading from St Bede. He was describing the response of Mary when she found out she conceived Jesus. He describes it in such a way that his own identity is lost in hers. It seems to me these words can help us share in our liturgy this evening. Bede says: “The Lord has exalted me by a gift so great, so unheard of, that language is useless to describe it, and the depths of love in my heart can scarcely grasp it. I offer then all the powers of my soul in praise and thanksgiving. As I contemplate his greatness, which knows no limits, I joyfully surrender my whole life, my senses, my judgment, for my spirit rejoices in the eternal Godhead of that Jesus, that Savior whom I have conceived in this world of time.”What Mary did in history we do in mystery: conceive and bring forth Christ into our world of time.