Sunday, December 27, 2009

What Happened To Us At Christmas?

Here's a question which only sounds simple, but really isn't: What happened four days ago?

For most of us, certain things happened, at least on the surface of life. There was perhaps a meal, a late night or midnight service, an exchanging of gifts, a singing of carols, a sense of joyful interlude, a pause in ordinariness of life. We may have heard words such as: "Unto us a child is born, a son is given" or "Those who walk in darkness have seen a great light".

In what sense did more than that happen? Inside us? Was there at all a sense of some new reality coming to birth inside us? Something different happening? New possibilities? New directions we might take? Was there any sense of a light coming on inside us, allowing us to take some more steps, to carry on searching, to live with a little more joy and a little more meaning in a world which many times seems so joyless and meaningless?

The season we're in is given to us as a regular cycle of time so that we might ask questions like these. We're given the memory of this birth in the winter time of the year so that it can trigger a birth in us and perhaps be a light to us.

The liturgical Scripture passages for this Sunday after Christmas (Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18) are exciting and can be immensely creative for us.

The poet and prophet named Isaiah bids people to "rejoice and exult" because God has done three things: God has "clothed [us] with the garments of salvation"; God has "covered [us] with the robe of righteousness"; and God will cause "righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations". What meaning can such language have for us?

When we say that God has clothed us in salvation, we're saying that God, in this Christmas time, has given something which saves us from failure in the daily stuggle to be human. We're saved from a sense of meaninglessness. God, in this child of Christmas, has been born again in you and me. God has made us full of possibility.

When we hear that God has covered us with the robe of righteousness, we're being told that God has given us the birth of Jesus as a way in which we can get our lives right, to use plain words. At its deepest level, life is about being a child of God. We are many other things. We may be a parent, a professional, an employer, an employee, a spouse. But the thing which wraps up all those roles, which helps us to get all the others right, is the reality that, above all, you and I are children of God.

We heard, too, that God will make righteousness and praise spring forth before all the nations. Is that for real, a present reality? Of course not. What we see on TV, in the newspapers, or hear on the radio is anything but a world full of righteousness and praise. Is the phrase, then, just unreal religious rhetoric? Or has God, in this season and through this birth, reached into the elusive future and given us at least one day of it? The importance of seeing it like this is that such a single day can give us the courage and the hope to go on searching for and working for the reality described in the phrase "righteousness and praise...before all the nations".

The introduction or prologue of John's Gospel has been proclaimed to us several times within the past two weeks. We have become so familiar with these words that we almost miss the Good News in them. John reminds us of three magnificent realities which can be true for each of us: that you and I are alive with God's life; that you and I are called to be bearers of God's light; and that you and I can, if we choose, embody God to the extent a human being can, similar to the way Christ embodies God in an ultimate way.

You and I are alive with God's life! Try and savor that fact a bit. Let yourself feel the way in which that realization can change one's self-image. We're not just limited, messed up human beings with our ups and downs. We are that, but not only that. Each one of us is a place in which the infinite Holy God has deliberately chosen to dwell!

Carl Jung says that each of us possesses a dark, shadowy side to our lives. We know this only too well from experience. But Scripture affirms that we're also bearers of God's light, carriers of a flame, sometimes tiny, sometimes almost extinguished, but always there. "The light," says John, "shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it".

The word gospel, as you probably know, means good news. Isn't it good news to be told in Scripture that there is in you and me a flame of God which will not be extinguished? We're all aware that life asks each of us to face fierce and terrible things: things which often threaten to disintegrate us, to empty us, to destroy us. Yet we're also assured that at the center of our being there's a flame of the living, creating God (we call it Holy Spirit) which will not be put out! Pain or loss can numb our souls. It may threaten to cover us with agony and sorrow, but the flame endures, and therefore, we live. "...The Spirit of God dwells in you..." The capacity to act remains; the will to love stands firm. The future lives and tomorrow is possible.

Paul tries to communicate to the Galatian Christians something very important about human life. We grow. We must, or else we're in trouble! To be a human being entails development in many areas: physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, etc. The same is true of our lives in God. There must be development, growth, maturing. Remaining static isn't an option. To neglect developing a relationship with God is to let it diminish. Paul emphasizes one aspect of that relationship. He notes that religion begins with guidelines: "shoulds" and "have tos", in others words, law. But the normal progression is that our relationship with God develops, first by listening, obeying because we must, but growing gradually to do that because we want, choose to do so. To use Paul's image, we move from being slaves to becoming daughters and sons of God. All this happens through Jesus in and through whom we are in relationship to God because Jesus took on our humanity and presents us back to the Father.

There are countless stories of personal self-discovery. Cinderella discovers that she can be a princess. The slave in the castle discovers that he is, in reality, the king's own son. Notice that it usually happens because someone else comes to love them. Who is the person who has come to love us, freeing us from being slaves and enabling us to become daughters and sons? Who is the One whose love releases us from being merely who we thought we were, to becoming the persons whom we really are? To borrow Paul's words: "Thanks be to God,... Jesus Christ our Lord."

So, we come full circle. We began with the question: what happened, really happened, on the day we call Christmas? According to Isaiah, we were given some new clothes. Their brand name, if you will, is "Salvation". We need only put them on and begin living in them! According to John, God's light is already shining in each of us so that we're being empowered by that inner light. Nothing can ultimately extinguish that light. This, indeed, is good news, magnificent news! According to Paul our religious rules and obligations are best interpreted in terms of our relationship with a loving God who has come to us in Jesus, hands outstretched to draw us closer to Godself.

What happened to us a few days ago at Christmas is that among the gifts given to us, we received a unique one. A Savior was given to us. Today's Scriptures affirm that all the gifts which come to us are ours because of that Child. We need only accept our gifts, open them, enjoy them, live them. To live them is to taste here and now the mysterious reality which we call "eternal life".

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