The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Christmas Eve, 2018
The Sacred Language of Christianity is the Body:
Hope and Presence in the Church
The soul is in God and God in the soul, just as the fish is in the sea and the sea in the fish.
-St. Catherine of Siena
Some three months after I was ordained a priest, we still had our office in a building in “downtown Vinings.” St. Benedict’s worshipped in a Middle School, setting up each Sunday for Holy Eucharist. During the week, we were upstairs in an office building.
Early on it nagged at me that there wasn’t a chapel of some kind that we could sit in during the week. It was truly an office space, unmoored, it felt, from the dedicated sacred space of a “normal” church.
We had an extra office on the hallway, so I wondered about turning that into dedicated prayer space. It was a very small room, probably five feet by seven feet, but I imagined great things for our little chapel.
I found a small table, a rug, and four or five chairs that I put along the walls. I found a candle or two—or ten if you know me—and voila, we had a chapel.
The next week I announced in the newsletter that we would begin a mid-week Eucharist in our little chapel. As the time came, I waited in the office to greet the throng that I knew would come. Of course, I thought, the little chapel won’t hold us all. We’ll need to move to the conference room immediately.
One person came.
I gathered with her and we said the prayers and shared Communion. While we were there, I noticed that none of my fellow staff members came. They remained at work. I made a mental note to remind them. Of course, it was new and they hadn’t remembered.
The next week . . . one person came. None of my fellow staff. Now I knew: they obviously didn’t care about Jesus. (Ha!) Not knowing what to do, I soon began bringing bread and wine to their desks. They would stand and take Communion and then go back to work. Part of me truly wanted them to have Communion, but another part of me wanted them to feel guilty into realizing that their entire lives were sorely out of balance. I’m ashamed of my mixed motives.
At coffee with a mentor from the bishop’s staff, I commented to her how surprised I was that the staff wouldn’t make this weekly service the central part of their lives. I vented on and on that they had failed to “get” what it meant to be on a church staff, etc.
She smiled and said that it seemed to her that I may have struck upon a key part of my vocation as a priest. What, I asked her, did this have to do with my vocation? She smiled and told me what an honor it was that I had the opportunity to hold that space for a staff that was hard at work holding together a community’s entire ministry. Imagine what it must mean to them to have me bring them Communion each week, there in the midst of the hectic details of the shared life of our community. What an honor it was to be a priest and remind folks that God loves them and meets them where they are.
I took a sip of my mocha-frappa-latte and thought maybe I had been a bit quick on the idea that they didn’t love Jesus.
I often think back to those first days of being a priest. That memory—and honestly the bodily sensations of frustration—have helped me understand what it means to be the Church, to be the Body of Christ in the world.
Days like this give us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of “Church.”
Christmas Eve is a space that continues to bring folks together into a body, into a communion of human beings who yearn to be reminded that God loves them, that God holds them, and that God’s presence infuses them—like the sea in the fish. We come together as a community in a space that draws us like a magnet, toward beauty, toward focus, toward a memory, toward a hopeful presence.
It is easy to stay on one level and just soak up the candles, the incense, the lights, the carols—the beauty. And it is beautiful. But see if you can discern how the beauty actually calls you to become more aware of the immensity of what we celebrate tonight as a community.
God entered into our lives and radically altered the nature of reality. Creation was changed. The old order of things—namely that God was supposed to stay on God’s side and creation on its side except for a few miraculous encounters—was transformed.
The poet Denise Levertov tries to capture this transformation in imagining the Blessed Mother herself, that she was called:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
In Mary’s body, a new embodiment was brought into being. I’ll give you a hint: this same embodiment is meant for each one of us. We are each called to be God-bearers in the world today.
We are each called to carry God wherever we go, to share compassion with whomever we meet. We are each called to be Light bearers in the dark places of the world, bringing hope into the places of shadow and pain. Healing into the places of hunger and fear.
You see, all those years ago, I was so angry and judgmental that everyone else didn’t stop their lives and adjust to my expectations of holiness that I failed to see just what God understands holiness to be: to dare to enter into the everyday existence of the world, to be available, to be present, with a message of hope, peace, and love that does nothing less than transform the world.
The point of our faith is not to focus on ourselves, not to become so fixated on our own salvation that we forget the deeper truth of Christ’s message: that it is within community that we hear the Spirit’s call. We are “saved,” in reality, together as a Body—and that is good news!
Some of you who are here may wonder if the Church has any meaning at all any more. Some may be so wounded that you cannot imagine sharing in such an experience of community. Some area drawn to Church like a moth to a flame, and others only come for the coffee. And, to be sure, we live in a time when there is an enormous cynicism toward community and denial that we belong to one another.
Perhaps you wonder why you should come to Church—why anyone would. These are important questions. Perhaps here is a way to approach it: sit for a moment and see if you can feel, if you can identify, that feeling of devotion in your heart. That space of devotion and desire that leads you to come here. What brings you here? What makes your heart sing? What do you yearn for? It is this space in our hearts that wants to be filled by the only thing that can fill it: the presence of God.
This is the meaning of the Church, its purpose: to hold a space within the world as a reminder, a living reminder, a living presence, that offers God’s love—not as a possession that it controls but as a promise that it is blessed to carry.
The Church, as the Body of Christ, calls the entire world to see the vocation we all share: to give birth to God, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to respect the dignity of every human being, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. It is a radical vocation, indeed.
It is such a radical vocation that we cannot do it alone. We can only embody this vocation as a body, as a community, as a fellowship of brothers and sisters whose souls are united in their diversity of gifts. And it may surprise you to realize who is actually a part of the concentric circles of community that shape our lives. For instance, did you know that every Christmas Eve, there is a man in town who drives over to stand out front on the sidewalk to hear the bells toll at the end of the service? He stands there, in the cold, to listen for the announcement that Christ is born. Community matters.
Think about it: the very first thing Jesus did at his birth was to form a community, whose gifts were diverse and whose devotion was shared. Men and women. Humans and angels. Young and old. Sages and shepherds. Rich and poor. People and barnyard animals. All of created life was represented in that moment, brought together by the One through whom all things were made.
And now, our voices blend with theirs, as the entire Communion of Saints sings through the centuries and beyond: O Come Let us Adore Him!