The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Jesus said, “let the one who seeks not stop seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will be disturbed, and when he is disturbed he will be astonished and rule over all.” Gospel of Thomas, Saying 2
This Christmas is, to say the obvious, very unusual. But I’ve been thinking, can you imagine the first one? What must that have been like?
The neighbor across the street put their decorations up a couple weeks ago: red-painted, wooden cut-outs of the word J-O-Y, with the O encircling a white manger scene. It stayed up for a while, but then it embodied what we all have been feeling and fell down in the yard. One day while at the kitchen sink, Lisa called me over to show me that only the letter Y remained standing. So, for a few days, we would look out our window and see that giant “Y” standing there, like some sort of grand existential question that felt very appropriate for the times we live in. Y indeed.
Throughout these weeks, as we drew nearer and nearer, and I thought more and more about my Christmas sermon, one question kept coming back to me: Why do we do this? What does any of this really matter? The question surprised me, but I stayed with it.
Perhaps the biggest lesson so far, for me, in these past ten months is that we have all been invited into a state of greater awareness, of a heightened consciousness. Or pushed. Have we been pushed or invited? I still wonder.
Awareness of our own mortality, our humanity. A lack of humanity sometimes. Sometimes we can just be too human. Other times we cannot be human enough.
Awareness that we truly are so deeply interconnected with one another, as we see in the shared air we breathe, which we must be careful of.
Also awareness of our selfish tendencies and the warped self-obsession we see promoted in parts of our culture.
Suddenly, we are aware of things we were not aware of before.
Suddenly, things matter. Different things matter.
Suddenly, we are paying attention to things we never noticed before: how close we stand to people, that feeling of anxiety that arises in us when we are around too many people, that feeling of frustration we feel when someone we consider a friend seems so flippant about the risk, the feeling of dread when we realize we’re almost out of toilet paper.
We are more conscious, and with this consciousness comes discomfort. Consciousness breaks our cycle of numbness and complacency, and while this causes discomfort, it also presents us with the opportunity for spiritual growth, because spiritual growth never occurs in an environment of numbness and complacency. A heightened consciousness also triggers resistance, because there is a part of us–both as persons and as a community–that wants to preserve the routine, what we consider ‘normal,’ to maintain “the way things have always been.” So we see this tension played out around us–and within us.
In so many conversations with folks over these months, we have found ourselves reflecting together on this central question: “What does my practice of faith have to do with where I find myself today? How do I make sense of this, in terms of how God is present in my life?” Why do we do this?
Now this is an important point: we are asking how we make sense of our circumstances–the “Y” question if you will–in terms of our spiritual practice and faith–not in terms of any political agenda or social platform. We struggle to do this because we have far more political language than theological practice at our fingertips, and that is a problem.
These are Christmas questions, if you will, perhaps the deepest questions that we can ask ourselves. They are incarnational questions, Gospel questions. So, yes, we ask, “Why?” “What does any of this really matter?”
In the quaint nativity scene itself, perhaps we can catch a glimpse.
As the story goes St. Francis created the first nativity scene as a teaching tool for mostly illiterate people. He took shepherds from St. Luke’s Gospel and the magi, the wise men, from St. Matthew’s Gospel (because, remember, they don’t actually appear in the same story), and he gathered them all together around Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus.
Shepherds, the hard working class folks who provided food and clothing to the community, are suddenly first-hand witnesses to the glory of Heaven, and they find themselves taken into the presence of love incarnate.
The bearers of knowledge, the educated ones, are reoriented from their desire to gather information and suddenly find themselves on a journey to pay homage to the embodiment of divine wisdom.
And just as important as who is present at the manger is who is absent: the ruler of the day whose arrogance and narcissism led him to inflict fear on the population in a manipulative effort to eliminate a threat to his desire to rule.
We have this sacred drama of the working class shepherds, the intelligentsia, the political elite, the host of Heaven, and at the center of it all, the holy Family whose willingness to participate in God’s mission changed the world for all time.
So, to return to the question we started with: what does any of this really matter?
This Christmas is unlike any I have ever experienced. For my entire life, I have been able to construct the Christmas I want, more or less. I have planned Christmas. I have been in control of “my Christmas.” I look back and wonder at how stressed I was with four services to look to on Christmas Eve and Day. How my perspective has changed. How I am aware of things I was not before?
This year, I see myself in the Christmas story in such a different way. I see myself in the shepherds, that part of me that has felt unworthy, on the outside. Suddenly, we have all been invited to glimpse the glory of heaven that has broken in our lives. Maybe we feel out of our league.
And can we see ourselves in the wise men? That part of us that has been focused on worthy tasks, trying to figure things out, relying on our own knowledge. Suddenly, something appears before us that falls outside of our well-laid plans, and we’re invited to leave and go on a journey.
Can we see ourselves in Joseph and Mary, invited to care for this new thing that has been born to us? That they could take the risk and press against societal expectations and nurture the presence of God in their midst.
And, can we even see ourselves in Herod, that part of us that resists the coming of Christ in the desire of maintaining the perceived hold we have on things? How do we find ourselves fighting against God’s grace just because we would prefer to preserve our own power?
So, why do we do this? Why do we REALLY do this, now that so much has been stripped away? What does all of this really matter?
For me, to celebrate Christmas at this time, it boils down to this: What do I truly believe? If I believe that God is real, that God was born in Jesus and came to live among us, that the Spirit of Christ continues to guide us in our lives–if I really believe this–then I am called to trust that God is present here and now. Especially now, in this time of frustration and anger, grief and confusion.
While I am more conscious of my own struggle to make sense of this all–to ask that “Y” question–can I pray to be more aware of the Spirit’s presence in all of my life? That all is held, and all is known, and all is loved?
Because Jesus is not born to us just when we have worshipped the way we always have, or gathered with our families the way we always have, or been able to do the things we have always been able to do. Jesus is not born to us just when things are going well. No, Jesus is born to us now. In this moment. Here and now.
We do not need to deny how we feel or how we struggle. We don’t need to make light of our frustration or anger. We never deny our grief and pain. Rather, our practice of faith calls us to put all of this its proper place: at the foot of the manger, the location of God’s coming among us. We take our place alongside the shepherds and the magi, even the sheep and the goats, and Blessed Joseph and the Blessed Mother. We step closer to the manger, lean in, and take a look at how much God loves us. And always will.