Dec 24, 2014

Christmas: God reaches down


Readings for Mass during the night:

Is 9: 1-6
Titus 2: 11-14
Lk 2: 1-14


Not long ago I happened to browse an issue of the newspaper, USA Today. As I turned the page I was intrigued by a full page add taken out by an Evangelical Church reminding readers of the Christmas holidays.  The image was of an arm reaching down to earth. The caption said:  When man reaches for God we call it religion.  But when God reaches for man, we call it Christmas.”

Did you ever consider that this beautiful annual remembrance of the birth of Christ is truly the ultimate act of God reaching out to us?  In the opening lines of John’s Gospel, normally read at the Christmas morning Mass, John writes:  The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” (Jn 1: 14).

Scholars translate those lines from the original Greek to literally say: God pitched his tent among us.  In ancient Hebrew memory those folks went immediately to their experience in the desert as they wandered in search of home.  But the pitching of a tent in that harsh environment was a sign of hospitality and also a sign of God’s presence in the midst of his people as they journeyed on his promise. 

In the birth of Jesus so many centuries ago, the world has the reassurance that God has reached down and pitched his tent on this planet in order to journey in our midst in what seemed a lightning flash of time.  A mere 30 or so years and he was gone with a promise to return again but the work of Christ forever has changed the world. His tent continues to be pitched among us in space and time.  In Church, in sacraments, in his Word, in the faith of all gathered, in the way we live our lives as formed by the Gospel and in the hope of eternal life. 

The reaching down of God to us is an exciting image.  It reveals the truth of God’s nature and his desire for humanity, the highest and most complex form of his creation.  Yet, there must have been a reason for his intervention. Why would God seemingly interrupt our lives?  What might have been his reason and his intent?  It seems, as we believe, that Jesus is the word of God made flesh so God must have desired to reveal himself to us; to “lift the veil off his face” as has been said. Not wanting to remain hidden in clouds and mystery, this living and true God decided to enter his own creation and to establish forever a relationship with us fickle humans.

Maybe Isaiah the prophet, so often heard during Advent, offers us a clue as to why God would come to us in our first reading for the Christmas Mass at night.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” (Is 9:1).  The entire purpose of light is so that we can see.  To stumble in the darkness is confusing, tense, or even frightening.  Only a candle, flashlight, or overhead lamp will make the difference.

Isaiah implies that humankind stumbled in the darkness.  We were confused and lost hoping against odds that we could find a way.  God had already revealed himself to a disparate group of Hebrews in the desert but they too often felt abandoned through their weak faith and limited understanding from a hope based on their prophets that God would someday unfold even more. 

In time, the Word of God is made flesh in the womb of Mary.  Only through the private and personal visit of an angel did Mary alone hear of God’s final plan.  While we normally put the birth of Jesus at night as we hear in our familiar Gospel story from Luke 2: 1-14 it certainly adds to the “light” theme that Jesus is the great light of God which shines brightly in darkness. 

When Jesus was born we might say that God reached down to humanity, grabbed us by the collar, and lifted us up to stand straight and tall to see the light without obstruction or confusion. As the angels sang to the shepherds: “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” (Lk 2)

In other words Jesus’ coming was entirely a willful act of God on our behalf. This understanding of a benevolent God whose justice is tempered by mercy was a new revelation to ancient people. A God who did not live on Mt. Sinai or on Olympus or show his power in wind, fire and natural disasters in order to win over the submission of humanity, or who would forever remain distant and mysterious was shaken to the root by the coming of Christ. A God whose law was the great law of love rather than an unachievable restriction based on obedience rather than mercy.

God reached down to us in silence and obscurity and the nativity stories of shepherds, Magi, and singing angels all reinforce the future destiny of God’s intent.  That all would be welcome, invited, and gathered like lost sheep and only THE light of Christ would lead us in the right direction. We no longer need to wander aimlessly but now in Christ Jesus we have the ultimate truth of what God is like and what he desires of us.

As we celebrate our Christmas season in song, word and sacrament, not to mention fruitcakes, cookies, egg nog and carols, maybe we can all reach out to someone who may be among the abandoned, the poor, the forgotten or unloved.  Nothing is more painful than the pain of loneliness or poor self-worth.  The mercy extended to all humankind by a God who grabs us by the collar and gently lifts us up is the same mercy that we must extend to all.

Whether they are dirty, smelly shepherds on ancient hillsides or magi living in luxury and with great wisdom esteemed by all, God’s reach is far and wide.  So can ours be as well.

 

O God, who have made this most sacred night

Radiant with the splendor of the true light,

grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries

of his light on earth,

may also delight in his gladness in heaven.

Who lives and reigns with you

In the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever.

 

(Collect for Christmas Mass at night)