Coming and going

Candle, Hands holding 02Now another Christmas has come and gone, and what was the good of it? Aside from the seasonal heart-warmth it provided, what lasting difference did it make? That’s the kind of question you might expect from Ebenezer Scrooge, but it wasn’t Scrooge who asked it. It was Meister Eckhart, the German theologian, philosopher, and mystic of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century.

Eckhart posed the question in a more gracefully provocative way. “What is the good,” he asked, “if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 2,000 years ago, if I do not give birth to God today?” For Eckhart, Christmas, the Incarnation of God in the nativity of Jesus, was not merely an historic event. It was – it is – a present reality, at least potentially so. “We are all Mothers of God,” he wrote, “for God is always needing to be born.”

I’ve been pondering Eckhart’s question as we segue into Ordinary Time in the church calendar and as things in my own life get back to, well, ordinary. What good is Christmas? What lasting difference does it make for me – or for Larry, the homeless man recognized by almost everyone in Williamsville? The little shelter he’s apparently contrived for himself in the woods reminds me an awful lot of the shelter we think welcomed Jesus into the world.

Does Larry come and go among us as some present Incarnation of God, some new “suffering servant” – “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”; one from whom we hide our faces; someone we despise and consider of no account (Isa. 53:3)? Are he and others like him the ones about whom the risen Christ will one day say, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40)?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Today, we in the church are changing the subject. During Advent we anticipated the coming of a Messiah, remembering Israel’s anticipation 2,000 years ago and giving attention to our anticipation of Christ’s coming today. Then came Christmas, when we celebrated the coming of a Messiah long ago, giving our hearts to welcoming the Christ who comes among us today. Now, in the weeks following Epiphany, we face living with this one question: What difference does Christmas really makes in our lives?

In the church where I grew up, the difference Christmas made was mainly about me, or at least about us. Most churches are like that in this part of the world today. The season’s theme was the song of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14).

“Peace among those whom he favors” were key words, and those whom God favors were understood to be us, who had been baptized into the “true faith.” The church was where the favored ones were collected, and our task was to receive others who found their way into God’s favor and crossed the threshold into the friendly fold of God’s chosen. We didn’t spend much time and effort scouring the highways and byways, compelling the poor to come in (Luke 14:15-24). Larry never showed up at the table.

Now I think we didn’t know the first thing about Christmas. Or we knew the first thing but didn’t know the second, the thing that completes the first and makes it whole. We knew the part about being called and taken by the hand and kept (Isa. 42:6a), the part about coming to Christ. What we didn’t know or chose to overlook was the part about being given to those outside the church, to open blind eyes and release prisoners, to venture into the dark places and free those who were bound there (Isa. 42:6b-7).

We were pretty good about coming to Christ, or at least to our favorite illusions of Christ. We just weren’t very good at going for Christ, at embarking on ministry to the world out there that is the whole point of Christmas then and now. For Christmas is not about what God did for you and me. Christmas is about what God is doing through us for the whole wide world beyond our doors.

If we’re going to “get” Christmas at all, we’re going to do far more than celebrate the day or the season. We’re going to commit ourselves, day in and day out, all year long, to doing the work of Christmas. Here’s how that work was described by Dr. Howard Thurman, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, and for more than two decades dean of theology and dean of the chapels at Howard University and Boston University.

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],

To make music in the heart.

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