The following is the homily I shared on Christmas Eve, 2016 with the congregations I have been serving in Arlington and Volga, Iowa. Because I was excited that both St. Thomas Aquinas and Monty Python's "Spam" song were both going to be mentioned, I couldn't help but post this announcement on Facebook. I'm sure you can understand. Several of my FB friends then expressed desire to read this sermon. So here it is! I hope you aren't disappointed, though. There's only a hint of wackiness here. Although you could also argue quite the opposite!
In any case, I hope what I share here brings blessing and help for the journey ahead.
Rev. Jane Voigts, preached December 24, 2016
So here we are. It all comes down to this. Mary and Joseph have made their perilous, necessary journey. Angels have exploded in the dark winter sky out of nowhere, quaking shepherds who have hurried to the stable in Bethlehem to see what all of the mind-bending hubbub is all about. The hopes and fears of all the years are finally being met. This.is.it. [Indicating the manger] Here.
So so much has been said about the One who has finally come. For generations prophets have proclaimed in most dramatic, passionate and often beautiful poetic language the world-changing work He will accomplish, bringing peace and justice to everyone and the right kind of power to the world, which is really something to proclaim, considering how complicated and violent and messed up everything is. Most recently John the Baptist has been warning, begging, egging people to get their act together and repent in preparation of His coming. "Return to God! Tell God all your sins! Listen for the forgiveness!" There’s so much Divine conversation to be had!
I imagine there has been lots of conversation between people, too. Like between Mary and Joseph as they try and figure out how to maneuver, while pregnant, the bumpy road to Bethlehem; as well as how to handle, when back in Nazareth, what are sure to be continued suspicions and aspersions after their out-of-wedlock child is born and their life as a most untraditional family begins. I can only bet the shepherds have been non-stop talking as they race to the manger to try and make sense of what has been told them/blasted from the sky by an army of angels: good news of great joy for all people! Whaat? And they were the first to receive it, these lowly dirty nobodies? How could that be? They enter the stable, still in shock, so they can’t stop regaling the events to the holy couple and others who are there. According to the tradition, even the barnyard animals are causing a stir, lowing and braying and crowing and everything else.
We, too, have been invited to come to the manger and this moment, this cumulative moment. And, not unlike our forebears at the first Christmas, there has been a lot of busyness, and a lot of verbiage (in our minds and on our lips and all around us) that has brought us to this place.
Our journey has undoubtedly included many traditional tasks of preparing homes and churches and communities with beautiful decorations welcoming the Christ child in. Perhaps there have been special devotional practices, lighting of candles and appropriate litanies to keep minds focused on what this season is supposed to be about. There has been a lot of buying presents, sending cards, talking to Santa, going to parties and getting everything just right or struggling with thinking we have to. For some, perhaps for many, there have been powerful, concrete memories and sadnesses attached to this year's holiday goings-on, for it all reminds of happier times when loved ones who are no longer with us were part of the festivities. Our minds perhaps tonight are filled to overflowing with lots and lots of thoughts of the past. Or worries about what needs to happen next, once church - and this visit to the manger - is over.
And then - perhaps more than any other year in memory - there is all the chatter we have absorbed throughout the season about what’s going on in the world that we should be truly concerned about. Or maybe we shouldn’t. All the knowing and not knowing keeps our minds in a whirl; we can’t stop listening and talking and thinking about it more and more and more.
But now, and now, as Monty Python would say, it’s time for something completely different! And it’s something as jarring, although not as silly, as a sketch about dead parrots or song about Spam. (We’ll save sermons on this for later!) The "something completely different" for us tonight is not another "anything" at all. Rather, it's about letting the screen suddenly go completely to black. Or, more to the point, gold.
We’re invited to gaze at the baby before us…in silence. And it's more than just "not speaking." It’s letting go of whatever thoughts might be racing through our heads, whatever needs we can’t seem to help but cling to, whatever words we want or think we should be forming as we encounter the Divine in such a close and intimate way.
Maybe we don’t need to be told this. As we get so palpably close to God, now in the manger, that Spirit that created the universe and nurtures everything showers itself upon us SO powerfully. We're overwhelmed, with no ability to think, say, do. We can only, without language, take it in and just be.
Our journey to the stable year has been focused on the spiritual practice of “awareness.” We've taken this up because it’s one of the best ways of answering the command to “WAKE UP!” we received at the very beginning of the Advent season. "God is turning the world upside down, creating a cosmos that is completely new and because God works in ways that we never expect we have to be really alert to what’s going on lest we lose out and we don’t want to do that!"
We have been reflecting on Father Anthony de Mello’s ideas about “awareness” that he brings to his book of the same name.
In Week One we noted that the first step in waking up is letting ourselves look without judging. In Week Two we noted that the second step is repenting of our biggest sin: we don't want to wake up! We want to live in a reality that exists in our heads and is comfortable and limited to what we want reality to be. This is a lie, and whether we like it or not, we have to admit it. In Week Three, we learned that deeper levels of awareness are found as we give ourselves permission to ask questions about this broader reality we are starting to let ourselves see. Joy is found in the freedom that "living the questions" brings. Deeper relationships between others are engendered, too. And Week Four brought contemplation of the notion that when we are aware, we find ourselves able to love whoever is in our midst, even and especially when we'd rather love somebody else. This is certainly the message of our Christmas story - none of the characters are in the relationships they intended or thought proper or even possible. But shockingly deep love and interdependence is discovered as the Messiah comes into being in an always surprising, often scandalous manner.
This brings us to what Father de Mello says is the fifth and ultimate step in awareness.
Standing before God in silence. Because there is simply nothing that can be said. In fact, we realize words, while helping us journey to God, now, as we're this close, only limit the glory of what we experience before us. Words only get in the way.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest Christian thinkers and writers of all time, spent years and years and years in the Middle Ages composing and synthesizing volume after volume of his theological treatise on God - who God is and what God does and how we are to properly be with Him. The Church looked to him for guidance on how to think and how to act and rightly so. He was a brilliant scholar.
Then something happened near the end of his life, in 1273, when he was celebrating Mass on the Feast of St. Nicholas. St. Thomas received a revelation that so affected him that he put down his pen and wrote not another word. Spoke not another word about God. His great work, the Summa Theologiae - was left unfinished. He wrote to his secretary and friend Brother Reginald. ”The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me." When later asked by Reginald to return to writing, Aquinas said, "I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”
Maybe this is where we find Mary at the end of our scripture story. We’re told that as she looks upon all the startling, noisy goings-on around her, all she does is stay silent, "pondering what she observes in her heart." She is wide awake, asking questions to herself and then...I can't help but think all the words just dissolve as she gazes upon the child who is especially close to her, so full of God. All she can do, as our carol “In the Bleak Midwinter” suggests…is kiss him. Like the Beatles song, Mother Mary can only “let it be.”
And how marvelous it is to be in this state of blissful wordlessness, for it avails us to an ultimate engagement with the Spirit, bringing us everything we need for ourselves and for sharing with the world. So much more than language can begin to describe.
This is what we are invited to do now, as we gaze at the manger. Let the straw that we see be our words and ideas, our limited understandings, the “stuff” we bring to this encounter, and let us in awe acknowledge the Divine mystery that lies upon it. And overwhelms everything.
Let this be enough - perfectly enough - for tonight. Let us not not be like the poor little fish in the ocean who, as says, as Father de Mello reports, “Excuse me, I’m looking for the ocean. Can you tell me where I can find it?” ....
I’d like to start our silent prayer time with a little exercise that might really help your mind from “thinking” as you come to the manger tonight. You can try it if you wish, or not. Whatever you feel comfortable with. It’s called “palms up/palms down” and is used in the Quaker tradition when beginning contemplative prayer time with God. This comes to us from Richard Foster's book "Celebration of Discipline."
How this works is you put your hands on your lap, with your palms down as a symbolic indication of your desire to turn over any concerns you have have to God. Inwardly you may pray, “Lord, I give to you my anger toward John. I surrender my anxiety over not having enough money to pay the bills this month. I release my fear about how this holiday might unfold, probably will unfold because I’ve messed up in some way.” What ever it is that weight on your mind or is a concern to you, just say “palms down”. Release it. You may even feel a certain sense of release in your hands.... After several moments of surrender, turn your palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive from the Lord. Perhaps you will pray silently: “Lord, I would like to receive your divine love for John, your peace about my finances, your patience, your joy.” Whatever you need, you say, “palms up.” Having centered down, spend the remaining moments in complete silence. Do not ask for anything. Allow the Lord, that silent baby in the manger, to commune with you, to love you. If impressions or directions come, fine; if not, fine.
[After several minutes, I ended this silent prayer time by singing, plaintively and a capella, "O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin...and enter in... be born in us...today."]
No, just kidding, this is how I ended our meditation:
God bless us, everyone!