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11th EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS
A Blessed and Holy Christmas Season
It does not matter that Christ was born long ago in Bethlehem unless he is born in you today. ~ Meister Eckhart
Over the years, I have quoted Meister Eckhart in many a Christmas sermon. The truth of his words rings like a Christmas bell with its manifest truth. For us, Christ is not one who just lived well so we could get away with living badly; he came to set us free from the power of sin so that we might live well ourselves.
It does not matter that Christ was born long ago in Bethlehem unless he is born in you today. And so this Advent, I am once again waiting to see Christ born in my own life and in the Church, which is the place of his birth in the human community. But will I see it?
I recall toward the end of Advent one year ranting on to my sage consultant about all the ways my congregation was botching the Christmas services. He said, “Um hmmm. Um Hmmmm,” several times as I groused on. Then when I took a breath, he said, “Maybe Christ will have to be born in a stable again this year.” And that rang as true as the wisdom of the 14th-century mystic, Meister Eckhart.
It does not matter that Christ was born long ago in Bethlehem unless he is born in you today. Maybe Christ will have to be born in a stable again this year.
Advent is purgatorial. One night this week, we drove through the early darkness in jam-packed aggravating urban traffic to Trader Joe’s for a minor grocery shopping only to find that the traffic and irritability on the inside matched the traffic and irritability outside. It was chaotic—like a stable. I did not cheer myself with untimely Christmas carols. They only make it worse. That’s part of why I like being an Episcopalian. We know good and well it isn’t “the most wonderful time of the year”—yet. Instead I hummed the Merle Haggard classic, “If we can make it through December.”
It has seemed to be a hard time for a lot of us this year. My best friend from 40 years ago wrote me about this urge he sometimes has to phone his son, but his son died last year. A deacon tells me how this season makes her miss her late husband. I find myself missing my parents, my brother, any number of people I wasn't even close to, but they made up my world. I miss the world I grew up in, even though I wasn’t that happy in it at the time. I still miss it.
We Episcopalians don’t have to make a grouchy principle out of insisting there is something hard and challenging about Advent. There just is.
My older daughter gave birth this week. It was a long, hard labor and a dangerous delivery. As I think about that long day and night of bringing forth—the pain, the exhaustion, the anxiety—I ask how is Christ brought forth in us? For Christ to be born in us today: what does that take? What does it look like? What does it actually mean in some fleshy way that a simple person like me can get his mind around and recognize? Is it in some way like my daughter’s long hard labor and delivery? Is it hard and risky?
And I find the first few clues in Scripture. Paul said to the Philippians: “Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, who being found in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant.”
When Christ is born in the mucky stable of our lives, he shows up as a humility, a lowliness. Paul was admonishing the Philippians to refrain from ego-defending, ego-asserting conflicts over who would get their way. Christ shows up in us as a certain indifference to getting our way, as a humility that looks at others with an eye seeking something to respect, not criticize. “Let your minds be filled with everything that is true, everything that is honorable, upright, and pure everything that we love and admire.” Christ appears in us as an eye that can see the good in others. Like Superman seeing through walls, we can see through the off-putting or threatening personality to see the image of God hidden in the heart.
Christ is born in us when we sincerely pray. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done.” We say praying shapes believing, and out of our beliefs come our actions, and repeated actions shape our characters. Christ appears in us as a prayer relating to God as Father, inviting his Kingdom into our world, and submitting our lives and our world to his will. It is a simple prayer of surrender, confession, forgiveness, a sharing—sharing in that Jesus’s prayer is all in the first person plural, our father, our daily bread, our sins, those who sin against us. Christ happens when we pray our way into a link to God that inevitably ties us to the whole human race. If God is our Father, we are all brothers and sisters.
Christ is born in us when the same spirit that filled him animates and vitalizes our lives, shapes our actions.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted,
he has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives,
sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (forgiveness of debts).
When we do that work—and it is hard work—we are giving birth to Christ. We are becoming the Church (represented by Mary), the Theotokos, the God-bearer.
Christ will be born again in us, born in this stable. He is always born in stables. He is only born in stables. He is born when we lay down our pride, love our Father, and serve our brothers and sisters, not with pity but with respect for the beauty and the goodness we see in them. Christ is born in us when we see the world through Jesus’s eyes and act on what we see.