Christmassing--The Pilgrimage to the Manger of the Heart
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Christmas Eve—in Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Christmassing—The Pilgrimage to the Manger of the Heart
When we come to ponder in our hearts like Mary the Mystery of the Incarnation, we often get tricked into thinking that Christmas was something that happened a couple of thousand years ago. Of course, the human person of Jesus was born in a dusty little corner of Palestine to a marginalized and voiceless teenage girl whose pregnancy brought with it all the scorn and derision that unwed mothers still face today. But, if we think of the Incarnation as merely an historical event, something that happened long ago in a distant land, we miss the full import of its meaning. Christmas becomes the marking of an anniversary, or a celebration of “Jesus’ Birthday” that rolls around each year. We get lulled into thinking that all this—the hymns, the liturgy, the flowers, the candles—celebrates something that happened rather than something that God started and continues right here and right now for our salvation.
When we ponder the Incarnation, we realize that God became incarnate, God gave all of Himself to us in the person and work of his Son, that we might become God’s sons and daughters, heirs, invitees to the party of enjoying the very life of God that has been poured into our hearts. The German mystic Silesius said that it may be that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but it will be of no avail if Jesus is not born in our hearts. That is the powerful, transformative mystery set before this evening. The carols, the creche, the candles and flowers all point, not to a fond remembrance of something idyllic and sweet in centuries past, but to the earth-shattering reality that God became human that human beings might become God (Athanasius). Christmas is the shape of a life—my life and your life. Christmas is a journey, not a day. It is the journey that each of us must make to the hidden, hushed manger of the heart where we discover—wrapped there in the mud and straw (right in the middle, that is, of our hum drum ordinary lives of taxes, tonsilitis, and t-bone steaks)—the gift of God’s very self to us in His Son. Yes, Christmas is about what God has done in Jesus, but it is also about the journey of discovering who we really are and why we are really here—to know Love and make Love known.
All of the various journeys we encounter in scripture—the Israelites’ journey out of bondage in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, the dust and grumbling of the wilderness, to the Promised Land, Moses’ journey into the dark cloud up Mt. Sinai to his encounter with God, the disciples’ journey away from the safety and security of their settled lives as fishermen with well-mended nets and freshly painted boats, Jesus’ own journey from creche to cross to the fish fry on the beach—all these geographical journeys point to a deeper, spiritual journey that is the call of each one of us on the path of Christian discipleship. These aren’t just stories about holy(ish) people to read about in the same way we read about sports heroes, or other giants of history.
When we take Mary’s example and treasure these stories and ponder them in our heart, we see that these stories tell us who and whose we are and who we are called to be as the gathered people of God—that motley brood of unruly chicks that includes all people everywhere who are invited to shelter under the wing of the loving mother hen who welcomes all—“ Jerusalem, Jerusalem….How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!” These stories chart outward journeys in the geographical sense, to be sure. But they also set before us the real reason why each of us is here on this holy night. Not out of fondness, sentiment, duty, obligation, or because our cable is on the fritz—but because the Mystery of Incarnation tantalizes with the promise of satisfying our deepest hunger, our deepest yearning, our thirst to live lives that don’t just skate across the surface of the brief of span of days we have been allotted, but authentic, dignified, truly human lives overflowing with ultimate depth and meaning. The journey is the journey to the heart, where we discover with the astonished joy of the shepherds the gift that has been given us, the gift of what it means to be a truly human human being created in God’s image and likeness and destined for union, communion, and enjoyment of the boundless Creator of the Universe who comes among us as a tiny infant, wrapped in swaddling bands.
The shepherds’ journey to the creche, then, is our journey. Christianity is not a spectator sport, but asks us, with the tiny mustard seed of our “yes” to consent to God’s presence and action in our lives—to open ourselves to Him, to receive the gift that has already been given, to make a little room in the inn of our hearts for God to dance us away from self-preoccupation, fear, hard-heartedness, and all the blessedly wrong-headed ways we seek happiness on our own terms. We open to the One who is All Openness and find with great delight and no small dose of irony that we have already been given that which we seek. The pearl of great price has been sewn into our pocket all along. We looked far and wide, ended up in some places that would make even the Prodigal Son cringe, and the whole time (from the very foundation of the world if you want to get technical about it) we’ve been in possession of the one thing necessary.
Journeys are a little scary, of course, especially if you are home-body like me. They entail a whole host of things we can’t predict, prepare for, or control. And that elicits fear—we like the safety and comfort of our routines and business as usual. We might not be all that happy—in fact we might be utterly miserable—but at least we know what to expect. Everything in its place and a place for everything. That’s why the angel tells the shepherds—"do not be afraid!” The angel knows that a last minute change of plans throws anyone into a tizzy. The angel knows the power and seduction of business as usual, and how hard it is to leave behind our nests of comfort and predictability and set off in search of something too wondrous to wrap our heads around. The angel knows that without a little pep talk, we find the promise of unshakeable joy, peace that passes all understanding, and eternal life not as a holiday destination in the distant future but here and now in the nitty-gritty, mud-and-straw reality of this very life, a little too exhausting. We would rather, with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, utter our, “I’d prefer not to,” roll over, and go back to bed.
We hear that the shepherds “went with haste”—they rushed to see with their own eyes this thing that had taken place. The shepherds weren’t content with taking someone else’s (even an Angelic someone else’s) word about this good news of great joy. They dropped what they were doing. They left their flocks. They set out. They made their pilgrimage into the unknown. And when they arrived at the manger they saw with their own eyes the reality of which the Angel spoke. They gazed into the depthless depths of the eyes of that child and realized with a lightning bolt of self-recognition who they were called to be.
One of the great hazards of the Christian life, of course, is that we get so familiarized to the stories we hear year after year that we miss the gift that is offered; we brush blithely past God’s outstretched hand inviting us to the table of divine welcome and spend our time tending our sheep. We trust that others can (perhaps even should) make the journey to the manger of the heart, but we content ourselves with second-hand reports, the menu and not the meal.
In T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, we find those haunting lines—“We had the experience but missed the meaning.” That is the challenge of Christmas. We show up, go through the motions, even enjoy ourselves, but the deep, transformative meaning of what we experience eludes us. Christmas Eve is reduced to aesthetic balm on the surface of lives, and we content ourselves with the half-measures of “quiet desperation” that pass these days for what it means to be human. Perhaps instead of asking someone, “Did you go to mass on Christmas Eve?” we should ask, “Are you making the Christmas journey? Have you set off in search of that tiny babe wrapped in cloth in the manger of our heart? Are you Christmassing?”
There is no shortage of folks like the Emperor Augustus who would like to register you and get your name on their mailing list. They won’t sell your information, they’ll respect your privacy. Just sign up and register, worship the Emperor and it’ll all be alright. These days, we might not have Emperors, but the promises of happiness, wealth, or a fetching figure, haven’t changed much. The shepherds remind us, however, that giving our names to the Emperor won’t satisfy the ache in our hearts, or our longing for depth and meaning. The shepherds remind us that our true names aren’t written in Augustus’ dead ledger, but in the Book of Life that is the very heart of God. The Feast of Christmas and the Mystery of the Incarnation remind us that when we make the search, when we set aside the fear that keeps us locked in our comfortable desolation, when we journey to the manger and see with our own eyes the astounding truth of who we are and why we are here, we realize that only in Him is our strength, and joy, and happiness, and peace to be found. Make haste to the manger. Go directly. Do not pass go. Love Himself waits patiently and kindly to be born in you, that you might discover yourself loved and forgiven just as you are and learn to be that love in the world. Merry Christmassing.