Christmas Eve homily, 2012
We know the story so well by now that it is easy to breeze past its power.
The pregnant young woman, her older husband, a donkey, a long journey late in pregnancy. A full inn, a crowded stable, a birth cry, barnyard creatures looking on, a star overhead, angels appearing to shepherds in their fields. Distant Magi follow the star to arrive and pay tribute to the birth.
The thrill and the terror of the story are woven fine: firstborn male children are to be killed, this family has no means and few choices, and a star hanging over your newborn child can only be presumed to be a liability if you plan to keep his existence a secret. But there is the awe and wonder too: the promise of new life, a king who will send the powers of this world running, a liberator and a hope for peace greater than any we have understood before. There is a choice in the story, a choice every time we hear the story. Will we be silenced by the fear or have the courage to look further into the hope?
Hope certainly wins in the sentimental observances of Christmas: celebrations of love and generosity and kindness in a harsh and despairing world. For many of us, this is the season of re-visiting the old classics and having our heartstrings touched again, enjoying the cathartic feeling of the tears rolling down our cheeks as we identify with the George Baileys and the Bob Cratchits and look for the ways that the honest, good people can indeed win the day. It’s a place of yearning and hopefulness we love to visit in these weeks, but have a hard time holding onto once the ornaments have been put away and the lights are down. Why is that?
Many years ago, I remember seeing a slogan on a T-shirt that made me laugh out loud. “Gravity” it said “It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.”
Yes, it appealed to my admittedly nerdy sensibilities. But it also speaks to something we humans are awfully good at in general: turning away from the truths we know are operating always, treating them as if they are optional, simply a matter of preference or opinion.
The love born anew in the nativity is one of those eternal truths.
It is with us all the time, like gravity, and we ignore it at our peril.
But unlike our reflex to move out from under falling bricks, obeying the law of gravity, the consequences of scoffing the law of love aren’t always as immediately apparent.
The invitation of the Christmas Story, of all those sentimental films, the invitation of our hearts that are open to wonder and to sadness in a special way in these dark nights, is to treat the insane possibility of divine love — love that is born among us and lives within us and could save the world — not just as a good idea we cozy up with on a lazy night in December, but as a real, active truth.
A law worthy of our respect, all the time.
We can make it just a sentimental thing, but you know and I know that if you’ve ever gazed with eyes of love upon another being, there is more than sentiment at work.
Parents, think of that moment you first held your child in your arms: the heartbreaking beauty of this young being, the panicked feeling of being entrusted with another’s life, the chasm of the unknown future ahead of you, the blessing of the gift of a bond you could not account for and would spend the rest of your life vainly trying to comprehend.
Lovers, too, feel this, whatever may happen to the relationship down the line: the moment of realizing another’s beauty, of fully appreciating their depth, their struggles, their quirks and realizing you want your life to be bound up with theirs wherever that journey may lead.
This is the kind of love that breaks through what we thought we knew of the world, the illusion of our control and autonomy, and sets us on the course of deepening connection, plops us right into the lap of the divine, takes our breath away with its power and asks us to live into its wisdom.
It has nothing to do with the size of the diamond you bought or at what age your child got a cell phone.
It only asks you: will you have the courage to follow me where I take you?
Whatever the status of your current relationships, if you have ever known the kind of love that shone through the eyes of Mary as she gazed upon the infant Jesus, if you have ever felt that kind of gaze upon you as the child of your parents, as a lover realized you were the one, that is the love that brings us great tidings of joy for all people.
It is the fierce, terrifying and world-turning love born into this world on Christmas, waiting to be made real.
Imagine what it would mean for our world if each of us felt and knew that loving gaze was upon us all the time, calling us home, making us whole, giving us hope.
What if it was the source of our courage to do the hard work of making peace and living justice?
Cornel West has famously said that justice is what love looks like in public.
What if that love was indeed not just a good idea for you to carry home with your candles tonight, but a law we could live all year?
Imagine that loving gaze upon you not from a human source,
but from an infinite source of love beyond all knowing.
Imagine feasting your own eyes
on the loveable-ness of each and every one you encounter
and when you come up against the limitations of your own heart,
simply rest in the knowledge that the same loving gaze
falls on us all.
The truth of “the living splendor woven of love by wisdom, with power”*?
Let our hearts rest in that heaven this day and open ever more to its saving truth.
Love. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.
*from Father Giovanni Giacondo, letter to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi, Christmas 1513