Christmas Eve 2013
Peter Steinke, the religious consultant, tells about going to a Sunday evening service at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. There are about five hundred people who attend the Episcopalian service of Compline. A large number of them are teenagers and young adults. Peter said, “At first glance, you think they’re coming because it’s a cheap date; but something else is going on.”
The night he was there, he sat next to a young woman in her late twenties. She had streaks of orange in her hair and one pierced ear with a pendant dangling down from it. At one point, Peter was sitting while everybody else stood up, so she whispered, “We stand for the Apostles’ Creed.” He thanked her and stood, while she stared silently into the dark shadows.
As the service concluded, he asked, “Do you come often to this service?” “Yes,” she replied, “I come as often as I can.” They chatted as they moved toward the door. Then she paused, looked at him, and blurted, “I don’t give two bits about religion. Weird, I guess.” Peter said, “So why do you come?” And she said, “I’m looking for something more in my life.” She was looking for some measure of mystery, something bigger than herself.
I reflect on that tonight. As we hear the Christmas story, I cannot imagine being interrupted by angels. If I were a shepherd, watching over the flock and scanning the dark shadows for wolves, I can’t imagine an army of angels suddenly appearing to shout and sing. A birth announcement is exciting when it comes, especially the birth of the Child who will rescue us somehow, some day.
But two small details make me ponder Christmas as something more than a child’s birth.
First, whatever the shepherds saw and heard terrified them. In the old English version of the story, they were “sore afraid.” There is a dotted line between terror and joy, it seems. When we encounter the living God, or one of God’s angels, we are jolted out of complacency, shaken out of boredom. We don’t know what to think. . . . We want to flee, we want to stay.
That is what can happen in a true-blue spiritual experience. Like my mother, describing the mysterious moment as a child when she stumbled upon her grandmother, praying for her by name. “She was aglow in the moonlight as she communed with the Lord,” Mom says. She adds, “I had no right to be there, but I was physically too stunned to leave.”
Or Loula, our tour guide across the country of Greece. As we traversed the shore by bus, we pointed across the misty bay to Mount Athos, considered the Holy Mountain of the Greek Orthodox Church. What happens there? Loula went pale. “I have known pilgrims who go to Mount Athos. They come back changed because they have seen God.”
Can you recall such a moment? A moment when you were surprised and changed by God? Take a moment to reflect and remember. … My moment came two weeks ago. I stepped outside of my house. The snow crunched under my feet, a light blue moon dominated the sky. It hit me: what a beautiful world that God has created! And Christmas tells us, God loves it – loves us all. The Mystery and the message stunned me.
The Mystery in Christmas is the same Mystery at the heart of all things. In the words of the poet Rumi, it is a “fierce courtesy.” It is a holiness that welcomes and frightens us in the same moment. Or in the words of a Christian hymn, “it is grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” The non-religious shepherds taste it. They fear it – and they want it.
Second, whatever the shepherds saw and heard pushed them into further exploration. Immediately, the storyteller says they went to see this for themselves. Immediately they went. The story doesn’t say anything about all their sheep. The story does not say that they woke up the sheep, rounded up the sheep, or herded the sheep into town. No, nothing at all is said of the sheep. It’s enough to make me think that most of those shepherds left the sheep behind, perhaps with a junior shepherd, while the rest of them went with great haste to see this great thing.
Like that crazy story Jesus tells, of the shepherd who left behind the flock in the wilderness while he went searching for the one lost sheep. That’s risky behavior, in a sense, risky love to go after the one who remains out of sight. Or in this case, it is risky curiosity to leave the settled flock and search for the Christ child.
If you are feeling a hunger to make Christmas real once again, or want somehow to keep Christmas throughout the year, let me speak to that curiosity. It is a holy gift to want to go deeper, to dig beneath the organizational structures and the religious claptrap, and to experience the heart of it all. If you are longing for the Real Thing, and not merely the plastic and tinsel, then set about your search, and do not settle until you see the face of God.
I think of some medieval Christmas paintings that I have seen, particularly of Mary and her infant child. Mary has the face of a young, innocent woman. The baby Jesus, however, has the face of an older, wiser God. The Child who is born among us is timeless. The Eternal One is found among a family and its animals. The miracle is not that this happens, but that we see it. For the moment, the blinders fall from our eyes and we discover the Eternal One is right here.
Maybe it’s a quick flash or a brief revelation. Maybe it’s a fearful moment when our illusions of isolation and sufficiency are punctured. Maybe it is the lingering sense that we really are not alone, that God-is-with-us, that beneath every moment there is a holy Presence, an unfathomable Mystery where God takes on flesh. We can have the assurance that life does not rise or fall entirely on our own efforts, but on the fearsome kindness at the center of all things.
That’s my Christmas prayer for you: to be interrupted by Something greater than yourself, to know in your bones that we have been visited by the God who has then never left us alone. I pray for you to be consumed by the Light and Life of Jesus, to live in the great certainty that the whole world is loved, and to know that your life continues in the presence of angels.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Peter L. Steinke, A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope (Washington, DC: Alban Institute, 2010) 13.