Are We Amazed at Christmas?

December 24, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 62:6-12; Luke 2:1-10

If I ever get the chance to time travel back to the Christmas story, I know where I’d want to go. I’d apparate right into the fields where the shepherds are keeping watch over their flocks by night. I’d want to be there when the angels come gliding into view.

Do they appear first as a glowing speck in the distant sky, looking more like a wandering star than a heavenly host? Or do they suddenly pop into view overhead with a loud crash of some cosmic composition written just for the occasion?

It’s the shepherds’ reaction I’d want to witness. They’re hard-working, everyday people, minding their own business, tending the sheep, oblivious to the wonder unfolding nearby. That describes many of us. We go about our daily lives, working, studying, cooking, cleaning, eating, sleeping, politicking, complaining, as if there were nothing astonishing about life.

When the angels appear, those innocent shepherds are understandably overwhelmed. The gospel tells us they’re “filled with fear.” Or, in the old King James Version, “sore afraid.” Fear like that is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it indicates a capacity for amazement. It shows you know something has happened that is larger than you can fully comprehend.

We tend to think of fear as causing concern for personal safety. The shepherds aren’t worried the angels will hurt them – after all, they’re bringing “good news of great joy!” No, the shepherds are terrified because for a moment the veil between earth and heaven has been pulled back and they’ve glimpsed mysteries so deep that fear – as in awe ­– is the most natural reaction.

That’s why I’d like to be there that night, to be with the shepherds as their eyes open to the surprise in store for them – and maybe my eyes would open like that, as well.

What will it take for us to see the wonder of life itself all around us? Christmas is the sweet narrative of a baby born long ago, but it’s also the story of how we – how you and I – lift a few of the layers under which we typically live to allow a little amazement to break through.

At our recent neighborhood holiday gathering a friend told me about the dinner party she had hosted a week earlier. Our neighbor is Jewish, although she attends a Unitarian church. Many years ago she’d been invited to a family’s Polish Roman Catholic Christmas party, and she ended up going every year for 15 Christmases, until she moved away.

She loved so much what happened each year among those Polish Catholics that she decided to do the same party for her friends. Same kielbasa and kapusta. Same décor. Same everything.

Our neighbor’s an artist and has eclectic, fascinating people in her life. So when this Jewish Unitarian threw a Polish Catholic Christmas party, they all came. It was quite an event. Young artists showed up. Eccentric creative types showed up, young and old. Gay and straight couples. Trans folk. It was a racially-mixed crowd, to say nothing of religion. Some were agnostic. Some atheist. Some practicing Buddhists, a few Jews and Christians.

This was the second year of the party, she told me, and they all came back. Something drew them there. The heart of the gathering – just like at those Polish Roman Catholic dinners – was the telling of the Christmas story. In that life-affirming group, with warmth and welcome and laughter flowing freely, the story came alive in a way that opened them to the wonder of love…the wonder of a love that jumps every barrier and finds its way into every darkened corner and works its way through every terrible circumstance. The kind of love that heals and gives hope and rekindles the human spirit.

They were amazed by it, and in their amazement they caught a peek at the same mystery that astonished the shepherds that night. A holiness not bound by any single religion, a sacred truth not confined to any particular spiritual practice.

Like the shepherds, the guests at our neighbor’s dinner party thirsted for more in life than what meets the eye. That’s why they came back. They had tasted the deep joy of incarnational love that allowed them to see beyond the mundane into mysteries too great to understand. Sometimes those mysteries move us to worshipful reverence. Sometimes they move us to action. Sometimes we burst into song, like the angels do that night.

And sometimes, as when Mary looks into the eyes of her newborn child, we can only sit in silence, and ponder these things in our hearts.

Are we amazed at Christmas? Are we astonished at the essence of this story – that the Creator of the universe has chosen to be clothed in tiny human flesh? Can we let the enigma of incarnation seep into our souls and slowly open us?

Some characters in the Christmas story live in the realm of amazement, of possibility and promise. The shepherds inhabit that space. So do the wise men, in their quixotic star-led journey.

Herod and his minions, on the other hand, dwell in a land of deep darkness, in a world of control and privilege, of anxiety and threat. Christmas invites us to leave that land and make our home in a place where light shines and righteousness abounds, where the yoke of oppression breaks and the boots of tramping warriors burn as fuel for the fire.

I worry our culture has lost the capacity for amazement, that we’ve shorted ourselves when it comes to wonder. Have we become too jaded, too cynical, too sure of ourselves, to allow the power of this story to wash over us, and transport us, and transform us?

By our insistence on being in charge and having all the answers, we choke off our capacity to relish mysteries beyond our comprehension. Who can explain what a parent feels for their child? Who can declare exactly what they mean when they say, “I love you.” Who can account for the hope that wells up in our hearts, even in the face of odds stacked against us?

The purpose of Christmas is not to make a narrow religious point. There’s much more happening than that in Bethlehem when the shepherds show up to “see this thing that has taken place.” When they lay eyes on the child they’re introduced to a love that crosses borders and takes risks, a love that refuses to be silent and will not rest until justice is done, a love that insists on including everyone in the promise of the fullness of life.

After their manger visit, the shepherds return home, telling those they meet along the way about what they had seen. And all who hear it are “amazed” at what they tell them.

In her poem Mysteries, Yes, Mary Oliver sounds as if she could have been there that night.

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

On this night of nights I wish we could keep company with the shepherds. There’s something about their honest, uncomplicated open-hearted, willing experience of Christmas that we need. They don’t resist the wonder.  They don’t refuse amazement.

The heavenly chorus unlocks their imagination, and they discover a love that changes them forever.

Let’s go stand with them on that hillside and hurry with them to see the child – and maybe the love that bursts into the world that night will be born anew in our hearts.

Thanks be to God – and Merry Christmas!

Amen.

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