December 25, 2016
Christmas Midnight Mass
The angel said to the shepherds ‘Do not be afraid … a savior has been born for you…. this will be a sign for you, you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ In a single breath, they are told not to be afraid, that a savior was born and that the infant was the sign of the savior. It seems to me the three things are spoken of in a single breath because they are connected. If the angel appeared with the power and glory of an angel and announced the advent of a savior, this is not good news for poor and powerless shepherds. The Saviors they knew, usually arrived with their powerful armies and rolled over the land, flattening the poor in their wake. Like the poor everywhere, the shepherds were not enthused about saviors because the poor were never saved. They just exchanged one oppressor for another. This is why the angel in one breath will speak of the savior and most importantly the sign – an infant.
Now what I find interesting in this account is that the shepherds were not scandalized by the sign – an infant. Told to look into the engine room of an almost infinite universe, to gaze on that which moves the sun and all the stars, they hurry off to see an infant in a manger without hesitation and without the slightest hint of derision. You find them soon glorifying God at the manger with Mary and Joseph. This is totally counter intuitive to me. I would expect the poor, the powerless to want power with a big P, the more power, the more secure they, the powerless would feel. Yet just the opposite happens. I say I find it interesting because I have been ruminating on what I have noticed with our society and our world at large.
As you know, President elect Trump appointed former Marine General James Mattis to be Defense Secretary. He is a highly respected and revered leader. He is reputed to be learned man, a bachelor, he is known as a warrior monk. Being a warrior, he knows what wars are like from the inside and does not take them lightly when he commits his troops to them. What was interesting was to see the media obsessing about his appellation ‘Mad dog’ Mattis. I suppose there is something about ‘mad dog’ that stirs the blood and stiffens the spines of the arm chair warriors. Mad dog –uncontrolled fury, everything General James Mattis is not. But it is evocative. We feel safe all of a sudden. We have to admit that power reassures. We have no time for the helpless and the losers. Power we understand. We pay lip service to weakness when we want to appear spiritual. But catch your instincts, watch your thoughts when under stress, watch the undertow and see what discloses itself. What predominates then? Is it surrender? Is it patience and long suffering? Is it deferring to others? No, it is usually getting back at someone, one-upmanship, a refusal to forgive, not resting till we have got even. We gaze into the engine room of the universe always to catch a glimpse of our Presiding Deity –Power. An infant, a helpless infant at the heart of the engine room? Like those at the Areopagus, we say ‘we will hear you again about this when we have nothing better to do’? or as they said in New York when I lived there ‘that and a buck will get you on the subway’
To my shame, the poor shepherds get it and I don’t. God reveals the engine room of the universe. At both ends of the spectrum. At His birth Jesus was helpless and powerless. At His death He was totally powerless, abandoned even by the Father, enveloped in darkness. The Father is telling us – this is the engine room, this is what moves the sun and the other stars. We yell back ‘power, give us someone who is impressive, give us power’ The Father says this is what power looks like when it is emptied out into love. Can you accept it without scoffing? Can you go beyond your own mundane truth, your own expectations and accept it just the way I have revealed it?
My brothers and sisters, today a savior has been born for us, an infant. We can look past Him searching for something else or someone else. And we will continue to be restless and unhappy. Like the shepherds, we must look for Him where He is to be found. For this to happen, we must convert – not just our minds but our hearts, our imaginations, our sensibilities – taking God’s revelation as our measure and not our own assumptions and expectations. Then like the shepherds we too will glorify the Lord – for that which we confess today, we will, by God’s grace, perceive tomorrow.