December 25, 2017
I often have this experience when I fly and look the earth from 28000 feet. It is very flattering. You are the lord of all you survey. You can take in huge cities in at a glance, snow-capped mountains seem like bumps, mighty rivers like tiny ribbons, huge container ships look like silver white dots in the ocean. I have to keep reminding myself, that it is an illusion. Modern technology has overcome the limits of my body for a short time. But if I were suddenly dropped into the middle of a large city, on the ground, I would be instantly overwhelmed by the noise of the traffic. I would be dwarfed by the buildings, be lost in the crowd. In short, in the aircraft I may think I am an angel spirit. But on the earth, because I have a body that weighs me down, a body that can be tired, a body that must be fed and clothed, a body that can be hurt or killed, my hubris in the plane quickly changes to apprehension, anxiety etc. With this in mind, I would like to then take a look at the Gospel tonight because it has a strange reversal.
A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world was to be enrolled.
And our gospel says Joseph went up from Galilee to Judea to the city of Bethlehem to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed who was with child. Who inhabits the 30000 foot space, it is a man – Caesar Augustus. He issues a decree from the stratosphere. He does not have to leave his palace. His minions do his bidding. And who is on the ground? It is God limited by a body. The decree affects him physically. They are not rich people. They cannot buy exemptions. They must move at the most inconvenient and difficult time for Mary and the baby. There is no moving service to pack their things up, no angels bearing them up on a flying carpet. Joseph, Mary and the baby, like every poor person just have to deal with the disruption that a rich and powerful man causes. They have pack, they have to travel, they have to look for a room and are unable to get one. All the anxieties that attend our human condition – God knows. He who should be at 30000 feet is on the ground like one of us. Man who is dust and ashes, in his pride and power is at 30000 feet moving God aorund. God who is higher than the highest heavens, has descended to ground zero. This says something about who we are and who God is.
It is the rare human being who does not harbor secret illusions of personal grandeur. Pride and vanity are second nature to us. None of us like to be brought face to face with our sin, our poverty. We run from this as from a house on fire. We spend a lifetime covering up this nakedness in fear and shame, fearful that our cover might be blown at any moment. Even when it comes to spirituality, how many of us secretly seek the path of power and success and freedom from suffering by doing things for God in the hope of a reward. We are ground zero but are always trying to escape it. Christ Jesus comes to ground zero to tell us that it is okay to be there. We do not have fly to the heavens. God will meet us in our most fundamental state of poverty.
The angels who appeared to the shepherds gave them a sign. You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. In reflecting on this, I was struck by the sign. The angel did not say – you will find a heavenly light shining around the infant as you do in all your Christmas cards, where the stable is warm and toasty and clean and the animals do not emit animal odor. Nor did the angel say, now if you peer past the infant, you will see hidden around him mighty angels guarding him and this will be your sign. The sign is not of power and glory. It is of poverty. And this poverty is permanent for Jesus. It is not an act He puts on and then takes off at the end of the play. He is poor. He hobnobs with the poor and the sinners. He dies desolate on the Cross, he has to be buried in the tomb of another man.
His great presence among us even today is just plain bread, how much simpler and poorer can you get than the lowly Eucharistic bread. My brothers and sisters consider the poverty and humility of God. This is who God is. This is the last word from the Father, there is no other Word now – it is that God is poor and humble because God wants to be with us. He wants us that badly. There is no powerful giant lurking in the background while the infant is just the front. There is just the infant. The choice is ours – either we scoff, jeer, at the infant and go look for another God who seems to have it together or we believe. And if we believe then the humility of God must transform our own pride and vanity.