On Monday, I received the following from a Presbyterian ministerial intern in Indiana:
(It bears noting that I am neither trained, certified, nor practicing as a spiritual director, although I am considering a move into that area of ministry for the future. I am a fellow pastor plodding along through the swamp of ministry, making it up as I go along. Nevertheless, I am flattered that my colleague thinks of me in this capacity. Perhaps it was a providential misnomer for me to file away for discernment purposes?)
So as a spiritual director I could use some advice. Looking at preaching Christmas Day, what should be a very happy holy day, I feel so drained. Between the election, the evil in Aleppo, Russian aggression and expansion, hate crimes, etc. this year seems so dark and I find myself wondering if a baby in a manger was enough, was God made flesh enough or should he have come as conquerer? Where is the good news that God will come again, and how can God reconcile all those innocent who will suffer in this world how can God really bring justice to all this that satisfies those persecuted? Any thoughts on how to pray or seek God’s wisdom or hope in Christmas Day? Hopefully this isn’t heresy.
Here is my response:
Been thinking about this one since yesterday. If it’s heresy, then you’d better save me a seat in hell… preferably one by the bar, where we can hear the good bands.
The gospel says Christ was born in a stable. Have you ever smelled a stable? It ain’t pretty.
If Christmas can’t be celebrated in the midst of shit, then it shouldn’t be celebrated at all. If the mystery of the Incarnation doesn’t matter in the midst of a world that has gone to shit, then it doesn’t matter.
St. Augustine of Hippo was big on the idea that the Fall was the ruining of a perfect paradise. But I much prefer the earlier interpretation of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who saw Eden as the raw material from which God would shape the future, in cooperation with us. According to Genesis, humanity is basically just mud that was slopped together until God breathed into (“in-spired”) it with the breath of life.
When the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary the Theotokos at the Annunciation, she gave her whole human nature to the Christ: and not just hers, but all of human history, glory and gore alike. (This, by the way, is why I can’t sign on with the Roman doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary… what Christ did not become, he did not redeem.)
Divinity came screaming into the world like an animal, in a stable that smelled like shit, as the unexpected pregnancy of a scandalized, working class, unwed, teenage-mom refugee in a backwater hick-town of a riotous occupied country.
Because of that, I can never make it through this line of the Christmas hymn by Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks without choking up:
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Was that enough? No, of course not.
That’s why the baby had grow up, get lost in Jerusalem at his Bar Mitzvah and mouth off to his parents, almost get thrown off a cliff by his home synagogue after his first sermon for preaching inclusion of the goyim, build an underground movement of hookers and thugs, undermine traditional religious values and the authority of the political establishment, and ultimately be executed as a terrorist.
He simultaneously exposed and endured the violence inherent in the system. If they realized what he was really trying to do, they would have crucified him twice.
And after all that, he committed the most revolutionary act of all by tearing open the gates of hell and making death itself come unraveled.
After the Resurrection, God stood face-to-face with faithless disciples and breathed on them once again, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It was Genesis all over again, a new creation. “Behold, I am making all things new.”
These Apostles were then sent out into the world, where they passed that Spirit on by laying their hands on the heads of bishops, who in turn passed her on, by the power of touch again, to priests, who stretched out their hands to call that same Spirit upon water, bread, and wine in order to baptize and feed people with the Body and Blood of Christ, making them “partakers of the divine nature,” as St. Peter wrote. And these Christians were then blessed and sent out to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all nations.
And so it went on, for two thousand years, until you came along. The Holy water hit your head, God’s Blood started flowing in your veins, and your cells began to metabolize the Body of Christ. But the irony is that he is the one who is digesting you.
So then, on Christmas morning, bombs will be falling on Aleppo, Russia will be beginning military maneuvers on the Polish border, and Klansmen will be screaming, “Heil Trump!” And Christ will step out of the stable and into the pulpit, and she will open her mouth and say… ?
Answering that final question, my interlocutor replied:
“Be not afraid.”
[All statements have been shared with the permission of the author.]