In the book, Lives of the Saints, it says that Christ’s life is gospel reduced to practice. Christmas is the beginning of that Gospel in practice, and the manger is Christ’s first pulpit. From that pulpit he preaches that there is healing in all the places of poverty, humiliation, and suffering. He preaches it with such grace and mystery that it still dances in our heads over two thousand years later. The story is the quintessential sermon that when love comes among us, it suffers with us, fills our hearts with treasures, and makes every child holy. It is the only sermon that the Prince of Peace could have preached. It was the only sermon for the preacher who walked and talked about seeing the glorious raiment of the lilies of the field. It was the sermon for the man who, in the midst of temple power and riches, preached about the generosity of the widow’s mite. When he began preaching as a man in the Sermon on the Mount, he said we had to preach love by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the prisoners, tending to the sick, comforting the sorrowful, and burying the dead. St. John Chrysostom says Jesus didn’t come to shake the world in his majesty like on Sinai but came so quietly no one knew it.
It is the perfect beginning of the story of Love unfolding, but the story seems precarious to me. It unfolds through dreams to young men, an annunciation to a young woman alone in the night, and a passing thought by an overworked innkeeper for shelter. It seems the unfolding of the incarnation of love hangs by slender threads woven into a story.
This has been a busy advent in this community. It has flown by as the demands of this world called louder than the call to watch and wait. Our world has all but reduced the season to four candles. I have witnessed friends bury parents, show signs of stress, and cry for help. It’s not new; the path of business has been with us since we walked out of Eden and started clearing creation. I have been thinking during these busy and stressful times that the slender threads of this gospel story are the only paths by which the Holy Spirit could move in our lives. It has to catch us in dreams and unexpected thoughts to gain any ground on our hearts. Maybe the roots of the story are not so precarious or flimsy.
When we are busy, we are prisms refracting light into dazzling colors and bouncing it in a million ways. This season can make you think your job is to spin around as fast as you can to reflect what others need to see. When we are busy, we are malleable pieces of tender flesh stretched tight to protect our hearts from breaking. This season can make you think your job is to take care of everyone else so no one is hurt. When we are busy, we are time clicking off words and deeds in the present without a clue to eternity. Into this busyness the Holy Spirit came. It came straight into the timeless heart of a prism like pure light. If it had come any other way, Mary, Joseph, or any of us would have refracted such light and not treasured it in our hearts. It came in such an eternal and intimate way that it linked humanity to God forever. Such purity could only come in dreams and whispered thoughts. It had to come through an angel that could find a way to whisper the name Emmanuel into the hearts of all humanity.
This summer I spoke at the Tennessee Labor management gathering for people around the state. I said yes only because I thought it would be a good place to talk about Thistle Farms and the value of work. A woman came from east Tennessee and heard me tell the story of Magdalene. She went to the Thistle Farms table after the breakfast and bought some things and sent them to her 23-year-old sister serving time in jail. Her sister had two children who were 9 and 7 and had lost everything from her time on the streets. In jail she read about Magdalene and found the number to St. Augustine’s. She called Inge who was kind and sent her on to Jason, who takes initial calls. When Jason talked to her, he told her how hard it is to find space. When she was released from jail, a place happened to open up, and she told me on Saturday the reason I went to that breakfast in August was because she offered a prayer in her cell. We were the slender threads that wove the story of her new birth. To hear her tell it-- it is a strong and powerful sermon that preaches love and God’s presence all the way through.
The Christmas story is a fanciful and wondrous tale, and while fragile, it is Gospel. It is the beginning of the sermon that love works in mysterious ways to get light to reach into our busy and cynical hearts. It is maybe more powerful in that the whole thing depends on us listening to our dreams, honoring our passing thoughts of compassion and generosity, and tending to those who need us. I will take it this season; I will take the truth that pure unbridled love finds its way into the heart of humanity and into our hearts and births love. I will take it that in this story we learn the first lesson of the Gospel. Love shines beyond social norms, political realities, and busy people. It is Jesus’ first sermon to us. It preaches for us to tend our thoughts and cherish our dreams and love the world.