This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ -- Luke 2:12-14
Early one morning last week under a drizzle and a thick blanket of fog, I headed off to Radnor Lake for a moment of peace from the busiest Advent I have known at Thistle Farms and St. Augustine's. There, perched on a low branch beside the lake was a majestic bald eagle. I know they roost in the foothills of Tennessee, but seeing it watching me 20 feet away was still startling. It was a sign to me, as clear as if I had been a shepherd out watching my flocks at night, of good tidings from an angel of the Lord.
Christmas is the season of signs. The author of Luke's Gospel makes the signs of Christmas, such as stars, angels and dreams, the beginning of his Gospel with poetic mastery. Into the tradition of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, he sows with signs a theological blanket that cover us this holy season with grace, joy, lowliness, peace and universalism. The shepherds were given the sign that they would see a baby in a barn wrapped in a blanket. The magi were given the star as sign. Mary and Joseph were given dreams. Since the celebration of these signs were recognized by the church, this has been the season for all God's people with eyes to see, to find sings that point them to the Christ in this world, tucked away like a baby in a barn, to fill our days with hope and glad tidings.
Looking back at seasons past, Christmas has always come to me in signs. I remember in 2004 when we were building a big new house for Magdalene in a pretty rough neighborhood. I was driving to the construction sight and worrying if this home could ever be a sanctuary for the women in this neighborhood. Then, like swaddling clothes, I saw a red ribbon tied in a bow on a neighbor’s door. It was a sign of peace and hope in the midst of doubt and fear. I remember in 2001 driving home about 10:30 on Christmas Eve after a service. We were just getting ready to launch Thistle Farms, and I was preoccupied the whole of Advent. All the sudden driving I realized the roads were quiet just as I drove past the hospice at 19th and Charlotte. There was only one light on in the whole place. As I imagined the person keeping vigil on Christmas Eve as someone they loved was dying, the light all of the sudden looked as holy as a star over a manger. I remember just last year how it was the simple dancing of a candle flame that brought the spirit of hope and peace to me. As I watched it flicker on the altar, I thought about how a single candle can cut a path through the darkest night, and how I had gotten to be part of a community that had made about 50,000 candles through Thistle Farms over the past 10 years. It was like the multitude of the heavenly host filling my heart and singing.
You have signs that have carried you through this season like the most treasured gifts of Christmas. Chances are, your signs of Christmas rarely have been found in packages under your tree. It is not surprising that we all have signs, but they always come to us as surprises. This is the season to name them and recognize them as gifts of love that renew glad tidings that Emmanuel, God with us, was born. Your signs and my signs remind us that the eternal love of God is still visible in this temporal world and it can still turn stone to flesh in a heartbeat.
For me the eagle was a great sign of Christmas. The eagle is obvious because it looks like my totem, the hawk, dressed up like Santa. There are probably a million ways to see any sign. In the rainy foggy wilderness, the eagle had to hunt by getting in close, and it didn't look lofty on that dreary morning, it looked determined. The eagle preached that morning with a clarity that I can only strive for -- that its not always visions of mountain tops, lofty cathedrals, and sugar plums. Sometimes the holiest is lowly, determined and alone.
The sign of Christmas is the moment we remember that our hearts beat to hope. The sign of Christmas is a welling of gratitude that bears the gift of loving the whole world. The sign of Christmas is a community that can take this world as it is -- seeing the horrible in the glorious, the meaningless suffering in the midst of deep meaning, and the sorrow in the midst of joy. And so with grateful hearts beating to hope we never, ever stop searching for signs as diligently as a hunting eagle on a foggy morning, that bring us glad tidings of peace on earth and goodwill to all people.