Christmas – God blesses the dirt

Why do we celebrate Christmas? What is the reason we pull all the stops to mark this annual tradition in our lives?

As is the case when defining something, we can start by saying what it isn’t. So, Christmas is not about a little baby Jesus being born. That already happened two thousand years ago. The historical fact of Jesus’ birth is not why we bring so much energy, passion and personal sacrifice to making this happen today!

We do Christmas not because we are history buffs on a mission to generate public enthusiasm about a long- ago event no matter how enthusiastic we are about it. The church is not a history club. Christmas is not just about memory – because none of us were around two thousand years ago. Christmas is about reality, today.

We celebrate Christmas to welcome Jesus Christ again into the life of this world. The church is about what matters today. Because of that first Christmas, Christ is forever being born into the human heart. And, we do have to make room for this ongoing event, because right now there is no “room in the inn” for such a mystery; our lives are cluttered by distraction, compulsion, self-centeredness and selfishness. If anything, Christmastime in the public sphere exposes this narcissism of our collective soul.

We are human, after all. And we see things pretty much in their physicality, materiality. We have trouble, naturally, seeing the light shining through the ordinariness of material life. Francis of Assisi, who popularized the celebration of Christmas beginning in the 13th century, said that “every tree should be decorated with lights to show that it’s filled with light anyway.”[1]

A couple centuries later, Martin Luther dragged a pine tree into his house and placed lighted candles on its boughs. He told his children that he looked up at the starry sky whilst walking through the pine forest near their Wittenberg home. The sight was so beautiful that he wanted candles on the tree to remind them of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth. To be entwined in the stuff of earth.

Thus, we have tangible reminders in our Christmas traditions today – tangible reminders, indeed, in the sacraments but also in everything – to remind us of this incredible move of God to be distant no longer, cut off, and separated from earthly existence no more. But, from that moment onward, God would be intimately invested and incorporated, literally, into every human body, heart and mind. Indeed, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”[2]

And so, God continues to become flesh and live among us. Christmas in 2017 as it was last year and will be next year, again, is about waiting, watching for and celebrating God’s forever decision to say “yes” to the material world. To watch for how the Spirit of the living God is being manifested in our lives and in our world today. Through, in, around each of us. God said “yes” to physicality.

We need this celebration every year because we are still preparing to understand and enter this great mystery of our lives with each passing day. In this preparation, we need to celebrate not only Christmas on December 25, not only Christmas-in-July, but Christmas every day of every year!

Christmas announces that it is good to be human. It is good to be on earth. Why? Well, because God became human in Jesus Christ. God came to earth. I hear echoes in the creation story from Genesis; after each thing was created God said it was good.[3] The earth and the waters, the plants and vegetation, the sun and stars, sea monsters, every living creature and every winged bird, wild animals, cattle of every kind and everything that creeps upon the ground. “It was good!” Not once, but repeatedly, to emphasize the point. It is good! It is good! It is good!

Whenever we can see in the material world – humans, trees, sky, water, dirt, animals – the Spirit and presence of Christ – whenever that happens, we are celebrating Christmas. God blesses the dirt on earth, from which we all came and to which we all will return.

It is already so. And to a large extent, it is a matter of perspective. When the ordinary becomes extraordinary. When we recognize the good in that which is broken or imperfect. It is a matter of vision.

When you are invited to a family dinner gathering, the food always tastes better, doesn’t it? How is it that Grandma’s pumpkin pie – made straight from the recipe off the label on the canned pumpkin – tastes better than any other? And when you go home and use the same product and follow the same recipe, it’s not quite the same. The ordinary is made extraordinary because of a frame of mind which has somehow shifted into an attitude of thanksgiving, gratitude and appreciation in a certain context.

The ordinary is extraordinary with a change of mind, which is the true meaning of repentance[4]. When we begin to see the holy in the simple. When the basic stuff of life – including the blemishes, the brokenness, the weakness – is imbued with a vision of holiness. God blesses the dirt.

When a common teenage couple gives birth to a baby in the back shed of some inn in a non-descript rural town, surrounded by the lowly shepherds and visited by strangers from the East. God blesses the dirt.

When all of what makes us human – including our doubts, our failures, our misdeeds, our egos – is unconditionally loved and embraced and held in compassion and forgiveness. God blesses the dirt.

When our caring and loving moves beyond the self and ‘our own’ to include foreigners, animals, trees and those who go hungry this day. God blesses the dirt.

Because it is good to be human. It is good to be on earth. Today.

Merry Christmas!

[1] Cited in Richard Rohr, “An Advent Meditation” (Unedited transcript, Center for Action and Contemplation, 2017).

[2] John 1:14

[3] Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25,31

[4] translated from the Greek word, metanoia, literally meaning “change of mind”, to turn around and face a new direction

Grace precedes

Everyone was excited, but not sure what it was all about. In the centre of the room was a big box of balloons that had not been blown up yet.

The team leader asked each person to pick a balloon, blow it up and write their name on it. About 30 team members were able to get their name on a balloon without it popping. Those 30 were asked to leave their balloons and exit the room. They were told they had qualified for the second round.

Five minutes later the leader brought the team back into the room and announced that their next challenge was to find the balloon they had left behind with their name on it, among the hundreds of other balloons scattered in the large cafeteria. She warned them however to be very careful and not to pop any of the balloons. If they did, they would be disqualified.

While being very careful, but also trying to go as quickly as they could, each team member looked for the balloon with their name. After 15 minutes not one single person was able to find their balloon. 

They were not able to do it, because they were stuck looking only after their own interests as individuals. They couldn’t think collectively. They presumed they needed to do it all on their own, according to their interpretation of the rules of ‘the game’.

To me, the first two rounds of this game can be seen as a snap shot of the values of our culture and society. After all, there are ‘rules’ in our society. There are accepted ways of behaviour. There are the social norms and laws that bring at least a sense of order to our lives. One such norm, is the belief that we have to make it all on our own in this world.

We tell ourselves that competition and individualism are healthy and good, especially in the youth of our lives.

I grew up competing with my twin brother, David. Throughout our lives whether we were playing games, musical instruments and sports, doing our homework, achieving success at school, writing exams, making life choices — underlying our relationship was this competition. Always comparing and contrasting. While motivating and stimulating, ultimately it has become not always helpful, even a burden — as a foundation for our relationship.

When considering the doctrine of grace, based in the biblical witness of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we often skim over and even neglect the original social context of Paul’s writing. We get excited debating the doctrine of Justification by Grace posited here — especially as Lutherans. Yet to do so without first examining what was going on in the early Christian community, we can miss its original meaning:

At the time of writing Galatians (2:15-21), Paul and Peter were in a bit of a conflict. They represented two, competing views of how the mission of Jesus should be carried out.

For Peter, the disciple chosen by Jesus to be “the rock” upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18), he was influenced by some Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem who insisted that true converts to Christianity should first follow all the rules of the Jewish tradition — since the first disciples and Jesus himself were Jews.

When Paul and Peter met in a town called Antioch in those early decades of the first century, they confronted each other on this point. Because, for Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was on the line. He argued that Gentiles, who weren’t Jews, didn’t have first to be Jewish before becoming a follower of Jesus. If Christianity followed Peter’s bent, Gentiles could barely attain the status of second class citizens.

Later, Paul won the argument. Paul was a multi-culturalist far ahead of his time. Paul saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the long arc of God’s love and God’s inclusion, an arc bent toward making Gentiles full members of the family without preconditions. (1) Inclusion. Unconditional love. These words are signposts for the theology of grace, in Paul’s view, reflecting the way Jesus related to others.

If we begin with faith and grace, we can inhabit our traditions and rules more lightly. But it starts with God’s grace, for all people.

When I was in Clinical Pastoral Training at the Ottawa Hospital as part of my preparation for ordained ministry back in my seminary days, I was reminded of the truth of Christ’s presence and grace, which precedes mine.

I was advised, before entering the room of a patient, to stop for a moment. And bring to mind and heart this truth: Jesus is already in the room before I enter it. Jesus is already there, waiting for me. I do not bring Jesus with my charisma, eloquent words, magnetic personality, comforting presence. All these things may help, and may be true to some extent! 

But I don’t create Jesus. Jesus creates me. The patient I visit, along with me, are already in the presence of Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes in his letter (2:20). Grace precedes everything I am and do.

When Jesus accepts the woman’s extravagant and outrageous offering of foot-washing with the gifts she has been given (her hair, her love, her touch, her tears), he is being inclusive and loving unconditionally. 

Jesus is not making the woman first follow a bunch of religious rules or follow accepted social norms before letting her come near and even touch him. (Luke 7:36 -8:3) Jesus is not requiring her to provide a government-issued I.D., proof of baptism certificate or a list of all the good deeds she accomplished and the churches she has attended.

The only requirement Jesus seems to accept is that she is honest, vulnerable and open about her sinfulness. Because only honest sinners can appreciate the gift of grace, it seems. The one who is forgiven the greater debt, shows the greater love (Luke 7:47).

What will we do when we see a homeless person, notice the addict, rub shoulders against a divorced person, or sense the struggling and pain in another? Will we ignore the other, suggesting “it’s none of my business”? (that statment reflects a major social norm in today’s society, you know!). 

Or, will we approach the person, confident that Jesus is already there? Will we approach the person, take a risk, and ask a question motivated by love and trust in God? Will we approach the person, aware and honest of our own sinfulness? Aware of the forgiveness we have been given?

We are not alone. We all stand on the same, level playing field in God’s kingdom. That is why we have the church. That is why we gather each week to feed at the Lord’s Table of grace and Divine Presence. We are not alone. We have each other, in the Body of Christ.

After the team who couldn’t find their balloons in the cafeteria was told that the second round of the game was over, they moved on to the third and final round:

In this last round the leader told the team members to find any balloon in the room with a name on it and give it to the person whose name was on it. Within a couple of minutes every member of the team had their balloon with their own name on it.

The team leader made the following point: “We are much more effective when we are willing to share with each other. And we are better problem solvers when we work together, helping each other.” We are able to do what we are called to do in Christ, when we work together for the sake of each other, in God’s mission on earth.

Because Jesus’ love, grace and presence await us in the room, at the table, in the world, beckoning us to come.
Amen.

(1) – Gregory H. Ledbetter, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010, p.137