Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve, "Christmas Eve," and Getting Totally Gobsmacked By Grace

For a brief while we are in an activity lull.  With my wife's parents in town, we took them around to see a few of the sights of Richmond today, including St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry gave his "give me liberty or give me death" speech back in 1775.  The afternoon is fading, but the Christmas Eve service we will attend this evening is not until 9:00 p.m., so there is a small amount of down time suitable for thinking.

It is Christmas Eve.  Somewhere on the planet, the sweep of "midnight masses" and other late-evening observances of the transition from Eve to Day has already started.  Other bloggers have already covered the degree to which many of these services or observances will, in my evolving view, "get it wrong"; the softening and hypersentimentalizing of the Nativity, with creepily silent baby and odorless barnyard animals.  (I am again reminded of Iona community's John Bell and his reaction to the verse of "Away in a Manger" that declares, "But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes": "Why not?  What's wrong with him?") The whole thing gets "tamed," made much more domestic and acceptable to comfortable modern listeners who have busily been ignoring the prophets of Advent, with their insistence on a world undone.
And yet for all of that taming and softening and weakening, that spark is still there; not quite yet has the ember of Incarnation, that thing which makes this whole feast day worth bothering with, completely been extinguished.

Without getting into too much theological deep water or rehashing theological controversies stretching back nearly two millenia, I will simply acknowledge that the whole Christmas event draws its power from the notion that the baby born on that night ages ago was not merely a baby of solely human significance.  Whether one holds that God Godself was present in that child from birth (or earlier) or not, it remains that this child will be the extraordinary God-With-Us, Son of God, whatever term you choose to use.  God Incarnate, God enfleshed.  Presumably squawling like any newborn who ends up being put down for sleep in a manger instead of something more bed-like, with swaddling bands wrapped around as the only protection from the cold, who-knows-what smells wafting all around.

What then are we to do with this Incarnation, this "Word became flesh" as described in John 1?  Or what does it do in us?  Friedrich Schleiermacher published a curious little book (treatise? novella?), Christmas Eve: Dialogue on the Incarnation, in which he seems to suggest that the most natural, most right response to the Incarnation is joy.  And if we have known that joy, the joy that comes of knowing God-With-Us really is with us, we live with one another in joy.  We share joy and give grace to one another.  We don't necessarily agree, we certainly don't all behave or believe the same way, but we share the joy of God being among us and showing us how to love one another by how God loved us.  (John comes back to that thought a few times in his gospel, and even the first epistle of John reiterates that point as well.)

While I'm still working my way through Schleiermacher's little tome (yes, I deliberately checked it out to read over and around Christmas Eve because, well, that's how my mind works), I am already haunted by its opening.  The assembled guests await the hostess, Ernestine, and her permission to enter the main room and begin the giving and receiving of gifts.  They are, not surprisingly, a tad impatient, but Ernestine has held them at bay, striving to set everything just so and to provide the utmost welcome and hospitality she can.  At last the doors are opened and the guests enter; when they do, however, instead of rushing in and grasping the gifts, they are in fact overwhelmed by what Ernestine has done; the arrangement of the gifts, the decorations, the lights, all is so right, so warm, so welcoming, and done with such taste and feeling (this is an early nineteenth-century German work, after all, so feeling is going to be a major concern) that the guests are drawn away instead to shower their hostess with embraces and gratitude.  In that simple unexpected moment of receiving Ernestine's labor of love, the guests are ministered with grace and given a moment, just the tiniest taste, the barest hint of the joy of the Incarnation shared by one (probably without realizing it as such) with all.  Indeed Schleiermacher's primary aim in Christmas Eve seems to be to show, rather than describe, what it means to be the body of Christ, bound together by this Incarnation joy and the love that flows from it.

It can hit you when you least expect it.  Even as I was reading Christmas Eve on Christmas Eve Eve, I found myself getting gobsmacked by a similar unexpected ministering of grace.  A gift, with contributions apparently coming from about eleven different sources (some of whom I literally have not seen since my high-school graduation night--talk about the incarnational power of Facebook!) through a couple of devious ringleaders, leaving me more floored and tongue-tied than I can remember being since...I can't even guess how long.  And yet, there it was, reminding me that more people care about this fool's errand than I can even guess (though I wouldn't presume that my becoming a Presbyterian minister--excuse me, teaching elder--is all that impressive to all of them, by any means), and that I'm a lot less cut off than I fancy myself to be sometimes.

Maybe your experience of this is different.  Sometimes it might look like something else, I suppose, only to be realized in retrospect.  Still, those unpredictable and unearned moments reward like few things can, in some cases all out of proportion to the size of the gesture and quite without regard to dollar signs.

Christmas Eve draws on.  The joy of the Incarnation awaits.  A blessed and joyous Feast of the Nativity to you all.

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