24 December 2011

Here to Kneel

Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Eve/ 24th December 2011

Several weeks ago a friend posted a picture on his facebook page.  It was an image of a manger scene.  The figures appeared to be made of clay.  There’s a donkey, a cow, several sheep.  Mary and Joseph are there on either side of the manger full of hay holding the baby Jesus.  Conventional enough. But if you look closely at the figure of Jesus he is being held firmly in place with a white, plastic strip—a cable tie—that wraps around the belly of the baby Jesus and the manger.  The facefook caption read, “This baby Jesus isn’t going anywhere.” My friend is a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, a venerable theological institution celebrating its bicentennial next year, one of the seminaries of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and (if I may say) one of the finest seminaries in the world.  I asked him, “Where is this crèche?”  “Mackay,” he replied.  “Mackay at Princeton Seminary?” I asked, surprised. Mackay is the name of the student center on the seminary campus.  “Oh yeah,” he replied.  Now, seminarians are known for their many pranks.  I was involved in several.  So I can appreciate that the administration took precautions that seminarians wouldn’t steal the baby Jesus. 

         The more I thought about the image I wondered, isn’t this what we love to do, both in the church and in the academy:  keep Jesus fully secured in his crib, locked in one location in space and time, fearful that he might be “stolen” from us?  The inane debates in our culture about whether there’s a war on Christmas, which seems to be an annual event like Black Friday, is also based on a fear of stealing Christ from Christmas, as if Jesus Christ was an “object” that we could hold on to, define, and defend. 

         Tonight and tomorrow we are here to celebrate the most distinctive theological claim of Christianity, the incarnation – in-carnatio, literally, “going into flesh” – “the Word made flesh” (John 1: 1-14), a theological claim which sets us apart from every other religion on this earth.  The history of what took place long ago is important.  But we are about more here tonight than recalling and remembering what took place. We are not here to commemorate.  History doesn’t save us, it doesn’t renew us, it doesn’t allow us to participate in the ongoing presence of the Spirit who moves through creation.  Yes, we can celebrate what took place in the past, but tonight is about claiming and celebrating Christ’s ongoing incarnating presence in our lives, in our flesh, in you and me.

         What if Jesus is not stuck in a remote past, but is present with us here, in this space and time, in us? What if the crèche is empty, what if the Christ child is waiting to be birthed anew in us, “in birth after birth, ever fresh and fresh”?

         That’s how the poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) put it in one poem.  He gets it right:
But God’s own descent
Into flesh was meant
As a demonstration
That the supreme merit
Lay in risking spirit
In substantiation.
Spirit enters flesh
And for all it’s worth
Charges into earth
In birth after birth
ever fresh and fresh.[1]

         Frost gets it because he knows something that many in the church have forgotten or never got, that the incarnation is not a one-time occurrence but something that has fundamentally changed and is changing the very structure of our existence.  In the incarnation we discover a “demonstration” that God is forever “risking spirit” by being active in the world and our lives.  The Spirit enters and for all it’s worth charges into earth – where?  Yes, in Jesus, absolutely, but also in birth after birth, ever fresh and fresh.  In your birth and my birth ever fresh and fresh, doing something new.

         Why don’t we get this? Because all of this is tough to get our heads wrapped around.  How can this be?  God and humanity in one place?  God in diapers in a smelly manger? Savior?  A baby born King?  Christ in us? Sure, you can just accept it on faith, I guess, believe anything is possible with God.  Take that leap.  “Just believe,” you say.  Maybe that’s what you believe.  The problem, though, is that when we move the discussion toward belief, then beliefs need to be argued, proved, defended. When we’re wrestling in the world of beliefs we’re really dealing with our egos, and with reason, how we use our intellects to “explain” something to be true. The world has grown tired of beliefs.  The world, once again, knows the costly price of dogmatic assertions, of fundamentalisms of every kind.  The world has lost trust in what we say we believe as a church because it’s not embodied – incarnated – in how people live their lives. 


     I, too, have grown tired of beliefs.  That might sound odd coming from a preacher.  Maybe.  That is until we remember that the first Jesus followers did not have a “belief system.” The way Jesus called us to follow was and is more than something we are merely asked to believe in, more than confessing certain theological ideas, more than intellectual assent (maybe blindly) that we offer, more than devotion to historical figures, and certainly more than an anemic ethical do-goodism.  What they had was an experience of the holy, an encounter with the divine, and they participated in the power and grace and awesomeness of the Spirit of God unleashed upon the world, gospeling the world in the flesh, calling us to follow on a heroic journey of divine dimensions.  That journey begins with the shepherds.  They show us the way.

         We can’t reason our way into any of this.  We can’t set reason aside, but we can’t allow it to lead the way.  Luke’s description of what the shepherds encountered was really a mystical experience, it was an encounter with mystery – and mystery, because it’s a mystery (not a puzzle) is not completely knowable.  It can’t be measured.  It can’t be analyzed.  It can’t be verified.  It can only be experienced.  Despite the presence of stories like these in scripture, the church has never done well with the mystical.  It’s actually been repressed.  Cultural historian José Argüelles (1939-2011) sees a “dictatorship of reason” in the modern era of Western culture that “banished mysticism as a branch of the insane.”[2]  We need to admit that there are other ways of knowing in addition to reason.  Albert Einstein (1879-1955) insisted that, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.  It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.  Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead.”[3]  The psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) warned, “…only the mystic brings what is creative to religion itself….  The creative mystic was ever a cross for the Church, but it is to him [and her] that we owe what is best in humanity.”[4]

         Maybe we need to see the shepherds as mystics.  When the King James Version says, “and they were sore afraid,” the Greek actually reads kai ephobethesan phoban megan (Luke 2:9), literally, “and they became afraid with very much great fear.”  They were terrified, but with a holy terror, a holy awe. Language is pushed to the limits to express the awe, the fear, the terror that comes with encountering the mystery of what the shepherds experienced that night.  Yes, the angels said, “Fear not,” but only after they experienced holy awe.  The theologian Rudolph Otto (1869-1937), back in 1917, described such moments as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans:  a terrifying and fascinating mystery that seizes us and overwhelms us in love.[5] 

         The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel (1907-1972) defined mysticism as “radical amazement.”  Wasn’t that Mary’s response to what the shepherds’ experience?  Maybe she, too, was a mystic.   Radical awe.  “Awe is the beginning of wisdom,” Heschel claimed.  “Awe precedes faith.”  Not belief, not reason, but awe.  And praise too “precedes faith.”[6]  Awe is the beginning of wisdom.  The fear experienced in awe and terror “is not the fear of guilt” or of being attacked, but “a fear of WOW! – a reverential fear based on a realization of the greatness of our existence, of our being included in the amazing twenty-billion-year drama that is the universe,”[7] the realization that the Creator of this universe and the source of existence encounters us, overwhelms us with love, and faces us – literally – in the flesh, in the birth of a Son who came for us to know once and for all that we are deeply loved, that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God, the objects of God’s joy and passion!

         So how do we respond to this kind of awe? What do we “do” with it?  We don’t “do” anything with it, its “does” us, and shapes us and loves us.  As the ancients knew, there is only one proper response to mystery – and that is to kneel.  As the poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) told us in his Four Quartets, this is what the journey of life is about, this is what faith is about, this how we respond to the mystery of the incarnation, he said,
                  You are not here to verify,
                  Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
                  Or carry report.  You are here to kneel….[8]
We are here to kneel.



[1] Robert Frost, “But God’s own descent,” In the Clearing (New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 7. I’m grateful to my good friend, the Reverend Alex “Chuck” Coblentz for first sharing this poem with me.
[2] José Argüelles, The Transformative Vision (1975), cited in Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ:  The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (New York:  HarperOne, 1988), 42.  Fox cites Gregory Bateson’s view that the repression of the mystical is “pathological”
[3] Albert Einstein, “The World As I See It,” in A. Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (based on Mein Weltbild), Carl Seeling, ed. (New York:  Bonanza Books, 1954), 8-11.
[4] Jolande Jocobi and R. f. C. Hull, eds., C. G. Jung:  Psychological Reflections (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1978), 206, 340.
[5] Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1923, 2nd ed. 1950, [Das Heilige, 1917]).
[6] Abraham Heschel, quoted in John C. Merkle, The Genesis of Faith:  The Depth Theology of Abraham Heschel (New York:  Macmillan & Co., 1985), 170, 172, cited in Fox, 51.
[7] Fox, 51.
[8] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (1942).

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