As I start my birthday week, I’m reflecting on the past year and the year to come. This year started with recovery from a broken wrist and the busiest work season of my life. It was also the best year for strengthening my relationship with God and close friends. My incapacitation and busyness forced me to focus on what is important and ignore all the noise the world brings in each day.
Br. Nicholas Bartoli of The Society of Saint John the Evangelist beautifully summed my thoughts in his sermon on December 4, 2016. You can hear a podcast with Br. Nicholas, “A Christmas Wish” with the transcript below.
“Once upon a time, not too long ago, in a place not very far away, there lived a perfectly ordinary man with one curious habit. Whenever he would greet people, instead of saying “hello,” or “how are you?” he would instead wish them a “Merry Christmas!” It didn’t matter the season, winter, spring, summer, or fall. It didn’t matter if it was the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, or if it happened to be your birthday. No matter the day or occasion, and for no occasion at all, he would always wish everyone a “Merry Christmas.” I imagine this seemed odd and perhaps confusing to people, especially at other times of the liturgical year like Advent, Lent, or Easter.
Although, there is a way – and I mean besides Jesus being the star – in which Advent, Lent, Christmas, and Easter have a lot in common. Whichever season we happen to be in we find the recurring theme of waiting and hoping for the arrival of something wonderful. In the case of Lent and Easter we’re waiting for the resurrection of Jesus, and preparing to share in Christ’s resurrection through our baptism. In the case of Advent and Christmas we’re waiting for Mary’s giving birth to Jesus as a gift of God’s light and love in the world, and as a sign of hope for Jesus’s ultimate return. And like Lent, Advent can be a time of preparation for the arrival of Christ in our midst.
With these similar patterns being repeated each year, year after year, within the cycle of Earth’s seasons, the stories of waiting, hoping, preparing, and celebrating take on a kind of circular, eternal quality. And we might notice them unfolding on even smaller scales, over the course of a week, for example, culminating with resurrection Sunday. Or even over the course of single prayerful day, through morning, afternoon, evening, and a night promising the light of a new day — ever smaller slices of time in which the story of hope, preparation, and joy is found.
Like the symbols and rituals we surround ourselves with, these never-ending stories, told in many ways on many levels, are pointing us toward the key ingredient needed for them to become sources of transformation in our lives. And that key ingredient is us, or rather our participation. The birth of Jesus to Mary, for example, means very little without Christ being born in our hearts. The resurrection has little power over us unless our hearts are enlightened by the resurrection light. And our hope in Christ’s return is an empty hope unless we forgo the separation of sin, and welcome Christ home.
Early church writers often combined these elements of birth, death, return, and resurrection as a way of describing the intersection between Jesus’ story and our story, often using the language of baptism. Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century theologian, once wrote that we celebrate “the arrival of God among us, so that we might go to God, or more precisely, return to him. So that stripping off the old humanity we might put on the new; and as in Adam we were dead, so in Christ we might be made alive, be born with him, rise again with him… A miracle, not of creation, but rather of re-creation.” And on the subject of baptism, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote “You professed the saving faith and three times you were immersed in the water and three times emerged. This symbolized Christ’s burial for three days. By this action you died and were born. The saving water was your tomb and at the same time a womb.”
Baptism and baptism metaphors play an important role in today’s gospel reading from Matthew. The passage begins with John the Baptist preaching the good news: “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” a call of conversion and a turning of our awareness towards this amazing gift among us. Then, quoting Isaiah, John tells of the preparation for the arrival of Jesus, before inviting us to a resurrection-like baptism of fire and Spirit, and a hopeful anticipation of Jesus’ ultimate return.
All of these elements in Jesus’ story and our sharing in that story begin to weave one picture as if from a single thread, kindling the recognition of a common truth while on our journey home into the waiting arms of our Beloved God. From the course of seasons throughout a year, to our weekly rhythms, through the cycle of each day and night, we come at last to the source of it all, we arrive here and now.
Now, this present moment, seems such a small thing, in less than an instant it’s gone, replaced with the next moment, the next now. But our God is so amazing and generous that within the space of each fleeting moment, waits a precious gift: an opportunity to take part in these sacred stories of our death, birth, return, and resurrection in Christ. These passing moments of the here and now might seem like nothing at all, but by God’s infinite mercy, and very fortunately for us, the eternal life of peace, joy, and love in God’s Kingdom can fit comfortably within.
The Holy One invites us to be born again of the spirit, to participate in Jesus’ death by dying to sin, and so share in the glory of Christ’s resurrection in each eternal now. It’s like an endless stream of Christmas gifts, each lovingly wrapped and offered in the hope that we notice the gift, accept it, and open it.
So, in a way our friend who wishes everyone a “Merry Christmas” may be on to something. We can see it as an anticipation and celebration of this wonderful, eternal, baptismal gift of Christ being born at a time not too long ago, in a place not very far away — now in the stillness of our hearts.
In the spirit of being prepared to receive this precious Christmas gift, whenever it happens to arrive, we can set an intention this Advent to cultivate a state of prayerful readiness. As we wait in hope for the light of Christ to come, banishing the darkness in our hearts, we can do our best to ensure our heart is less a bustle of activity, and more a humble manger, a suitable place for giving birth to our Lord Jesus Christ. We can rededicate ourselves to our prayer practices, cultivate new ones, and add a little more stillness and silence in our lives, possibly by subtracting some distractions this season, technological or otherwise.
And, if we need motivation, it helps to recognize that there’s a lot at stake here. After all, the alternative to accepting the gift of eternal life is to remain trapped in the illusion of our separation from God and each other. There’s a lot at stake because as Christians, being ready to accept this gift at a moment’s notice is our calling, and by participating in Jesus’ story as our own Christmas story we answer the call of our baptismal covenant.
So, I suppose what I’d most like to say is that there’s no better time than now, and no better place than our heart’s sacred center, to surrender our own will in favor of our creator’s will be done. What I’d like to say is that God’s will for us is simply to love, to embrace the baptism of spirit Jesus offers, and be transformed into bearers of God’s love on earth. What I’d like to say is that all is truly well, because God’s Christmas gift of eternal life, of peace and joy beyond understanding is already ours; we need only notice. What I’d like to say is that the gift of Christ being born in our hearts, like a beautiful flower brought into being within the stillness of desert, is waiting only for us to trust in God, emptying our hearts of all that is not Christ. What I’d like to say is that although it might seem difficult at times, we need to stay hopeful and ready, because any given moment, any eternal now, might see us ripen in our acceptance of the Holy One’s beautiful Christmas gift, a lifting of the veil of shadows, and a heart enlightened by the light of Christ. What I would so very much like to say, and what remains my greatest wish for us all, is “a Merry Christmas.”
It is my Christmas Wish for you, too.