Christmas Eve: The Preacher’s Nightmare and Greatest Opportunity

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This will be the first Christmas Eve in twenty-seven years that I’m not preaching. I confess to not feeling overwhelming grief. It’s a tough gig—almost impossible to pitch the message in a way that is meaningful to this twice a year crowd. Start with the families that show up for the “tradition” and a stocking-full of carols. They want their  gospel preached neat, with none of that watered down liberal contextualizing. Then there are the smug modernists, who’ve taken a Religion 101 course, and know their facts: Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem; “virgin” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young girl; Herod never really ordered the death of all those male children; the whole birth narrative is a legendary composite created by first century editors. Blah..blah…blah…So, let’s just hear those carols, light a few candles, and get back to the Captain Morgan and eggnog. Finally, there are the enlightened postmodernists, who know that there is no inherent meaning in any of this, except for the particular interpretations we bring to it—your meaning, my meaning, all equal.

Pity the poor preacher. What to do? Tell the story straight up and let the “Gloria, in excelsis deos” carry the day?  Let the modernists know that you know, and spend half your sermon doing exegesis on the difference between Luke and Matthew’s birth narrative? Cater to the postmodernists by reading the scripture, dropping a few deep questions for everyone to ponder in silence as they create their own meaning? (Newsflash, these folks aren’t sitting there pondering all these things with Mary—they  are hoping that somebody makes it go away, fast).  Anyway you slice it, the cynical veteran knows that what they’ve come for is to sing Silent Night to candlelight, hear the organ with all the stops pulled out, and if they are lucky, hear a killer take on O Holy Night.  It’s tempting for the preacher to just fold before the Herculean challenge and toss off that  nugget you preached a few years ago that seemed to get decent reviews. I feel for you. I do.

But damn it all, don’t do it. Don’t give in. Go to the well and come up with something that’s going to snap them out of the Johny Walker-induced haze they walked in with.

Ok, hot shot. What would you do? Well, I’d tell them exactly where I’m at with the story at this point in my life. I’d tell them that human beings possess an endlessly, rich, interior life that is filled with Mystery, ancient archetypes, and burning longing for the future. The problem is that it’s invisible to us and mostly outside our awareness. The only way to actually see it is to see it outside of ourselves first. Let me explain.

Every once in a while someone like a Jesus of Nazareth comes along and wakes us up. He embodies this dimension of wisdom, consciousness, compassion, and the future that is within us all, but couldn’t access. Something in us recognizes the truth. That’s it! He’s it! those first New Testament editors said to themselves. He is the Good News!  And then they created wonderful, glorious stories about his birth, his life, his death, and how even death couldn’t destroy all the creativity and love he represented.

And it’s not that they created these stories arbitrarily. It’s not a question of just “making it up”. Sure, the New Testament writers mined  their own scriptures for details of the narrative. No surprise there. They threw in some angels, because who hasn’t been touched by an angel, in our dreams or in some inexplicable coincident that put our life back on track? They brought in stars because they knew that what was going on in this guy was cosmic in scope and represented some kind of  harmonious convergence of the heavens. Enter the bad guy, Herod, because god knows there’s always a bad guy, embodying a bad system, intent on taking out his rage on the most vulnerable. This Christmas Eve, this guy will be on everybody’s mind.  Who knows where sacred symbols and story lines that compose our myths come from ? It’s a mystery, but my hunch is that it’s from the same storehouse of wisdom that brought forth a universe, latent within each one of us cosmic human beings. Good myths never happened, and yet they are always happening.

Then, once we had these foundational stories in place—like Jesus’ birth story— we spent the next two thousand years allowing this catalytic attractor of a man pull the best theology (the worst would be exposed) and the deepest questions of our soul out into the open. All that latent interiority, the stuff that was invisible, but the most real part of us, comes rushing out as it is projected on to a man like Jesus.  Thank God for humans like Jesus who have the courage to be the presence of what’s coming and pull this stuff out of us.

We asked, how can he be fully human and fully divine? We say, this is the Word made flesh. The Son of God. Smart men gathered from the four corners of Empire and asked how can Christ be con-substantial with the Father and the Spirit, one with and yet distinct? We just let it rip, and if you are one of the people still calling this “dogma”, pejoratively, get over it. Really. Do yourself a favor this Christmas and read some early church fathers, or some wicked feminist theologians. Dig in. This so-called dogma is where the soul wants to sit and feast for weeks. Ok, so Facebook and Twitter have shortened our attention spans to 147 characters and a two minute video. That’s our problem. Really, it is our problem.

And here’s how I’d conclude the sermon.  I believe that every story the church has ever told about Jesus, and every theological riff on him, from the Council of Nicaea and Chalcedon until this moment, has been a projection of our own interior life. Cultural philosopher, Jean Gebser, was one of the first to see that it’s much easier to recognize new facets of reality (that are dormant in what he called the Ever Present Origin), if they first appear as external and objective facts. “Only later in evolution is their source recognized to be within ourselves” (Allan Coombs, The Radiance of Being). The moment that we are able to see clearly the projection, we can be sure of the advent of a new structure of consciousness.

When I say that we’ve projected it all on to Jesus, I don’t mean that it’s a mere fancy, the product of over-active imaginations. The soul of a Jesus actually awakens this dormant wisdom. At first we create the legends, then we literally believe them. This enables us to make what was subjective and invisible, objective and visible. Then, one day we have an epiphany. Holy shit, this question about how Jesus could be fully human and fully divine? It’s actually about me. About us! One with the Father/Mother essentially, and yet distinct? Yep. We’re talking about the mystery of our own essential unitive nature. Jesus as Saviour? It’s a little new agey, but c’mon, it’s true. We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for. The forgiveness of sins? You guessed it. That power is given to us. And then when you read the gospels with this in mind, you get the sneaking suspicion that Jesus was trying to get this through the disciple’s thick skulls at every opportunity. Given that we still don’t get it 2000 years later, perhaps we can give the disciples a little slack.

So, yeah, if I was the preacher, I’d tell the good folks that the Word was made flesh 2000 years ago, and then again on December 24, 2012, in them. I’d tell them that they are the light that no darkness can overcome, that they are the love they’ve been looking for all their lives. I’d send them out to redeem the world in their little neck of the woods—to be the presence of peace when we are all reeling from recent images of unthinkable violence. I’d tell them that if they leave the place without realizing that the Christ is wanting to be born in them, then they’d have let themselves off the hook too easily. And that we’re at a time in history when we can’t afford to let ourselves off the hook. I’d hope as well that we’d have fallen on our knees before Jesus who poured his life and is still pouring his heart out to wake us up to our glorious destiny.

 

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