Christmas Sermon-2011

Christmas Sermon-2011

Sometime as the sun was setting, late in the afternoon here in Fort Lauderdale, a person sat in the Sistine Chapel, maybe for the first time in their life, waiting for midnight mass to begin and stared with wonder at the frescoes up in the ceiling, especially the one that shows God reaching out for Adam’s extended hand. One of the striking, very revealing aspects of Michelangelo’s depiction of this relationship is that we see God doing most of the work, straining towards Adam while Adam seems to barely have the energy to lift his hand toward God’s.

It is also striking that, while the distance between hand and hand is infinitesimal, it is frozen in place forever.  As long as that fresco is that fresco, distance and separation will be inescapable for God and Adam.  I think we all live much of our lives as if that image defined our relationship with God—hopeful, yearning, never quite connecting. Imagine when Midnight Mass began with its bold and joyful proclamation that the distance and separation are not the last word between God and humankind.  Like the people gathered in the Sistine Chapel earlier this evening, we are here to celebrate that God has accomplished so much more than close that gap.

It is not just the wonder of God choosing to dwell with us and know completely what it means to be a person.  It is the profound mystery that Mary was capable of receiving God.  She was an ordinary young woman from a tiny speck of a place in the world and so were the shepherds who came to witness the birth of the holy child of God.  They were like you and I.  For that reason, this story tells us so much about our own selves.  It insists (like the Book of Genesis that takes us back to the beginning) that humankind, created in God’s image, is good.  In fact, we are not just good.  We are very good.

The story of Christ’s birth also reminds us that the gift of life is the gift of embodiment; that our bodies were wise and wonderfully made by our Creator.   Mary carried the child to term in her body.   Even though the spare, simple story we just heard doesn’t give us all the details, surely, Mary’s arms shook with the exhaustion of labor, when they put her little boy in her arms.  Don’t you imagine that Joseph sat up all that first night, from time to time gently prodding this impossibly small little person to make sure he was breathing?

The story of Christmas has no meaning if we try to pull it away from the pure gift of embodiment—

the gift God gave to God’s own self,

the gift you and I have received,

the gift and miracle offered to Mary, of getting to kiss that baby boy the first time and to feel the heft and weight of him in her arms.

No matter how much we want to fall into the trap of the split between spirit and flesh,  no matter how old and creaky and imperfect our bodies might be, Christmas is all about incarnation—flesh, bone and body.

Those little strings of Christmas lights that I preached about a couple of Sundays ago, that I said were so inadequate in comparison to the true light of God?  They are inadequate. They are nothing in comparison with the Light of the World; but  it’s amazing, the Christmas wonderlands a bunch of strings of lights strung together can create.

The aromas in the kitchen,  the music we listen to, at once sublime and absurd, the feel of pine needles against our hands as we place an ornament on the Christmas tree—all of these are nothing if not celebrations of our incarnation.  An incarnation that Genesis reminds us is very good.

This story tells us yet another truth about ourselves.  It reminds us of our ability to receive God’s grace into our lives.  I learned something quite lovely this year.[1]  The word for mercy in Hebrew is “racham” and in Arabic, it is rahma.  Both of them come from the word “rehem” which means womb.  The ancient prayer of the Rosary has a whole new meaning if we say, “Blessed are you, and blessed the fruit of your mercy.”  That doesn’t detract anything from Mary’s grace and courage.  But as someone far wiser than I suggests, this amazing image helps us understand that if mercy means anything, “it means that our well-being is bound up with the well-being of another, even if it comes at great cost or with a great amount of discomfort.”   When we remind ourselves that we were created by a God who looked at this creation and said, “It is not just good, it is very good”, we cannot deny that part of our goodness is our capacity for mercy.

We can’t hurry to Bethlehem to see that child who was born this night.  But we can nurture love, we can allow our mercy to be available for God’s work.  On this night filled with great joy and celebration, even here in our midst, there is grief and loneliness.  So much in the world is broken and in need of healing.  Our mercy, our willingness to tie our well-being to the well-being of those around us, even if it comes at great discomfort and cost, is our way of saying the yes that Mary said.

It is Christmas Eve.  After we have feasted at the Lord’s table where there is a place for everyone, I hope you will go home and revel in the aromas of Christmas, that you will listen, really listen, to the Christmas music.  Feel the laughter rumble inside you and look hard at the world around you.  Hold, and allow those you love, to hold you close.  We were wise and wonderfully made as flesh and bone and body.

But above all, remember that wherever people of faith and goodwill are willing to nurture and care, wherever the arms of mercy are open, a love capable of creating, redeeming and sustaining all that is and is to be, can grow and flourish.  Allow mercy to meet love.  Let Christmas come again…


Watercolor of Prouty Garden, Boston Children's Hospital

Preparing for my Christmas Eve sermon this year, it is the wonder of our embodiment that I keep returning to.  I imagine what it was like for Mary, kissing her son for the first time, what it must have felt like when her lips touched the petal softness of his cheek.  I still remember in the first weeks after Maria came to be our daughter how there wasn’t enough time in the day to marvel at the feel of her skin, her hand with those long, graceful fingers slipping into mine, how tightly she held me when I carried her.  It’s all about the body, the gift of embodiment.

I can’t help also thinking about my mom’s last weeks.  How the skin, bruised and mottled, hung off her arms, how gnarled and bony her hands looked, how deeply appreciative she was when I began to give her back rubs. I winced each time I saw how the cancer had so deformed her spinal column and felt so grateful that at least I could do this small thing.  I’d hold her hand gently as much as I could, each time thanking God for having been given one more time to do so and each time trying not to cling to it as if that might allow me to keep her.  After she died, and we had cleaned her and laid her out, waiting for the hearse to arrive to pick her up, I looked down and her face was purely, beautifully still Ann.  Mother, daughter, friend, lover, wife, orchid expert.  Still there and already so absent. It is all about the body, the gift of embodiment.

I walk a lot these nights, in the quiet and gentle night of Southeast Florida, with breezes usually blowing, late enough to be still and quiet for most of the way.  I feel like I am preparing, walking my way toward Gloucester and the silent retreat I will make right after New Year’s.  I’m going to FedEx my bag to the retreat center so that I can travel relatively unencumbered.  I’ll get into Boston in the middle of the morning and I don’t have to be at Eastern Point until 4 or 5.  In that in-between time, in that thin space, I am going on a small pilgrimage.  That day it will be seven months since my mom’s death and I will be in a city that redefined embodiment for me in profound ways.

In 1961, when I was 18 months old, I was diagnosed with a dislocated hip.  The story of what followed is long and tedious, but it revolves around numerous surgeries and stays at Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. William T. Green was a world-famous pediatric orthopedic surgeon who called me “Mystic Rosa” and would tell me, a small and scared baby girl, that if he could,  he’d buy me emeralds for my ears (most baby girls get their ears pierced at birth in Colombia, and all my baby pictures show me with little pearl earrings.  That seemed to amuse Dr. Green immensely).  He made it possible for me to walk, performed a minor miracle after a doctor in Colombia got sloppy with my post-op care and caused the bone in my femur to start dying.  He was also the person who had to tell my mom, not yet thirty, that while he thought he’d salvaged my hip, I would need to be in a hip-spike cast, chest to toe, for at least 4 years and he could not guarantee that I would ever walk.

Before that reconstructive surgery, I had pins in my thigh bone, that were screwed tighter every day to force the bone to grow.  In the sixties and seventies, parents at the hospital were considered a nuisance so my mother had to leave at 6 every day.  I don’t remember the pain, though I understand it was intense.  I do remember the fear and desolation every day, when my mom got ready to leave.

I also remember the ritual that made such an unbearable moment of daily abandonment bearable.  My mom would get me on a stretcher and we’d go down to the garden of the hospital.  The garden was surrounded on all sides by the buildings of the hospital, and it was quite large, at least to a child’s eyes.  All along the pathway around it, there were sculptures of animals, a bunny, a squirrel, a fox, a deer and a frog in fountain. One of the sculptures was a little boy, whom we named Hans, after my brother.  Each evening, my mother would wheel me past them all and together we would say, “hasta mañana” to each one, saying good night to Hans last.  When I was at Children’s in 1968 for my last stay, we went back to that routine and I have never forgotten those walks, the grace and beauty, the way my mom tried to give me what comfort she could, allowing me to feast my eyes on the garden, even when she couldn’t hold me close because of the cast.

So on January 5th, in the dead of winter, I am going to go back and visit that garden.  I am debating whether or not to ask to be allowed to go back up to the Orthopedic surgery unit.  My memories of that particular space are still scary—I was there when iron lungs were still in use; the little girl next to me the last time I was there , Amy Schultz, was in one. I was terrified of the sounds it made and the isolation it represented.  But I will get to walk through that garden, not get wheeled around it on a stretcher.  I am walking not in orthopedic shoes, like the ones I despised all the years when I was growing up, but in regular people shoes.  I won’t be limping.  My hip replacement surgery took care of that.  Last night when I walked at a fast clip for over an hour and a half, I marveled at the strength of my legs and the absence of pain.

I am going to that garden to say another thank you to my mom, to Dr. Green, to Miss Cornell who did my physiotherapy in 1968, while her husband fought in Vietnam.  I am making that pilgrimage deeply mindful that in this season, the Church insists to itself and to people like me, that redemption is incarnate; redemption extends not just to mind and spirit but to flesh and bone and body as well.  I’m going back to that garden to thank God for the body I was given and the body I have now.