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. 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…