When Newtown cracked open our emotional “Pandora’s box,” lots of things went unattended: I forgot to light the Advent wreath for Lessons & Carols. My tree, though lighted, still isn’t decorated, and I’m okay with that. I have gifts that are still unwrapped under that simply-lighted tree. My packages didn’t get mailed out in time for Christmas Day. But other things did get attended to: my painful heart cried out with other hearts in pain, and I was more aware than ever of how it can sometimes be a “Blue Christmas” for lots of us, me included. Yep, life cracked itself right open and came to lay right in front of us, in this manger.
There’s a poem I found this year among my books and papers; I’m sure I read it years ago, when I bought Denise Levertov’s book, The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes. But I don’t recall it from years past – it shone like brand new when I found it last week. It seemed just right for this particular year: some light, some shadow. I put it on my Christmas card this year, and now I share it with you, my Christmas card to all of you:
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form,
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
“When we face for a moment the worst our kind can do…” That’s part of what Newtown did to us, did for us. Because we all need to face the shadow side of ourselves, the darker side of our nature. If we don't face it, the shadow will sneak up behind us and make a mess. And now we have shadows again this week, in Webster, New York, a small town right outside Rochester. Four firemen were shot, two killed, when responding to a terrible fire. What is it about us humans that can do these terrible, ugly things to one other? We’d like to think it’s monsters that do these things, people who are incredibly different from us, broken beyond redemption – not anyone even vaguely resembling us. And that’s true, to some extent; these killers are incredibly broken. But deep in our hearts, we know there are broken parts of us, too – and who’s to say those broken parts of us might not do something terrible and crazy one of these days, if we’re pushed far enough? We might just “shudder to know the taint in our own selves.” It’s times like that when some of us pause to wonder why God even bothers with us, when God might just get sick of us, sick enough to leave us to our own devices, our own messes, our own crazy terrors and outrages.
And then comes Christmas. Then comes awe and wonder. Then comes the reminder that, despite it all (and God had millennia to think about it all), despite all that is horrible and depraved about us humans; perhaps, as Levertov says in her poem, out of compassion for us, God entrusts the Word into the form of a tiny, vulnerable human being. Into one of us. Jesus came, as our Eucharistic prayer says, “To live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to [God]….” Imagine that. No wonder we feel wonder at Christmas. All of this for us. As the hymn says, “Love came down at Christmas…”
I’m going to read you one more thing, something written this week by my ex-husband in his blog (that’s a web-log, a kind of public journal), and published on the internet today. Now, he calls himself an avowed atheist, but he’s talking about the wonder of Christmas; his piece is entitled, “Waiting for Wonder.” Here’s just a little bit of what he says:
“With or without God, Christmas is the hope that each new morning heralds the dawn of a new age of peace and goodwill for all. Christmas is the dream that we can yet be the people we yearn to be, and that we can somehow remake this world according to the whispered counsel of the better angels of our nature. For me, Christmas combines childlike wonder at the very fact of existence with childlike trust that, against all the evidence of history and our own lives, all will somehow be well. Christmas is the flickering hope, like a candle in the window or a distant star that we follow, that we can all of us yet be saved from ourselves—even if, from an atheist’s perspective, we can only be saved by ourselvbe he is an atheist; I guess we’ve got to believe what he says about himself. But this, somehow, smacks of Christianity to me, of our faith that nothing is beyond redemption, that God does look on us with compassion, not as the impossible, headstrong (“stiff-necked,” the Bible often says), destructive creatures, but rather as dear, beloved souls to save, sheep to shepherd, as children in need of more and more love and teaching and living example. Maybe, like many of you have done with me, God sees us at our worst, rolls his eyes, takes a deep breath, and loves us anyway. Maybe even loves us because of our imperfections. Maybe God knows that our imperfections are what keep us working, keep us praying, keep us hoping and trusting in God for the healing and wholeness we know we need, and that we long for. Maybe it’s our imperfections that make us the creatures that are, in the end, worthy of bearing God’s dreams.
So yes, this Christmas of 2012 is different from some of the “only-merry-bright-and-cheery” ones we’ve all had from time to time (maybe those all-merry ones are rare, and that’s why we cherish them so). It’s a time of light and shadow, of joy and hope and grief and tangled, confused emotions. This year Christmas is a hoping for heaven while living squarely on earth, looking toward the light, while still standing partway in the shadow. This Christmas contains the fullness of what it means to be human: sadness and all, hope and all. My Christmas prayer for you is that you experience it all as richness and joy, even amidst the mixture, chaos, and confusion of it, and that you can feel gratitude for this mixed-up, Pandora’s box life that sometimes happens to us, even as we continue to dwell in the palm of God’s hand, in the corner of God’s heart, being brothers and sisters, as Levertov has said to us, to the Word incarnate, Jesus the Christ. Amen.