Sunday, December 30, 2007

What the Incarnation Means

I heard just a rotten sermon on Christmas Eve at the National Cathedral. The rest of the liturgy was stunning - the setting, the choir, the ribbon twirling. But the sermon was an atrocity - even more so to me when you've got folks there who rarely show up in Church - listening, a captive audience. It's a time to share the good news! And I had with me someone who needed to hear the joy of the Christmas miracle. I needed to hear of the joy of the Christmas miracle.

So what a relief to listen and absorb the Christmas message I got this morning. Before I describe it, I want to share a very personal exchange I had with my mother sometime in the weeks before she died.

She said to me, "If it wasn't blasphemy, I'd say I knew what it was like for Christ on the cross. " The week before, when I had arrived from Washington, I had given her an antique nail, evocative of the nails of the crucifixion I'd picked up on some pilgrimage somewhere. I don't remember where I got it and I don't know what happened to it - but I brought it to my mother at the hospital and gave it to her, a token of Christ's Passion.

So I was taken aback when she said that to me. I gently reminded her - and I consider it a reminder because she was the one who taught me this, as she taught me so much about my faith - that she had it backwards. That it wasn't about us putting ourselves in the place of Jesus on the cross, but rather that God put Himself in our place. God became Man, in Jesus - so that He would understand our suffering and so that we would know that He knew - not intellectually, but experientially - what we were going through. God knew what human suffering was, what it entailed, and cried with us. Jesus asked for the cup to pass from Him, asked not to be forsaken, and prayed for strength in the garden of Gethsemane. She nodded.

That conversation was disorienting for me. It told me that her suffering was so great that she lost sight of that perspective. My mother had suffered for so long with her body; for more than 20 years she struggled. So that she would not see that basic tenet of our faith informed me that this time, for her, was worse. I wish I knew what had happened to that nail in the confusion after her death.

So there I was today in Mass. I confess I still have a very hard time in church. I've yet to make it through without some tears. I so associate my religion with my mother, the love of God with the love of my mother, even the mystery of God with the mystery of my mother - that I can't be there without thinking of her and feeling a great sense of loss. And then the tears.

Today, the beautiful opening of John's Gospel was chanted -
In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. in him was lief, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
My sermon notes read as follows - Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God and if so, what does it matter? Jesus gives us God - God wants to be known and wants to know us. Jesus shows us God. Jesus shows us what God is like. God is a God of desire, desires us, has eros for us. Do we see ourselves as desirable? In Jesus, divinity partakes of humanity so that humanity could partake of divinity. Ending poem - know this single truth - God was made man in Palestine, and lives today in bread and wine.

Divinity partakes of humanity so that I could remind my mother she wasn't alone in her suffering. And yeah, that mattered. That mattered a lot.

And neither am I. I am not alone either. I hung up every single one of my 56 Christmas and holiday cards to remind me of that. At Mass, I got loving nods and acknowledgment from friends there, who'd not seen me in a long while. I've taken to going to the Cathedral, where no one knows me and asks me how I'm doing. Because even if I'm not in tears that that moment, I'm so tender during and after Communion that the query alone can cause emotion to dwell in my throat.

And I've had the gift of revelation dreams - where she's told me she's right here next to me, that the line between where she is and where I am is porous. And at a particularly trying time this summer, in my dream, she called me up on the phone - three times to let me know she was crying too.

I was awash in tears after that sermon. Couldn't even sing my favorite Christmas Carol - Greensleeves. But I was glad I went. It was good to be reminded. Amid my sense of loss and abandonment, I remember the good news of the Incarnation. I remember that Christmas was her favorite holiday. And I remember why.

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