In a more formal way I want to acknowledge the outpouring of love and understanding I have received from all of you as my family goes through our period of anguish and sadness. I guess one of the things that we all have in common is the experience of loss and grief as a loved one passes from this life to the next. And although all of us have been the recipients of religious platitudes on such occasions, we all know that nothing can keep us from feeling the depth of pain that is before us and within us. In fact, words usually do not seem to justice to the gravity of the situation; it is just knowing that there are others who are willing to simply be present with you that makes the difference and truly comforts.
In a very compassionate way, some have expressed that it is doubly unfortunate for us that my sister’s illness and impending death are coming at Christmas time and that our family will now always associate Christmas with this loss. I truly value and appreciate where that concern is coming from. But, along with many thoughts and considerations about the meaning of Christmas this year, I have had some time to mull this over in my mind; and I find myself wondering if maybe there might not be another way to hold all this. It is this that I would like to explore with you this morning. My hope is that it may take us to a deeper place in our understanding of Christmas.
Last Sunday our lectionary readings introduced us to John the Baptist. In the tradition of all the ancient prophets, John the Baptist is carrying a message of dire warning to his people. Clothed only with camel’s hair and a leather girdle about his loins, and eating little more than just locusts and wild honey, John had withdrawn from the world in order to pass judgment on the world.
Everyone at the time understood the kind of prophet John the Baptist was. He comes from a long line of prophets in the Hebrew tradition that warned Israel of God’s coming judgment. John gained this understanding and perspective by the purity he gained by holding himself apart from the world. In this way he was able to focus all of his energy entirely on God.
In all of this, John has the appearance, the life pattern, and the message of a traditional ascetic prophet. (By the way, “ascetic” means “choosing an austere life of renunciation.”) In the tradition of Elijah, John’s ability to see from a prophetic point of view is established by his acts of self-denial, his inner renunciation, and his distance from the world. All this was accomplished to maintain his purity.
Part of John’s awareness is that there is one coming after him who will embody the hopes and dreams of Israel. This Awaited One will have even greater powers than his and will be able to return Israel to the ways of Yahweh and to restore the glory of Israel.
When he baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, John no doubt senses the overwhelming power in Jesus’ being. He is confident that Jesus is indeed the Awaited One. His role of forerunner now complete, John is reassured as Jesus sets out to the desert—apparently also taking the role of the ascetic prophet that John and the rest of Israel were so familiar with.
But now we fast-forward to a latter point in the story. After returning from the desert Jesus has followed a decidedly different path. Instead of holding the world at bay, he has instead entered fully into human life and relationships. In fact, he has been greatly misunderstood and criticized for the kind of life he is living and the kind of company he is keeping.
Meanwhile, John has been thrown into prison and is awaiting his cruel fate. But formerly fully assured that Jesus was the Awaited One, now he is not at all so sure. For he thought Jesus would have maintained the path of separation and purity like he had. But here in prison, all he gets are reports of Jesus eating and drinking with sinners and outcasts. And so by way of his disciples, he sends out a message to Jesus with a desperate and searching question—are you the Awaited One after all or are we to look for another?
By virtue of his separateness and his purity, it seems that it was far easier to recognize the revered prophetic role of John the Baptist than it was the consecrated life of Jesus. Not only did John completely conform to the well-established role of the traditional ascetic prophet, but also even generally it seems easier for us to see the sanctity of something when it is separated out from the compromising conditions of its context.
But Jesus, as I said, ends up taking a different trajectory altogether. He is not willing to hold the world at arm’s length; he instead embraces the world and all of life fully. He does not hold himself back in an effort to preserve his purity. Quite the opposite—he engages freely with those thought to be impure and unworthy.
Jesus comes to engage the world fully and intimately. His intent is to live a life that is fully human. But his is a kenotic path, the path of self-emptying. As I am fond of reminding us, this Greek word, kenosis, is critical in understanding the path Jesus walked. Instead of ascending to God by keeping the world at bay, by consolidating and preserving the purity his being, and by keeping the temptations of the world at arm’s length—Jesus shows us what God is like and how God operates by entering human life fully and completely and by pouring himself out for the benefit of others. While renunciation always involves a pushing away, kenosis on the other hand is simply the willingness to let things come and go without grabbing on to them.
My teacher Cynthia Bourgeault makes the additional essential point:
The kenosis Jesus has in mind is not a stoic stance against a pitiless reality; rather, it is a direct gateway into a divine reality that can be immediately experienced as both compassionate and infinitely generous. Abundance surrounds us and sustains like the air we breathe; it is only our habitual self-protectiveness that prevents us from perceiving it. Thus, the real problem with any constrictive motion (taking, defending, hoarding, clinging) is that it makes us spiritually blind, unable to see the dance of divine generosity that is always flowing toward us. (The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity by Cynthia Bourgeault, p. 104)
All this suggests for me a way forward in my personal life. Yes, it might in some ways be nice if my Christmas was untainted by my memory of my sister’s suffering and dying. In some ways it might be nice to have my Christmas pure and uncorrupted by anything dark or difficult. And yet, wouldn’t this contradict the very meaning of Jesus’ life and incarnation?
At Christmastide we celebrate the birth of Christ into our world and into our lives. His incarnational path—as I am suggesting here—was not designed to lift him above the pain and suffering of the world, but rather to submerge him into the depth of life’s travail. But because Jesus moved through this existence with a heart wide open and because his life took the form of self-giving and self-emptying and because he could trust fully in the abundance of the universe, his pain and suffering were transfigured. And so too can ours.
Although I don’t fully know how this will work out for me and for my family, here is what I am wondering right now. Instead of trying to guard ourselves during this holy season of Advent and Christmas in order to seemingly preserve the sanctity of this sacred time, what if we were to open ourselves fully to the remembrance of this particular time we are now moving through with all of its loss and grief? Instead of trying to get beyond these painful memories, what if we were to fully embrace them with hearts wide open, with self-giving one to another, and with the trust in the abundance of the universe? Might not our own pain and suffering become transfigured? Might it not be turned perhaps from the raw pain of loss to the tenderness of love remembered and love called forth? And instead of just sensing the pain of Lindy’s absence, maybe we could then touch and taste her remembered presence and our gratitude for her life among us. And if this were so, could we not then find the even deeper meaning of the Christmas event?
Perhaps when love this demonstrably strong is engendered and the loved one moves to the next realm, a transforming love and wisdom continues to seep through the small opening between the realms. This becomes a continuing source of creative love and connection. Perhaps this is one way of how love endures.
Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s presence not only into human history, but also into human hearts both then and now. But Christmas is also the time when we mark the losses in our lives—remembering Christmases past and recounting who was with us in past years and who is now longer physically present. If that sadness simply remains as sadness, Christmas then becomes, yes, tragic if not morbid.
But from a heart steeped in kenosis—a heart that is governed by the willingness to let things come and let them go without grabbing on to them—the raw pain of loss and grief can become transfigured into the tenderness of remembered presence. From the vantage point of a kenotic heart, death cannot displace love. It is love that trumps death. It is love that remains.
The choice between Christmas’ morbid sadness and Christmas’ remembered and transfigured tenderness is the work of Advent. Which will you choose…?