Meditation for Christmas Eve, 2013 offered at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church
Most families have traditions around Christmas. Some of them involve food, others involve decorations. Some are about where we gather, others are habits of the day or season. Holidays are often anchored by traditions—and give them layers of meaning in our lives. As families grow, merge and change—so too do our traditions around holidays. New ones are birthed, new ways of celebrating are shared, and new meaning can arrive in our lives.
A tradition that my family now shares is one that came into my life after marrying Juan. The “Novena” is a Colombian tradition of building a huge nativity scene in a prominent place in your home, usually the living room and then beginning on the 16th of December, gathering around the Nativity Scene for the nine nights before Christmas. The Christmas story is told and unfolds over those nine as a small home worship service is offered, using a little prayer book. Prayers are recited or offered, music is sung, children receive fun little homemade instruments to play and the Nativity Scene is the focal point of attention. Families gather together in homes at dinner parties before the Novena is recited, and then the guests offer the Novena with you in your home. After the home prayers finish up, there is more music and usually dessert into the night. It’s like having a new little party in your home every night for nine nights before Christmas…focusing together with family and friends on the story of Christmas, on the blessings you share together, praying for and with each other, inviting others to join in the growing celebration that ends on Christmas Eve.
Traditions around the holidays—special opportunities for getting into deeper and deeper touch with the sacredness of this holy season.
Last night some friends of ours came over for dinner and stayed late into the night celebrating the Novena with us. Last night’s reading from the little Novena book my mother-in-law gave us when we got married offered this reflection that we listened to together:
Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, looking for an inn but they did not find one…whether because they were all occupied or because they were too poor to find one they could afford. Despite challenges, nothing can interfere with the inner peace of those who are with God. If Joseph experienced sadness when he was rejected house by house, he though about Mary and the baby, focusing instead on his love of her as his wife. The little baby not yet born rejoiced in the negativity of these early rejections because they were the prelude of his upcoming humiliations on the Cross. That is exactly what he came to look for, that is exactly why he came to us in human form—for salvation.
O Beloved Baby, Divine Baby Jesus, Child of Bethlehem! All these days that we have spent with parties and diversions, resting comfortably in our homes that are like mansions—for your parents it was the opposite. They were fatigued and full of worry, fear and homelessness.
O Spirit of Bethlehem, this is the kind of world that has forgotten God. How many times has this happened to us? How often have we forgotten?
The sun begins to set on the first Christmas Eve behind the rooftops of the town of Bethlehem, its last rays leaving golden shine on the hills. In the town are vulgar men who pushed God around, closing their doors to his beloved Mother. The beauty of the skies begins to glow that beautiful purple color on the tops of the hills as a sunset, the hills that frequented by the shepherds. Within those hills is a cave where the Holy Family will find refuge and safety.
And the stars begin to show, one-by-one and hours later the Creation is born anew.
Some traditions hold that the Baby Jesus was not born in a stable, but in a hollowed out cave outside of Bethlehem. Caves were used as safe places, hiding place, warm placed that offered natural protection from the elements by shepherds. This is especially a part of the Eastern Orthodox traditions and is why in many places even today you will find little shrines in caves in the side of hills or mountains or caves that have been carved below the earth. I have always loved this image of a cave, of the Christ Child and God’s New Realm being birthed in a hollowed out place, not a building with four walls, doors and windows—but of a cave, round and curved, cavernous, stretching deep inside into the earth in darkness where we cannot see where all the cracks and opening go—but yet with an opening that never closes to the world. The image of a cave for our faith and for the in-breaking of the light of the Christ Child on Christmas is a rich and powerful one for us today when so much of our lives are closed, walled off and unconnected to both the Earth and to the transforming Divine Spirit. The Novena my family heard last night challenged me to think and meditate on this image and on the many contours of this Sacred and Holy Night of Mystery and Power.
One writer describes Christmas in this way:
This isn’t to say the birth of Christ was an entirely dour and divisive affair. For very good reasons, Christmas is a celebration. An angel in the Gospel of Luke informs shepherds of the “good news of great joy for all the people . . .” After visiting the manger, those shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
But the first Christmas reminds us of truths we can never hear enough. Once Christ wins our obedience, everything changes. Ego abdicates. The pursuit of security surrenders its loyalties. Our desire for predictability makes way for mystery. Suddenly, we are pilgrims.
We are two thousand years from first-century Palestine, but the Incarnation is not … simply an event from which we draw lessons. The challenge … is to see the dynamics of Palestine within the landscape of the human heart. Our inner life is one of clashing sects and regimes, of shaky alliances and diverse languages. A Herod hides in us all. So does a Pontius Pilate. And a St. Peter. And a Mary [and a Joseph]. At one time we are the moralizing Pharisees; at another, the ruling Romans. Christ today must enter this territory. Will we prepare him room?
It’s strange. And it’s difficult. Christ unsettles. … A mix of joy and confusion, happiness and worry.
So where does the Christ Child find you tonight?
As the innkeeper with no more room?
As a person who has closed a door and struggles to know how to re-open it?
As a parent trying to find space and room for your child?
As someone who cannot afford a room for the night?
As someone who feels the excitement of something new, about to be born?
As one who is anxious or filled with fear or doubt?
As a wandering shepherd who cares for those in your charge?
As a cave, open to the world, and yet with mysteries hidden deep within that may never be known or might after years of exploration?
As a child, full of wonder and awe?
As a Herod, not wanting to share, afraid of prophets and change?
As an animal, with love to share to keep another warm on a cold night?
As a star, bright and shining—older than the imagination full of possibility?
Where does the Christ Child find you not just tonight, but on the other days and nights of the year? This is the Christmas Eve questions the Baby Jesus invites us to ponder and pray about on this Holy Night.
The Christ Child is always being born and his hope-filled challenges of salvation, new life and transformation are always present for us.
Will we open our arms to receive him?
Will we open our hearts to adore him?
Will we open our souls to transformation?
Will we open our world to renewal born of God’s justice?
Tonight, this Holy Night the Stars begin to show their twinkling light
And the Creation once again is being born anew.