Receiving Christmas

Merry Christmas to all this day!

Light and fog are having morning-long conversation over the surface of Job’s Pond this morning.  Directly across the water there  is a rounding of the land where it presses out toward the water.  There, every morning, there seems more light than elsewhere.  The light appears to congregate there.

Christmas2015

(Job’s Pond, Portland CT 12/25/15)

It is, perhaps, a ‘thin place,’as the Celts would describe it.  As travel writer Eric Weiner described his recognition of such places in a New York Times piece in 2012, “They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever” (March 9, 2012 Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer).

Weiner on finding ‘thin places’ around the world.

Whatever one might call it, I am blessed to look out directly at such a place as the light is reborn each morning I am here.  And today, today is such a thin place as well, a thin moment? Christmas Day is a thin memory of a time and place long ago whose import for every other time and place cannot be overstated, nor over-sung, nor over-felt (though I will not rule out over-thinking or over-preaching :-).

The preacher I heard last night* made a point that is saving and true.  We do an awful lot to ‘prepare’ for Christmas.  We all know what those various activities are.  There is never enough time to do them all, and at last we collapse into the day, this day, itself.  Among the most laudable things many of us do is to give.  We give to charities.  We give to relief organizations.  We give to churches.  We give to one another.  All this we do, and rightly so the preacher noted, to honor the Christ.

But there is something amiss even within this best of what we do. Ultimately this thin place is about receiving first of all.  Before anything can be given, we must receive.  As the old theological dictum has it, “Nemo dat quod non habet” | “No one can give what they do not have.”  And what we receive is not given by human hands or mind or heart.  What we receive at this thin place comes directly from the hand and heart and mind and will of God, from the Center of all that is, from the beating Heart of Love that is what is.  Yes, it comes by the cooperation and the courage, the faith and the openness of a young woman.  Praise God for her.

Bethlehem-Palestine-Milk-Grotto-Mary-Jesus

(Painting of Baby Jesus nursing from Mary in the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem)

But there would be nothing to accept, nothing to receive, were it not for the initiative of the Divine.  “All is grace,” murmurs Bernanos’ Country Priest as he breathes his last.  Therese of Lisieux’ last words were “Grace is everywhere.”  But that doesn’t mean any of this is easy.  It does mean that at any and every moment, at the thinnest places and the ‘thickest’ as well, all that is needed is being provided.

Quite often we need to redistribute what is received, as the food doesn’t often come first to the plate of the hungriest, nor the saving therapy first to the body of the one whose health insurance is inadequate.  But still, enough is given freely, in profligate fashion, at every moment this old universe rolls on.  We have enough.

Not only in preparation for Christmas Day, but across our majority culture, this at first apparently comforting truth is an affront and a challenge.  We speak and act and work and run for office as if there were no grace at all, as if all things were done by our hands.  As if we can accomplish whatever we will.

We establish borders so that, if there might be grace after all, we can receive it here and prevent its flowing over to ‘them.’  We strengthen those borders to render a clear boundary as to who is deserving of whatever gifts might be received, if any there are.  We send bombs and missiles and ships and drones to accomplish our will far away.  Even in terms of violence we are too busy giving to ever imagine that we are sowing the seeds of violence to be received as well.

This Day, as comfortable as we have rendered its point of arrival, is meant to be a point of departure.  Every year on this Day, as we stand on the brink of the year’s ending and beginning we need a radical restart.  We need a rebirth.  And every year the need becomes more painfully clear.

Our instinct, if we accept that assertion, is to begin to plan how we will begin again.  And again, we have missed the point.  The beginning point is not to begin again to do.  The beginning is to be.  The beginning is to receive.  The beginning is to accept the gift of rebirth on this day of birth. The beginning is to let go of what we have believed we ‘know,’ and to open to the possibility of knowing something else.  Something ever old and every new.  Something hidden in plain sight in the Gospels.  Pick up one of them (Mark is a quick read!) and let it enter you tonight in the waning hours of this Christmas Day, as if you had never heard it before.

This is as real, or moreso, than the campaign for the presidency or the latest efforts to protect ourselves from terror or anything else the news cycle will bring us even today.  Once you look for it, you see it and hear it everywhere.  One example came last week in the words of Martin Sheen in conversation with Krista Tippett at “On Being.”  Deep into their dialogue, when the heart of the matter in his life and faith is revealed as love, as community, as belonging, he speaks these words:

It’s like giving back. But just that embrace — it is so overwhelming, at times, this reality of loving because one is loved that it just brings you up short. You just sit and stare sometimes into a vacuum and say, where did this come from, and why is it so clear, and why is it so simple, and so powerful? And one of the great mysteries that I experience at mass is the reception at communion. How do we embrace that? How can we possibly, consciously understand what that is? And I don’t have a clue. I just stand on line and say, “I’m Ramón, called Martin, your friend, you’re welcome here. And I’m with them.” [laughs] Whoever the crowd is, I’m getting on line with, you just look at the people who are on that line, that community, that is the greatest and simplest expression of overtly trying to explain this mystery I’m talking about, because it is a mystery. It is probably the most profound mystery in all of the universe, this love. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed just watching people on line to embrace that sacrament. It is the most profound thing. I never ever can get over it. It’s just something you have to surrender to. And just saying yeah, I’m with them. That’s the community of saints.

They are on line, together, to receive.  To receive first, so that later, transformed over a lifetime of Christmas Days, changed by their travel past thin places throughout life’s geography, they may finally give.

And even then, the only gift to give is grace.  Pass it on.  Pass on the invitation.

“All Is Grace,” by Shaun Groves, from Third World Symphony

  • At Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford CT

(Non)Violence

Written first for my blog at Mercer School of Theology.

“There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for.”
Mahatma Gandhi

December 5, 2015

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

The last few days hardly admit of being categorized in any sense. To do so would be to assert that we understand what has happened and is happening among us.

For me, there are two realities of these last days that could hardly stand in starker contrast. One is written on a tiny canvas. The other is seen around the world. My mother, in her mid-80’s, was hospitalized after a recent fall. The care, commitment, cheerfulness and love – for no other word can do – of individuals and teams in two institutions dedicated to health and wellbeing speak eloquently of the goodness of human persons, of the reality of community waiting to be discovered, of hope for present and future.

On the other hand there are the horrible sounds and images of the massacre that took place in San Bernardino. I first heard about it via a text from a news service as I was driving northward to be with my mother. And the news, of course, has only deepened in tragedy, sadness, and yes, terror, since those first moments.

Earlier discussions began to focus around whether this was a workplace act of violence, an act of terror, or some dark hybrid of the two. And, if an act of terror, domestic? Islamist? Jihadist? Related to ISIS? San Bernardino’s horror takes focus for me in a face that we have not (to my knowledge) seen. The two shooters, as all now know, were husband and wife. And this husband and wife are (were) parents of a daughter, born half a year ago, born as summer filled San Bernardino and environs with light and warmth. Neither mind nor heart can find any way to comprehend a movement that can successfully assert its power to separate a mother and father from the care and growth, education, nurturing and life of their infant child. I cannot understand. But it is that powerful. The proof is in the cry of that little girl tonight.

I want to take a definite step back from the course of conversation about who and how and why for a moment. I want to allow the faith that has formed me since scant days after my birth to address itself to this moment. When I do I find that the most fundamental question I hear is not motivation – a question that has its own vital importance. But prior and deeper I hear a different question: why are we humans, even now, such a violent breed? Why does violence have such a hold on us?

True, thankfully, it is still so – and may it always be – that most of us around the planet can live our days and set our heads on the pillows at night without being confronted by bloody violence. But it is just as true now that violence may intrude at any point in any place and change everything. A day after the events at Paris I stopped at a rest area along one of our major highways. The place was crowded with families and children, many in line for food and drink. Laughter and conversation filled the air. I made a point of looking directly into the faces, into the eyes, of men and women and children there from almost every human background that can be named. And I thought, “In an instant, this place could become a scene of mayhem and anguish and death.” I did not want to think it, but I did. Violence stalks us, under different names and energized by various delusions. But it does stalk us, always.

Why? That question remains of great import, but I think in these days there is no time to address it. Instead, the work of all who can be gathered to it in the name of the Christ is to counter violence with non-violence. The work is to learn the hard lessons learned by Gandhi and the men and women of the civil rights movement of the American 60’s, to name just two examples. Non-violence, they came to know in their flesh and emblazon in their memory, is not for the faint of heart. It asks everything.

In the face of the violence of San Bernardino, and Paris, and Sandy Hook, and a thousand other places that can be named today and tomorrow, the work of the disciple of Christ is this: without excuse to follow in grace the example of the Man who did not seek to defend himself from pain and suffering and death. In the face of unjust torture and facing execution he did not seek to save himself nor to arrange later revenge. He received what the violence dealt into his Body and Heart without drawing back. It was as if he were saying, with all that was in him: “It stops here.”

This tale is unknown to many now, a fairytale to others, an inspiration for something ill-defined trotted out now and then for still others. Everywhere and always most level-headed people will call that Man the most foolish of people, if they take seriously his way. And yet, it is the way to the deepest wisdom and to the only lasting life. This is true.

In every generation, most of all in times where the foundations are shaken and falling, there must be some who take that Man with full seriousness and ready themselves here and now to be and do the same as he was and did. To face violence down with non-violence. Not to be moved to answer in lockstep in the same language in which the challenge and the insult are hurled.

Violence is going to continue to take lives and break hearts. It is going to continue to threaten and to act. This will, I think, be sadly true even after all 7,385,549,661 human beings who live and breathe in the moment I write this sentence are dead and gone. In the face of this inevitability, our work is to prepare to act as what we are called to be – sisters and brothers and heirs of he who irrationally prayed, “Father, forgive them.” To commit to non-violence and to the everything it will ask of us; not may ask of us, but will. To leave aside the instinct to protect what we have and who we are in favor of the more that we may be called to become.

Here and now, while guns roar and bombs are built in both factories and basements, God acts in love. It could be that in some future day the grown daughter of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik emerge from the crucible of her life as a worker for peace. In the meantime, there must be us.

John P. McGinty+

Dean and Canon for Formation

Diocese of Long Island