Christmas Eve, 2021
Isaiah 9:2-7; Ps 96 Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2: 1-20
“And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” (Luke 2:7)
This is not the Christmas we were longing for, is it? We were hoping for people — people gathered around a table, grandparents and grandchildren or our friends of many years, for laughter and singing. We were longing to hold one another without masks, to gather without disquiet, to travel without fear. We were were hoping for such a simple thing: one day of ordinary joy. And yet, here we are, you and I, still showing up, not for the Christmas we would have chosen, but for the one we have been given. And let’s be honest: the first Christmas wasn’t what Mary would have chosen, either. And maybe that’s fitting, because Christmas isn’t about things being perfect, or even about things being good enough. It’s about what God did when things were a wreck. It’s about healing what seemed to be irreparably broken.
There’s a beautiful story I love about the nineteenth-century English painter, John Constable. Constable’s son John wrote with great tenderness of a day when Constable had arranged to have a special exhibition of his works at the family home. Many important critics had come to see them, and also to witness the unveiling of a new masterpiece: a large canvas upon which Constable had labored for a long time. The critics circulated among the lesser paintings, gazing and commenting, awaiting the time when the new painting would be unveiled. But when Constable pulled the cord to draw back the cover from his masterwork, there was an audible gasp: the great canvas had been torn from top to bottom.
Later, after all the guests had gone home, Constable was left sitting in his home with his torn painting. All of his children were there except John, and when little John returned home, he appeared very frightened, as if he had something to hide. Constable pulled the small boy aside and asked him, “John, did you do this?” The child replied, “Yes.” At that, the great painter looked his son straight in the eyes and asked him, “How shall we mend it, my dear?”
“How shall we mend it, my dear?” No rage, no bitterness, just the simple tenderness of a father with a wayward but much beloved son. John the son remembered it all his days as an unexpected mercy, an offering of love when something very different had been expected. It was a miniature Christmas, a moment of sheer grace.
“How shall we mend it, my dear?” That is what God asks us at Christmas, looking out at the gorgeous canvas that is this world, God’s masterpiece that we have torn and blackened.
It’s a pregnant question, particularly this year, when so very much in our world seems beyond mending. When the gaping holes are all too evident, and we so worn down by this endless pandemic, by so much discouraging news, that it is all we can do to hold our little corner of the world together, with no energy left over to mend anything at all. When it can seem easy to believe that God does not care about our pain.
That, of course, is the opposite of true. The apparent indifference of this world to our suffering does not reveal God’s indifference, but our own. Where God painted life, we wrote in death. Where God drew fruitfulness, we wrote in waste. Where God asked only for kindness, we invented race and scorn and bitterness and hunger and war. And yet — when God looked upon God’s ravished creation, God did not come to us in wrath, but in tenderness. That is the miracle of Christmas: Where we looked for a fiery serpent, a punishment out of nightmare, God offered us, instead, a child: a sign of God’s abiding love for us.
It is so very simple, and yet, it takes a lifetime to understand. To see that child — really to see that child — is to see the heart of God. It requires us to lay down our broken ways of treating this world and one another, and to accept that, in God, the tenderness is all. It asks us to lay down our shame, our guilt, our self-will, even our knowledge that we have done wrong, and to let it all be subsumed in God’s abiding love. St. Paul writes, “from now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:16-17)
To see that Child — Jesus, God with us — is to see nothing else. To see that child is to know that the darkness is real — but that, by God’s grace, they do not hold ultimate power. St. John of the Cross wrote, “in the evening, we will be judged on love.” In the evening, love is what will remain.
We’ve come to know that, I think, this year. Against the blurred days of restrictions and confinement, what stands out are the moments of kindness: The friend who brought food when we could not go to get it. The person who remembered to call. The smiling faces on our computer screen. Picnics in the park when we remembered how to laugh. The astonishing beauty of birds, showing us how to soar.
John Constable remembered his father’s forbearance to the end of his days, because it showed him that great as his father’s love was for the beauty of his work, the painter loved his children more. When the chips were down, he cared less for the marring of the painting than for the marring of his son’s spirit. Just so, when God looks at God’s shattered creation, what stands out most clearly is the pain that we bear, we who are made in God’s own image.
Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matt 13:45-6) That is what is happening tonight: God has sold everything — strength and glory and immortality and eternity and the joy of heaven — in order to come among us and heal this troubled world, one human heart at a time.
That is the love God reveals to us this night, and the love God shows again in the face of every newborn child. Before a newborn child, even the most hardened of us is caught up in reverence, in joy, in wonder that something so beautiful and so vulnerable should be entrusted into our hands. Why should we believe that we are any less wonderful in the sight of God, who made us so that God could cherish us?
In the last few years, I have been drawn towards one image in particular: an ancient icon, called the Virgin of Tenderness. The image does not show much: the Virgin, head modestly covered, gazing out at us, holding the baby Jesus, whose face presses up against her own, one hand patting her cheek or curling around her neck. It is a simple image, just the love of a child for his mother, and the tenderness she holds for him and for us.
That image is a mirror of God. With the birth of Christ, God whispers a new word into this world, gently but insistently: a word of tenderness, of mercy, of hope. God’s answer does not meet our questions, but slips past them unnoticed. God answers us on God’s terms, not on ours, and leaves it to us to notice and to listen.
And so tonight we gaze on the face of Jesus, for only in pondering that divine love, in letting it seep into our hearts, do we begin to understand the mystery and the beauty of God. It is so easy to be seduced by the darkness around us, to believe that it shall win. But we are called to bear the light. And so, my beloved, in this dark time, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things… and the God of peace will be with you,” this Christmas and always. (Phil 4:8-9)
Have a blessed and holy night!