Our faith journey can sometimes feel like a roller coaster ride. There can be moments of intense excitement, awe and fear as we near a mountaintop experience, before dipping down into the depths of our soul. And there can be times when we can feel lulled into momentary complacency as we chug along the track in a steady rhythm. There can be times when all our attention is focused on a particular spot or turn when God grabs our full focus and we notice every single detail of the event and the irrevocable impact it has on our souls. And there are times when we glimpse the larger picture, take in the whole roller coaster ride as one event, a gathering of moments from when the bar clangs shut over our laps and we begin our journey, until we raise the bar at the end and exit the ride.
Imagine the first exciting turn on a roller coaster. You are moving along at a fairly fast clip, your hair flying behind you, your hands clenching the bar ever so tightly, your breath becomes rapid, and you are on high alert. You notice everything – the color of the person’s hair in front of you, the screams of the people nearby you, the closeness of the person next to you, pushed against you as you enter the curve. All the details are vivid in your mind and matter.
You might imagine the story of Jesus’ birth we told a few nights ago was like that first turn of the roller coaster. All the details are spelled out with attention. We can visualize the manger scene, the sheep in the fields, and the busy town of Bethlehem. It’s a scene with particular details for a specific purpose. Luke wanted us to know that this was an event set in a particular time in human history, setting the stage for the reversal of the kingdom which Jesus’ birth inaugurates.
John tells the gospel story today of the same event, the incarnation of Jesus, the coming of God in human flesh, from a very different perspective: the long point of view. We’re looking at the great expanse of the roller coaster ride and seeing something equally important, meeting the story with the wide-eyed expression of awe and a bit of trepidation, just like when we first glimpse the Sidewinder at Hershey Park. We know this ride will require much from us: courage, stamina, and the thrill of adventure. So it is for the prologue of John, as the comprehensive plan of God is revealed—for it includes our creation and our salvation, which is startling and true, and to live into it, we will need courage, stamina and the thrill of adventure. All of this, though, is tied up in the love of Jesus, the incarnate love of God, made real in our world.
Luke’s gospel account of Jesus’ birth reveals to us the how and when of Jesus’ birth. John’s gospel account lifts the story out of the limitations time and place and renders its revelation permanently available, important, and intimate to us. John’s story connects us to the eternal and reveals the why of Jesus’ incarnation, the actually very simple reason – because God loves us.
Dr. James Finley, a contemporary theologian, who along with Richard Rohr, is connected with the Center for Action and Contemplation wrote that, “Our Christian faith does not teach us that God became incarnate in someone named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago. Rather our faith teaches that in the person of Jesus who lived 2000 years ago, it is revealed that God has become incarnate in us. That God’s life and our life are one life.”
It is actually a remarkable statement that, because God took human form in the person of Jesus, who was, as the Christ, with God in the beginning, God’s relationship with humanity radically changed and it has impact in our life. Dr. Finley is saying that what is true in Jesus (the merging of the divine and human in its fullest form) is now true in us! But now, rather than being in one person alone, in the person of Jesus who lived 2000 years ago, this divine spark is in all persons. We each contain the presence of God, the light that casts away darkness, the love that can change the world. It almost seems impossible to believe, but this is what we claim to believe as Christians. There is this life force within us that connects us to God and to one another in a profound way. God’s life and our life are one life. We cannot understand the incarnation in an analytical or abstract way. Rather, we understand it in an experiential way. We know what the incarnation means because we resonate with it in our own being.
And so, we want to find and live out of that sweet spot where our lives reflect the goodness, generosity, and love of God, incarnate in each of us. It is that moment when heaven and earth meet within us, when we are in the flow of God, when we are open to the new possibilities the Spirit places on our heart, when we share depth of listening, or open our hearts fully in prayer for someone, and when we share intimacy with one another. These mystical moments can happen when we allow ourselves to be absorbed by the beauty of the sun poking its way through the trees as light begins to emerge from the darkness of night, and they can happen when we break into spontaneous laughter with someone, or when we help a child pick out a book on Christmas morning from our gift table at the Christmas dinner, and her smile radiates joy in our heart. Sometimes, but not always, there is a physical manifestation of this union of the divine and human within us. It is always true with the sacraments. Ordinary bread and wine become something extraordinary as we invoke the Holy Spirit together to sanctify or bless these elements to become holy food and drink for God’s people.
One way I can tell when I’m living out of that sweet spot of divine love is when I know God sees me as one of God’s beloved and I begin to see others through God’s eyes, seeing only belovedness.
Some of you may have watched the Christmas Special of Call the Midwife. There’s a wonderful scene in which Sister Monica Joan joins her sisters on the Isle of Lewis, determined to experience a mystical vision of Jesus as a White Stag. She is the character who best embodies the mystical in the Anglican tradition. In a glorious scene, accompanied by Mother Mildred and Sister Julienne, she and the stag look into each other’s eyes as they stand amongst the magnificent Standing Stones of Callanish. She declares, after the stag departs, “I knew Him at once, from the love in His glance.” Being in the sweet spot of that intersection of the divine and human, whether through something tangible like a Eucharistic wafer, or a mystical experience, or through a movement of your heart, it shows us that the Christmas story is a love story, which brings together the expansiveness and generosity of God who spoke the world into creation into each of our human hearts.
In John’s Gospel, spirituality is always founded on love. Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” The newness of this commandment lies not in the content, (since “loving your neighbor as yourself” is in Leviticus), but in the directive to imitate Jesus’ love for us in our love for others. We don’t love our neighbors as we may love ourselves, but rather we now love others as God loves us. Our holy work is to see ourselves and all others as beloved of God. Because of our inherent dignity as children of God, we are empowered and called, like Jesus was, to create a more loving and compassionate world. Responding to this divine invitation might be the ultimate gift we could offer back to God this Christmas Season.
For that to happen, we need to grow and expand the house, the container of our heart, the space we hollow out and allow within us to hold and nurture God’s divine spark. I have seen this happen over the past few weeks as we have joined our hearts together and held each other in our grief, praying fervently for Brian’s recovery. I have seen this happen as we tenderly and lovingly wrote names on the stars we placed on our Advent tree, offering to our loving hearts to the healing balm of Jesus. I have seen this happen on Christmas morning, as we opened the church doors and the doors to our hearts, as our friends and neighbors came rushing in, both to partake in our Holy Eucharist, and then to another sacred meal, our shared Christmas Day Dinner. Our hearts can be like that: appearing small and humble, like the baby in the manger, yet proving to be spacious on the inside, as God’s love is. We think we know the size of our hearts and what they are capable of holding. Then, we step inside and start looking around. Even when we think we have learned its layout, have located every room, each nook and cranny, a new chamber will suddenly open to us, and then another one, and we find ourselves drawn into rooms we never anticipated were there. This is what happens when we are in the flow of Divine love, when we live out of that sweet spot, the intersection of God’s love and ours, when our life and God’s life is one. Our hearts can hold much more than we can dream or imagine, for they hold God.
Sometimes our hearts grow larger because our hearts break. God, who does not will the breaking, nonetheless knows what to do when it happens, knows how to work with the fragments to create new passageways, new doors, new chambers in our hearts, provided we are willing – that is, provided we choose not to close our hearts in response to the pain.
Sometimes, thankfully, it is not brokenness but beauty that causes the heart to grow more spacious. We experience a moment of connection and mystery so stunning that we cannot contain it, and our hearts have to open ever wider in welcome. The astounding ability of our hearts to grow more spacious depends on something stranger and more wonderous than anything we can conjure. It depends on the endless grace that flows through each chamber and every room, already preparing us for what we cannot see or know from here. It depends on the love that continually keeps vigil for us in our gladness as well as in our pain. It depends on the mystery that encompasses us even as it dwells within us.
We put a concrete face on the goodness of God this week, ushering in light, offering hope, building up the family of God, through our spirit of generosity and goodness.
God’s word, the logos, speaks to us each day. Our challenge is to allow Christ to lift the veil for us to see and articulate the truth within us and each other. May we see within our relationships the presence of Christ’s healing balm, our salvation, and may we be moved along on our journey, that wild roller coaster of a ride with God, toward a generosity of spirit, which was in the beginning.