Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Heaven and Earth: A Christmas Eve Meditation

Dream with me of a night when heaven met earth…when unearthly creatures shone with indescribable light, and unexplainable power…when earthly men and beasts quaked with unimaginable terror…when these were brought together, heaven and earth.

Dream with me of the heavenly beings…messengers, angels—but not the sweet-baby angels we like to imagine…not the dear and lovely angels, pre-Raphaelite, long and flowing hair, silky feathered wings, elegant flaxen robes, faces like ours, human, recognizable. Cast these out of your imagination altogether. Imagine something… terrifying. Something like Isaiah’s angel that filled the Temple with its six wings… Something like Ezekiel’s angel, rolling and roiling and covered with eyes… Or perhaps… something whose beauty was terrifying… faces so dazzling they melted the heart with fear… forms so gorgeous they blanked out everything familiar and safe.

Dream with me of the heavenly beings…beings whose natural habitats are stars and galaxies… beings intimately acquainted with Orion and the Pleiades, being who might as easily be found dancing in the Great Andromeda Nebula as visiting a barren hillside on a small satellite circling an undistinguished star in the Milky Way.

Dream with me of heavenly beings, whose days are measured in hundreds of thousands of years, and whose nights are spent, not at rest, but in consultation and communion with the great I AM, God Almighty, Maker of each star and planet, including this one.

These heavenly beings, these angels, had one task and one task only: to announce to the world that heaven had come to earth, that heaven and earth were met together in the birth of a Jewish baby boy to a woodworking artisan and his young wife. And so, off they went, these angels, these terrifying, heavenly beings… off they went, to fulfill their commission. The star-dancing, God-knowing, unimaginable and terrifying beings out of heaven came to earth.

Dream with me now of the earth, and the people they found there. Where did these angels go? Did they go to the centers of earthly power? Did they go to the Palatine Hill in Rome, where they might find Caesar Augustus in his winter palace? Did they go to the Temple in Jerusalem where they might find priests of the ancient line of Aaron offering sacrifices to God? Did they go to ancient Gall, where they might find one of the finest legions of the Roman army, six thousand men strong, all trained as deadly warriors? They did not. The heavenly beings, well-acquainted with power, did not go where they might find wealth, or political influence, or religious clout, or military might. Instead, they went to a rocky hillside, to bring their announcement to a group of shepherds.

Dream with me of those shepherds. But, once again, cast out all familiar images. The images of young and handsome David, ruddy, charismatic, singing his enchanting songs while accompanying himself on the lyre… Images of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, dressed in a clean white robe, his golden hair covering his shoulders, a creamy lamb under one arm and a staff in the other. Cast these out of your imagination entirely, and dream instead….

Shepherds: dirty, smelly, living outside… for all intents and purposes, homeless, and about as welcome in polite company as anyone you could find under a city railroad trestle on a frigid December night. Shepherds… living in intimate contact with animals, thus rendering themselves ritually unclean, and unwelcome in the centers of worship and commerce. Shepherds… tough, mean, able to kill an attacking wolf or a poacher with a single stroke of the staff. Shepherds… believed in those ancient times to be shifty, dishonest, always trying to pasture their flocks on land that is not theirs, and so relegated to the worst land, the scrubby, rocky places, with precious little tender grass. Shepherds…producing desirable products, of course: savory mutton, tender lamb, rich goat’s milk and cheese… but themselves… best when invisible, best when unseen by decent folks.

Shepherds: unwanted, unloved, undesirable, unclean, unacceptable. Shepherds: the very least and last of the people of the earth God created. The heavenly beings, the angels, brought their announcement to shepherds.

And this is what they said: Fear not! (See the rough, fighting shepherds now cowering in terror). For behold! I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people! (All the people, mind you shepherds… not just the rich people, not just the powerful people, not just the people with political or military or economic systems at their disposal, but all the people. The little, the lost, the wandering, the wondering. The unclean, the unscrubbed, the undesirable, the unwanted, the unloved… all the people, including you. Yes, you.) Great joy! For unto you (yes, shepherds, you) is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. (Even shepherds knew who David was, and took some consolation, one would think, in sharing an occupation with the greatest of Judah’s Kings, even if that occupation was a despised one.) Christ the Lord! The Anointed One! The Master! The Ruler! But wait… This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And this is where it has happened: the Savior, the Anointed One, the Christ, the subject of an announcement by star-dancing angels from Almighty God… is a baby.

Dream with me of heaven, come to earth: despite all our imaginings, heaven on earth turns out to be a poor baby, so poor he has to sleep where the animals feed… the Savior of the world is “a Man-child needing, like any other, milk and love –but who was God.”[i]

This is where heaven meets earth. This is where it happens… in a stall in an over-crowded city, while the animals nearby are munching on hay or dozing or, perhaps, watching with interest. This is where heaven meets earth … not with a display of fireworks, not with the commander of a mighty army ready to strike, not with an overabundance of material goods or even lovely decorations, but where the poorest and most vulnerable must make their temporary shelter. This is where heaven meets earth: in the place where God tells us, in unmistakable terms: no one is left out. No one is too poor, no one is too dirty, no one is too humble or unkempt or undesirable. Heaven meets earth exactly here: where there is not enough, and where the abundance of God more than makes up the deficit.

Dream with me of a cold December night, when heaven met earth…when unearthly creatures shone with indescribable light, and unexplainable power…when earthly men and beasts quaked with unimaginable terror…when the first cry of a poor couple’s baby pierced the holy silence, and when the least loved were the joyful witnesses, and when all power and holiness joined with humanity forever and ever… when these were brought together, heaven met earth. Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Amen.

[i] “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov.


FranIAm said...

What a beautiful meditation, simply gorgeous, simply stirring.

Thank you.

Peace and light and joy and hope to you this Christmas and always.

Songbird said...

Amen, Amen!
And Merry Christmas!