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Christmas Eve Midnight Mass: Iconic lives

On Christmas Eve we celebrate the feast of the nativity and it is a time of liminal presence, a time when the carols, special music, flowers, crèche, incense awakens our senses to receive the gift given freely by God’s grace. Unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and his name shall be wonderful, counselor, prince of peace.

We don’t live in a world at peace, and we long for less conflict, less tension, more silence, less noise. Tonight maybe we can set aside the troubles that press in on us from seemingly every side and be still a moment in this holy and sacred space. In the words of T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding, ‘let go of what you came for’ and receive more than you expected. 

When the child was born of Mary in the Bethlehem of Judea, it was a huge boundary crossing on the part of God.  This week I read, “Ponder These Things” by Rowan Williams, which  offers meditations on three icons of Mary. Through iconic art we are invited to see the child in spirit and truth, a baby, innocent and vulnerable, held by Mary.  Jesus is no ordinary child. This is clear in the Hodegetria created in the early years of the middle ages. The child sits in his Mother’s left arm with her right hand pointing to him. His eyes are on her and her eyes are on you.

The hand gesture directs our eyes to the child and then we follow his gaze to her and then we follow her eyes as they look back to us. Her eyes get our attention. Her hand introduces her son, but the child is looking at her.

We cannot understand Mary without seeing her pointing to Christ. We cannot understand Christ without seeing his attention to her. Jesus would not become a king in the monarchical fashion, enthroned far away but one who engages our full humanity. As Mary directs our attention away from herself toward his presence and attentive love, we are drawn in if we are willing to be. We are led to Christ as to one who cares, and loves without condition.

The icon is fluid. It reminds us of a process of risk and boundary crossing. What would it be like if all our hands pointed toward Jesus? What if each of us had the attitude: don’t look at me, look at him.

It is not intended that we diminish ourselves because we are fragile, imperfect beings but because the gaze of the child towards his mother is reassurance that God is not ashamed to be called our God.

Can we imagine that gaze of the Christ child focused on us as it is focused on Mary in the icon? Can we let the gaze, the love draw us in?

It is a big risk to allow divine love to affirm us, in the midst of all our hopes and failure and joys and sorrows. It is possible that such love will affirm and change us so that we do not need to hide our faces but can let the love given on this night, generation after generation, be adsorbed into the core of our being. Will it be enough to change all our preconceptions about love? It makes the barriers we construct seem less protective.

At the earlier service about 30 of our children enacted the Christmas story. We enact it too, every day in so many ways. We want our children to know the love of God, to know the connection the icon shows us between Mary and Jesus. They want to know they are safe within this community that is formed by the love that came down at Christmas and remains ever after.

In the stillness, in the candle light, around a common table where God is host and grace is offered to all unconditionally, let the spirit of Christmas infect you fully. If you will allow it, the child will be born to us anew, grow up in us, in our community transforming all that is so very human about us into something divine and holy. Holy night, holy light, miracle of love, God’s own gift to us can be born in us right here and right now.

Ann Weems poem from Kneeling in Bethlehem spoke to me and I hope it will speak to you:

“It is not over, this birthing. / There are always newer skies into which God can throw stars. / When we begin to think that we can predict the advent of God, that we can box the Christ in a stable in Bethlehem, that’s just the time that God will be born in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe. / Those who wait for God watch with their hearts and not just their eyes, listening, always listening, for angel words.”

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