If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Hint Half-Guessed: A Christmas meditation

In the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh. And my first sound was a cry like that of all. I was nursed in swaddling clothes. For there is for all humanity, even a king, one entrance into life (I).

The above quote sounds like words to a familiar story. Immediately a scene pops into our head. We could easily guess the person who is being described, right? The hints are all there. Mother. Birth. Swaddling clothes. King. A few words and our imagination see the bright star overhead. But, we had better be careful about jumping to conclusions. Sometimes, we hear what we want to hear.

It's like the Christmas story. We have heard the story repeated over and over so many times that we have trouble really hearing it. Hearing the story of the birth of the Christ child can be like having the answer to a riddle before it is told or knowing the punch line of a joke. And if you heard the plot of a mystery novel told over and over again, it would tend to lose its mystery. We are all too familiar with the Christmas story---census, Bethlehem, inn, manger, shepherds, star, magi, angels, baby, swaddling clothes.

We know where the story is headed and that it is really a king who lies in the hay. And we come to the same conclusions each time we hear the story. Just like we probably concluded that the opening quotation about a king in swaddling clothes was describing the baby Jesus, when in fact the words are from a book known as The Wisdom of Solomon written about 30 BCE and is speaking of king Solomon. Who would
have guessed?

In order to hear the Christmas story afresh, our preconceived notions need to be tossed out the window, if only for a moment; even if our conclusions are correct. We must approach the story as if with virgin ears. Only with a new hearing will the baby begin to stir once again.

Walk with me as we peek into the manger. Listen to the crunch of hay beneath your feet as you come to the opening of the stable carved out of a hill, a womb in the earth. Outside the artist moon outlines the hills and cypress trees with a silver pen. Your hand touches the rough rope tied to the wooden beams of the mouth of the cave as you turn to enter. There is a rustling of animals, skin to skin,as they notice you have intruded into their quiet sanctuary. The air inside is cool. It smells of hay and animals. You can see the foggy breath of the sheep, whose bell clinks as she turns to look at you. You take another slow step closer into the stall.

The shades of light are brushed with the golden glow from an oil lamp, like in a Rembrandt painting. The silhouette of a person lies in the hay near the flickering light. It is a young girl. She couldn't be more than fourteen years old. Her lips are dry and stick together. Her breathing comes in short gasps. She looks exhausted. In her arms is a small bundle wrapped in strips of cloth. Next to her is a man with a peppered beard bending over the mother and child and speaking in a hushed tone. He turns to you and smiles proudly. The mother pulls back the strips of cloth to reveal to you the face of. ... a baby, as earthy as the ground beneath your feet.

Who among us, looking into the fresh face of that baby, would have guessed that a king had been born? Who would have guessed that his squalling cry would one day proclaim words of hope to the hopeless? Could anyone ever have looked upon those tiny hands and guessed that they would touch the sick and make them whole? Given the hints, who would have guessed that this child born in the rags of poverty would someday be proclaimed the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords?

Caesar Augustus never would have guessed that the Savior of the world was born. For he was the one proclaimed "Savior of the whole human race." He was the ruler to be honored as a god. Why would Caesar be looking for good news in a Jewish baby, seeing that it was decreed of Augustus in 9 BCE that "the birthday of the god ( Augustus) has been for the whole world the beginning of the good news."

Emperor Augustus would never have guessed that this child in the manger was to become the Prince of Peace, when it was the Caesars who had brought in the Pax Romana, a peace imposed by the might of Rome? It would be ludicrous to think: that a savior, a king who brings good news and peace, would be born under the thumb of Rome. Caesar was too busy taxing his subjects to death, squeezing tribute from them like blood from a turnip. Tribute must be paid to the king. But, the real tribute will be rendered to another king by strange travelers from the East. Caesar never could have guessed that a poor Jewish child born under his oppressive reign would someday be a ruler mightier than all the Caesars.

How strange are the words spoken of this child: "He came unto his own, but his own received him not." Surely those who longed for the Coming One would have guessed that their hope lay in the hay. They had hints of the Messiah's coming inscribed in their papyrus scrolls. Their eyes squinted for signs of Christ's coming. This blessed hope kept them going as their bodies bent beneath the yoke of Roman oppression. But, no sage in his musings could have contemplated that such Wisdom would spring from a mother's womb. No prophet could have envisioned the reign of peace that was nestled in this child's bosom. No scribe could have deciphered that this baby would become a human scroll upon which God would write the Living Word. No Pharisee could have read in the eyes of this frail one and seen that he would speak to the deadness of the law and cause it to have new life. No zealot could have known that revolutionary words would come forth like swords from the tiny lips of the babe. No Essene, tucked away in their antiseptic, desert community, could have believed that this child would turn dining with sinners into an art. Who would have guessed from the hints given?

The most obvious hints came to some peasant shepherds and not to the power brokers of the day. They got the "inside line" on the babe. The hint was a shout from heaven. An angel brought the hint with these words:

I bring you good news of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Savior, which is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2: 1 0-11).

And if that wasn't enough to give it away, a whole platoon of angels came to announce, not the Pax Romana of Caesar, but to proclaim the peace this child would bring as they sang:

Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on earth
to those whom God favors (Luke 2: 14)

This blatant blast from heaven's horn sounds like a hint that no one could miss. But, let's remember that faith shouts what grace has whispered. Remember the voice at Jesus' baptism? Some thought it was thunder. The light that struck Paul on the road to Damascus and the voice from heaven went unheard and unseen by those accompanying him. Angels are messengers who shout what God has whispered. They come to us like excited children telling us the end of the story. They trumpet what is only a hint.

Be honest. Who would have guessed that this was the Christ lying in the hay with only an empty sky overhead, a sweaty young girl, and a babe in a barnyard? We hear the real hint, a sign, that is given to the shepherds. And the hint is as bare as the baby.

You shall find a baby
wrapped in swaddling clothes
lying in a.manger (Luke 2: 12).

There you are standing in the hay squinting at the newborn, looking as if with a third eye. You look for something that might mark this baby as different from any other ordinary infant; maybe a faint golden halo. The sky with pinholes for light does not tip you off, even though one star seems brighter than the others. This king has no royal bassinet, no kingly robe, no jeweled crown. You listen for the flutter of angels, but there is no sound of flapping in the air. Only the buzzing of flies around fresh cow dung. No flash from the heavens. No cracking apart of the sky. All that you have is the sign, a heavenly hint; a baby wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a feeding trough. With those hints, could you have guessed that the glory of God was resident in that child? With only a whisper of grace and the sweet breath of God fogging the air?

Finding God hidden in the hints of the human is the task of the seeker of the Sacred. For there is nowhere else we will find God, except in the utterly human, the profoundly earthbound. The pulse of God beats beneath the skin of life. It is there that we must peek for the hints and guesses of the Sacred. Poet T.S. Eliot has movingly spoken of this truth in lines from his poem Four Quartets:

To apprehend the point of the intersection of the timeless with time
something given and taken, in a lifetime death in love,
ardor and selflessness and self surrender
a shaft of sunlight
the wild thyme unseen or the winter lightning
or the waterfall or music heard so deeply
These are only hints and guesses
hints followed by guesses; and the rest is
prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action
The hint half-guessed, the gift half-understood
is Incarnation
Here the impossible union (2)

The Word became flesh ... and dwelt among us. Incarnation. Heaven wedded to earth in an impossible union. That is the mysterious plot of the incarnation. God in Christ. Christ in the world. The Holy in the mundane. The extraordinary in the ordinary. And we have been guessing ever since. For the hard lines between the sacred and the secular have been forever blurred. For the Mysterious God of the ages has come to us in this vulnerable Jewish baby. The divine has enfolded the human in an eternal embrace. That is why the hints of God's presence among us are stuffed in life, like fortunes in cookies, like leaven in bread. And the hints of God are all wrapped up tight in that child in the manger. Hints and guesses.

The hints of Mystery are all around us wrapped up tight in the swaddling cloths of the human. Even while the Caesars of this world oppress and make war, whispers of God's peace can still be heard by messengers with clipped wings. Even with the TV flooding our living rooms with the sewage of gossip, scandals, violence, and sexual titillation, the good news of hope and forgiveness still trickles from human lips. The hints are there in the pulpits and in the streets, the stained glass and the graffiti on the wall, the pipe organs and the blaring guitars. God is there in the old man rocking alone in the rest home, the laughing child, the black mother nursing her baby. God is hope in the presence of hopelessness, light in the pit of night, the glue that holds us together when all seems to have fallen apart. God is there hidden beneath the skin of it all. As hints and guesses. Just as God was hidden beneath the skin of that baby born in the stable.

Jesus is born. The hint half-guessed. The gift half-understood in Incarnation. And life will never be the same. God will never be the same. God has dwelt among us. God still dwells among us. In the laughter and tears, the hope and despair, the triumphs and struggles. There are hints of God's presence, if we but listen; to those solitary moments, when the silence screams; to the whispers of grace in the warmth of human companionship. The hints are there, human and vulnerable. As human and vulnerable as the baby in the manger. God is in the human. And who of us will dare to guess. No. More than that. Who of us will dare to believe?


(1) The Wisdom of Solomon 7: 1-6
(2) T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1955 ), 136.

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