Lessons and Carols
December 6-7, 2014
The truth is, we have been telling and re-telling this evenings’ lessons for such a long, long time that we have become well acquainted with the melodies and messages of the carols.
And although we know the leading characters, supporting players and essential details of this ancient story, we can so easily let slip the meaning of the angel’s singing and the shepherds and wise men’s travels.
Perhaps the reason we repeat the lessons and sing the story is to remind ourselves of the simple truth conveyed in ancient David’s city: I am, you are, the way God has chosen to dwell. God is not so much in our midst as we are–all of us together–in the midst of God. Mystery has a human face! We have only to look around to see it in one another.
Hopefully the lessons and the carols of this night will rid us of the categories by which we too often segregate each other, age and race, gender, class and creed, and enable us to really see how wonderfully and imaginatively God has chosen to dwell, to punctuate and permeate and elevate humanity.
The simple truth is this: no single human life is ordinary; no one of us is insignificant or unimportant. I’m sure this is what Mary and Joseph saw “lying in the manger,” and I believe it is what we are supposed to see in ourselves and in each other.
So together let us pray for such illumination.
A Prayer for the World
O holy and timeless Mystery,
Let what we have heard is sacred story and in song
Dispel from every human heart,
All bitterness and hatred and every ancient grudge.
Let us at last see each other clearly
In the light of the love whose birth we celebrate
Let us recognize and respond to one another more selflessly,
Welcome and receive each other more graciously
Care for and give of ourselves more truly and more fully.
Let kindness be our way of life
To silence all contemptuous cynicism and petulant doubt
O holy and timeless Mystery
Bless our fragile wounded world with peace.
Bless the poor with lasting prosperity
The despairing with confident hope
The grieving with a comfort that gladdens the heart
The oppressed with generative freedom
The immigrant with a home
And the suffering with solace.
O holy and timeless Mystery
Let us be attentive to all forgotten places,
So that your peace may bring joy to the world, abide in every Human heart, and unleash love as the cause of all human endeavors.
Using the words of the one whose birth we celebrate tonight,
Let us together pray:
Fr. Gary Caster
Image and Likeness
Meditation for Christmas Lessons and Carols
Thompson Memorial Chapel – Williams College
December 6-7, 2014
Adam and Eve may seem like strange guests to find at the Christmas party – but you heard right, there they were “in the beginning,” a few minutes ago. Perhaps you’ve heard the annual broadcast on Christmas Eve of the prototype of Lessons and Carols, from King’s College in Cambridge – where, every year, the first reading is the story of “the fall of humanity,” that uncomfortable business with the apple and the snake – which is really what makes it lessons and carols. The Christmas service begins back in those last few fragile, precious moments in the Garden so as to remind us that we need to have happen what we’re about to hear did in fact come to pass, in those days, in Bethlehem. In these days, too, we need to hear these “tidings of great joy which shall be to all people” – because we’ve been out of right relationship since… well, since when? Since a primordial-mythical parent transgressed a boundary in the primeval orchard? Since modernity started to teach us that we could pillage the orchard because we are the apex of creation? Out of right relation since the nation of which we are citizens committed its original sin: sold its soul in the blasphemous bargain of slavery? Or since the same nation became the only superpower, and could enforce its own rule that the apples in the orchard belong to the one with the longest arms? Adam and Eve come to the Christmas party every year (at least at King’s College); they stand in a slightly shadowy corner, keeping their careful distance from the bowl of fruit punch – a little awkward, not really knowing anybody any more, not being recognized (despite their unforgettable outfits). They chat quietly with each other, remembering good times past, hoping as the rest of us do that those who come along later will undo the one or two really big mistakes they made…
Well, this year we invited them, too, to the festivities here in Thompson Memorial Chapel, though it’s an earlier part of their story we’ve heard tonight (thanks to Susan/Alison) – the very earliest part, in fact –
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have stewardship over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in God’s own image; in the image of God they were created; male and female they were created. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply…” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food… And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
Adam and Eve are here tonight because they remind us of that other primordial truth that is at stake in what came to pass in the time of Caesar Augustus on the edges of a certain Palestinian town: the truth that they bear for and with all of us “the image and likeness of God.”
That image, of course, is exactly what we are invited to imagine in the birth-story of a baby in the straw on the margins of an empire. Most people don’t find it too particularly difficult to see something divine in the image of a newborn child – whether it’s the innocence or the gentleness or the towering sense of responsibility or the sheer unutterable mystery of it. But by the time the face of infancy has become the face of adulthood, it usually shows the scars of struggles, the battered vestiges of innocence, the memory of one or two big mistakes. For most of us it seems to get steadily more difficult to see the family resemblance to the Great Mystery, or imagine any such thing as bearing a likeness to the divine.
But what people were somehow able to see in the adult that that baby became was some astonishingly undistorted resemblance to the goodness that gave birth to everything. What they were able to hear in the ordinary cadences of that adult voice – when it said, “Blessed are you poor,” or “your faith has made you well,” or “you are forgiven,” or “today you will be with me in paradise” – was some echo of the voice that had said, back at the beginning of time, that it was good, all good. What they felt rising in themselves when they were with him was some sense of who they could be, had been meant to be all along, wanted to be, and some sense of their belonging to everything and everyone. What they saw in the person that baby grew up to be was the reflection of their own human faces, and the unmistakable family resemblance, the image and likeness of the great and holy and towering mystery of love that is, after all, stronger than anything, and more noble, and more beautiful.
There’s a passage in the Qur’an where God instructs the Prophet (peace be upon him) to say to the people, on God’s behalf, “You have but to remember, and you will see the light.” You have but to remember…
But it is so easy to forget!
Somehow it has become so easy to forget to look for the light of image and likeness – until it is too late, and there on the street lies Michael Brown, the light ebbing out of him but the resemblance suddenly so clear when it is too late – or Eric Garner on the sidewalk, or Matthew Shepard at the fence, or Malala Yousafzai on the bus, or any one of those 43 Mexican students, or any of the other thousands upon thousands of faces that have radiated their bit of the light that began creation itself until some act of hatred or fear or anger or indifference snuffed it out, or tried to. How could anyone miss it?? How can we forget what’s there to see even looking back at us in the mirror every morning?? Yet it’s even so easy to walk by those faces that look at us from the photo-posters on the walls of Paresky and forget to remember to see the light of the family resemblance to divinity beaming back at us from every face, every single face. There is no act of vandalism that can snuff it out, no imperial edict that can erase it. It is the very first thing that our religious tradition asks us to believe and to understand and to take to heart about ourselves and each other – more original than any sin, more indelible than any mistake, more essential than any other facet of identity: we bear the image and likeness of God.
Diana Eck, the great contemporary scholar of religions and advocate for the kind of pluralism we try to practice here, says, “Whether we like it or not, all of us bear witness to each other in an interdependent world. Not only are we all keepers of one another’s image, we are also guardians of one another’s rights. Being keepers of one another’s image and guardians of one another’s rights are not roles that we as religious communities can either accept or reject. They are assigned by the very nature of our world, and we perform them, either well or badly, either with neglect or vigilance.”
Keeping and guarding the image of the child born in Bethlehem of Judea, as we have come here to do this evening, is practice for bearing witness to each other daily – practice for the keeping and guarding of the image of every face, and all the light that it contains.
Eve and Adam actually have an even stronger claim to belong at the Christmas party than most of us know. The Christian church, from its earliest centuries, made a habit of remembering, every day of the year, a different one of its saints, heroes, teachers or sages – and made a habit of praying in gratitude and in hope to the light of God that they saw shining from the face and from the life of each one on her or his appointed feast-day. And, remarkably, they appointed Christmas Eve as the feast-day of our first parents – out of a sense that it was their step, together, away from the careful order of right relation that brought us, eventually, to the birth of one who would show us what right relation looked like. They actually gave thanks annually for the mistake that Adam and Eve made that led, eventually, to the gift of God to us of that redemptive child born in the straw: …Ne had the appel taken been, ne had never our lady abeen heavene queen – Blessed be the time that appel taken was! Therefore we moun singen Deo gracias! Still to this day the eastern Orthodox, the Syrian and the Coptic Christian churches appoint December 24 as the day consecrated to remembering Eve and Adam, they day for giving thanks for the light of the mystery that shines us on even through them. Though the Latin/Roman church never established a parallel practice, in the Middle Ages the veneration of Eve and Adam was widespread and joyful: to this day you can find their images among statues of saints on cathedral walls. So popular was the remembrance of Adam and Eve in 16th-century Germany that people began to set up “paradise trees” in their homes to honor them on their feast-day: fir trees decorated with … apples. The rest, as they say, is history.
Eden is a long time ago, now. But still we remember the Garden. Still we bring our paradise trees inside, in the darkest and coldest season when we ache most for the warmth of remembering – and hang them with apples (and other things), and think about how good it was, how good it can be. Still we imagine how good it will be when we remember to see the light, to bear witness to the divine image, to guard and revere the likeness – the like-ness that is always there to be seen – there, and there, and there, and there…. That will be a day to crown the original creation with new creation at last, and usher in a Sabbath when even God can finally rest, with us, in the joyful knowledge that every child born, every child, bears the image and likeness of the deep holiness of the Great Mystery that has called it all “Good.” All good.
 Genesis 1:26-28a, 29, 30b-2:4a.
 Surat Al-’A’Raf (The Heights) 7:201.
 Diana Eck, Encountering God – A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), pp. 218ff.
 Francis X. Weisner, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (Boston: Society of Jesus of New England, 1952) – as quoted in Thomas J. O’Gorman (ed.), An Advent Sourcebook (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1988), pp. 154-5.
The Rev. Dr. Richard E. Spalding
Chaplain, Williams College
Let us go now from this place back out into the heart of the world.
Let us go in love – remembering that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
Let us go in hope – remembering to bear witness to one another as icons of the image and likeness of the Holy Mystery we call God.
Let us go in peace – remembering to guard one another’s rights and serve one another’s needs and singing the angels’ song of peace and good will on earth.
Glory to God in the highest! Alleluia! Amen!