A Christmas Service of Lessons & Carols 2016
GREETING by Fr. Gary Caster, Catholic Chaplain, Williams College
Good evening and welcome.
Inside this SAFE, hallowed sanctuary,
As the familiar cadence of the carols carries us through our evening’s lessons
And the warmth, comfort and enduring promise of our shared sacred story reclaims us
Maybe for a moment –though only just a moment –we can forget the “dark bleak mid-winter” out there, outside, in our nation, in the world our common home
And forget as well, those dark shadows which have fallen in places we had hoped would be impenetrable.
Perhaps but for a moment we should listen as the stars bend their voices,
Their “raging mirth” pouring down upon us,
Their iron rivulets of joy trickling down to the softened recesses of our resolve,
Reminding us that light –the light –our own light, STILL SHINES.
The darkness has not,
And cannot overcome it!
Perhaps in this moment we “silly tender babes” may find the strength to pay our homage to the king
By promising to “rifle Satan’s fold” with a kiss of light,
Resolute and resplendent.
A radiant kiss from which flees cowardly night and his insecure shadow minions that have prowled about our nation looking to devour!
Perhaps the radiant splendor rekindled inside this space will remain with us and accompany us to all the places we must go as we continue on our own journey
To the “Inn at the end of the world.”
From the Inside
Meditation for Christmas Lessons and Carols by Rev. Dr. Richard Spalding, Chaplain, Williams College
Thompson Memorial Chapel – Williams College
December 10-11, 2016
At first glance, everything in the Christmas story is looking up. Magi are tracking the movements of stars or the alignment of planets or whatever it is, convinced that the sky is trying to tell them that something big is happening out there. King Herod doesn’t know how to read the sky, or the predictions of the ancient prophets, or the suffering of his own people, so he’s just looking up everywhere at once, his eyes darting around in a panic: from his royal visitors to his poll-takers to the ancient prophecies and, eventually, even to all the little babies of his kingdom, all of them seeming to be part of a threatening shadow cast from somewhere out there. And the shepherds, abiding in their fields, are looking up – scanning the dark hillside for danger to their vulnerable flocks. Even Caesar Augustus is looking up; they say that he likes to watch the shows, and keeps track of the effect of his edicts about cataloging people according to where they were born – so that he’ll be able to look them up in his empire-books and require of them whatever he wants to. And Mary and Joseph have to be looking up too, keeping an eye out for some kind of sanctuary, any place they can huddle and bring a fragile new life into a dangerous world that doesn’t care very much. Soon they’ll become refugees, for whom, as we know, life is always about looking out – for an escape route, for any direction that they can flee to keep the little bundle of the Light of the world they’re cradling from getting snuffed out.
Up, or out, or beyond, is the direction you look, isn’t it, when you live in hope or expectation or anxiety. When you don’t have what you need – or when you’re worried about whether the place you are is safe – or when you want to add more of something to what you don’t think you have enough of already – the direction that what you’re looking for seems most likely to come from is out, or up, or away – somewhere else. Here in the Chapel it’s a bit easier to talk about the Bible than it is about politics – so I’ll just say that you may have noticed that, in the Bible, people are always looking up, or out, or beyond, for the rescuer they think they need. I will lift my eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help, from the Psalms, and O, that you would rend the heavens and come down! from the prophets; Rescue us from this storm! and Turn these stones into bread, this water into wine, these few fish and loaves into enough to feed us all! from the gospels. Save us, feed me, heal her, free him, keep us safe… These are prayers we’ve all found whispering across our lips since time immemorial – and lately. In the spiritual life – as, dare I say, in our public life – everything is about looking up, out, beyond, for the one who’ll rescue us, the thing that will save us, the event that will change the things we need changed.
But something else entirely different is going on in the Christmas story, right in the middle of everyone looking in all those directions for the thing that will save them.
Let’s go back to Caesar’s registration. Evidently it wasn’t much of a success, because it left behind nothing as verifiable as a ledger, but only a handful of legends, and no mention whatsoever in the annals of the empire of this little handful of lives that ended up reconfiguring our history far more potently than any of Caesar’s tweets. If you wonder how all this began, the what the storytellers have for us is legends, each one told by only one of the four gospel writers, and no agreement among them about any scintilla of detail. So you have to wonder what made them think to include these fanciful stories in the saving history. What do they add that had to be added, even notwithstanding the sketchiness of the source?
One thing they all have in common is the rather baseline fact that it began with a birth – which is to say, it began when cells began dividing in that extraordinary way that cells have, at first so infinitesimally that it takes a few weeks before you even know it’s going on. It can’t get much more internal, immanent, intimate than that. You can watch the stars all you want, strain your ears for the songs of approaching angels over the horizon – but it’s as though the legend-keepers in their various ways wanted to make the point that the way God got things going in a different direction was with a zygote, an embryo, an infant. And not just any infant, not just any landscape; God chose to intervene right in the midst of the exhausted, the worn out, the fed up, the embittered – where a birth happens to happen in circumstances as riddled with anguish and danger as could be. Thanks to these legends, the story begins as much from the inside of all of that as it can get – and then the story grows out, grows into more and more cells, more and more into the living tissue of humanity itself. It mattered to the legend-keepers to make sure it made it into the story that, when God comes to touch our need, it’s not as a moving comet, or as an edict of policy, or as a humanitarian agency, or a creed, that it all begins. It begins from the inside. It begins when God comes to live as much on the inside as you can get, starting with nothing any less miraculous than mitosis. From there it goes to living what we’re up against from the inside: the struggle against a boorish, inhumane empire; the poverty; the ambiguity and uncertainty; the yearning for freedom and the hunger for hope.
Oh, as the story then rolls on, more agreement develops among the storytellers about the details of his life: that he taught us, along the way, that it’s our faith that makes us well – that it’s our choices to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly that will make the world just, and kind, and humble – that it’s our inherent blessedness that makes us precious, not only in God’s eyes but in one another’s eyes.
But where it starts, in the midst of all that looking up and out and away, is with God coming to the most interior, most enfleshed possible place God can come, and starting the work as much from the inside as God can get. The legend-keepers tell us that God chose the best place God could find – a handful of first-century lives that were already paying close attention to justice, kindness, humility; but it was anything but a perfect place. God chose a moment in history that was full of failures, outrages, violence and despair as any – and climbed in among them to start the work of salvation from the inside.
The gospel of John – as you’ll hear in the Fifth Lesson – has its own distinctive way of talking about this. There’s not much of anything about babies being born, or imperial edicts or even angels, for that matter. But what it says is that, at the ripe time, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” – except that, the Greek word for “dwelt” is something a lot more akin to “pitched his tent” among us – which, I think, is probably John’s way of saying the same thing. (Listen for an evocation of the pitching of the divine tent in the final carol that the Choir will sing tonight, from Benjamin Britten’s shimmeringly beautiful “Ceremony.”) The Light of the World came camping, plunked down as much in the middle of the muddle as it could get, and became flesh – and from there it pushed outward.
So we can lift our eyes – and do: to these crystalline Berkshire hills in freezing winter night, to watch the way the stars have of singing silently – and we can make our pilgrimage again to the place where we can hear the voices of what we’ve got for angels, bidding us to behold this silly, tender babe, this piteous sight with his royal court of stable beasts and danger and poverty. As the poet says,
And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.
It is so like us, after all, to look beyond ourselves for something or someone to rescue us, something to wing down and make right what has gone so terribly wrong.
But I think we already know – and I think we are learning afresh, now, vividly and painfully and importantly – that if we are going to be saved, and if things are going to be put right, then it is not a party nor a candidate that can do that, not an edict or a policy, not even a movement, if it has not already begun from the inside, and taken root in the cells of us, and started burgeoning outward from there.
If there is injustice, then it is the energy of justice and compassion pushing outward like God from the very atoms of us, being born in us from the inside, that will topple the tyrants. If there is despair, then it is the energy of hope and resilience, pushing outward like God from the very molecules of us, being born in us from the inside, that will comfort and strengthen us. If there is alienation and hatred, then it is the energy of love pushing outward like God from the living tissue of us, that will turn us back toward the light.
You wonder how this all begins? It begins with a change in us at the level of living tissue, and pushes outward. That’s why it has to be a birth story. That’s what the baby pretty much spent his whole (short) life saying to us once he was grown, and came to live among us as a servant. Never in his whole life did he have any power at all except the power that begins on the inside, when a passion for God is born and then pushes outward from the inside. Your faith has made you well, he said. Blessed are you poor, he said. Feed my sheep, he said.
So let every heart prepare him room. And every conscience – and every mind – and every vocation – and every cell.