GREETING for A Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols by Fr. Gary Caster, Catholic Chaplain, Williams College
Each year we gather here to re-tell the lessons of this evening. Many of us are well acquainted with the melodies and messages of the carols.
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 angels’ singing and the shepherds’ travels.
Perhaps the reason we repeat the lessons and sing the story is to remind ourselves of the 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, 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 truth is this: no single human life is ordinary; no one of us is insignificant or unimportant. I am 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.
MEDITATION for A Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols by Rev. Dr. Richard Spalding, Chaplain, Williams College
Thompson Memorial Chapel – Williams College
December 9 & 10, 2017
Nothing really goes very well in this story.
It begins with a young family nearly torn apart by the intense shaming that goes along with pregnancy outside the boundaries of “propriety” (or, for that matter, explanation). It continues with the harsh dislocation of a whole population to feed the empire’s appetite for revenue, and with the particular hardship imposed on vulnerable people who need shelter in a crowded, preoccupied town. Meanwhile, three somewhat eccentric visitors pass through Jerusalem with stars in their eyes, full of cryptic portents – but it turns out that the presents they’re bringing are just plain wrong for the occasion and, while passing through, they manage to tip off the reigning tyrant that he has a rival out there somewhere – which causes a reactionary wave of violence from which, as the story ends, the young family have become refugees. Only the episode with the shepherds seems to go as planned – except that it’s never been clear what actually happened to the report of what they saw at the stable that, one assumes, the angels hoped they’d spread afterwards, “good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people” and all that – because by the time the child they went to visit had grown up and begun his work, there certainly didn’t seem to be anyone around any more who remembered any of that at all.
In fact, as a story of the founding of a movement or a turning point in history, this one fails pretty abjectly. It’s not really clear that anything at all is going to be different: yes, the shepherds were filled with joyful memories of their visit, the magi’s luggage lightened after the delivery of their odd gifts, Mary’s heart full of ponderous questions; but the empire of Caesar Augustus maintained it power to extort for centuries more, and Herod’s murderous minions remained unbridled. How does this combination of glitches and suffering and wrong turns end up amounting to anything?
That, as it happens, is a question I’ve heard almost every day in my office for seventeen years. If it wasn’t woven into the texture of someone else’s story, it was throbbing inside my own head. How are we going to get from the unredeemed mess of this present moment to anything worth saving, anything we’d want to teach or preach or otherwise carry forward? In a lot of ways, it doesn’t seem that this story is really going particularly well, either. “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” cries the prophet, and I think a lot of us have been there, at one time or another: make the mountains tremble, do some awesome deeds that we don’t expect. You peer into the murky depths of the situation, and sometimes all you see are shards and fragments, pieces that don’t fit.
Let’s go back to a certain hillside outside a small town, where certain poor shepherds have come to watch. They climb that hill every so often to look out over the landscape filled with their livelihood and their responsibility. They start by getting their bearings as the evening deepens: there’s the road that goes off to the north, and the brick rectangle of the performance space; there’s the pointed white spire, and the square Gothic tower just beyond it, a cupola here and there, and the little lights dotting the valley. Each light might be a friend at work; or it might mark a place where something happened, something important or something painful or some tiny thing that sticks in the memory for no obvious reason. And lurking in the deep violet darkness all around are the shoulders of the wise, silent hills of the valley that have held it all, all the days and weeks and months of life unfolding in this place, the flocks of moments and stories and memories. Overhead the stars are beginning to come out. Soon, if it’s cold enough, there will be hundreds of them – hard to believe that they’re so far away when they almost seem as near as all the lights on the floor of the valley. Abiding in the field, keeping watch… Peering out into the cold you could almost imagine the flashes of some kind of aurora borealis that would fill the air with visible music – but the only songs are the ones that you brought with you, in your bones or in your memory, the ones you carry with you wherever you go anyway.
But, looking out over this landscape, there are cracks everywhere. There’s the cleft, almost a chasm, of a memory of an argument. There’s the rough edge of a place where something was left unfinished. There’s a hole that marks a well of deep loneliness. There’s a tear where something like a failure happened – and the pocket of deeper shadow where something that needs to be said hasn’t yet been said. There’s the fault-line where the institution is so manifestly imperfect, clumsy, unfinished. Cracks everywhere.
But you know how your eyes adjust to darkness, so that you start seeing things you couldn’t see at first. If you linger long enough on that certain hillside, maybe you start to see more. Maybe, along the ragged edge, you catch a glimpse of something you could do that would help finish what needs to be finished. Maybe as you stare at the cleft of the argument you find the next thing you’ll want to say the next time you pick up the thread of that conversation – or you hear yourself speaking some part of your truth that had been inaudible even to you until this moment, pondering all these things in your heart. Maybe welling right up out of those pockets of shadow you recognize the strength that came to you back in that moment of struggle or anguish – you notice the fact that you’re still here, and can see more now than you could before. Maybe you see the place where you and some others can help fix the things about the place that still don’t work very well. Cracks everywhere. And then – something coming through them. Something happening because of them – something that might not have happened without them. The valley is full of cracks; even the polished sky, as the old carol says, is riven. And if it’s not angel voices, maybe it’s only poet’s voice (though sometimes there’s a resemblance): There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
Cracks everywhere. A riven sky, a riven earth. Our riven days: hairline fractures in the most delicate relationships, tectonic plates of ancient arguments grinding together, frayed seams where the old fabric of our understandings of things just seemed to wear out. And yet – each crack a beginning, a change, an opening maybe an angel could slip through, or a wisp of song, or a deep breath, a sigh too deep for words.
 Leonard Cohen, “Anthem” – in 1992 album, “The Future”.
Here’s what I really think. I think stuff happens. (Even after all these years I can’t quite bring myself to say the other s-word in this place I feel sort of nominally responsible for – but you can hear it, if you want to, when I just say, “stuff happens.”) I think stuff happens because that’s the way life is: there is a crack in everything. I don’t really know very much – know very much, for certain – about God’s relationship to the stuff that happens before it happens. But I’ve grown pretty confident about God’s relationship to the stuff that happens, after it happens, because that’s what I think I’ve seen time and again, day by week by month, in this huge little place we live and learn in together. I think that, over and over again, God stands with us on the hillside overlooking the flock of moments and memories that we’re each tending, and I think God says, over and over again, well, let’s see what we can make of that. Let’s see what kind of light might bend its way through that crack. Let’s see how we can bring something good and loving and hopeful even out of the travesties that get perpetrated. Let’s make a movement around that death. Let’s shout instead of muttering when we hear a lie, and name it for what it is. Let’s tell the empire what we think of its machinations. Let’s wring some fresh resolve out of that thing that looked at first like a failure. Let us now go and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.
What there is to see when you get there, lying there in the straw, might seem hardly enough to build anything on – hardly enough of a wick to kindle anything that could be called the Light of the World. But the next time you’re back on the hillside, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over the moments and memories of your life, maybe you’ll hear his voice leaking into the world again through a crack in your memory. Maybe it’ll be some old words that you never quite heard until now – “Your faith has made you well,” or “Rise, take up your pallet and walk,” or “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called God’s own children,” or “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” or “I will never forget you; I have engraved you on the palm of my hand,” or “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,” or “Seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you,” or “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
And maybe you’ll look out from the hillside across the landscape of your days and weeks and months and years, and for a moment you’ll see it:
Tonight, as on that night so many hundreds of years ago, the angels’ songs fall upon a world full of cracks. They come to a people who know deep darkness, who long for the heavens to open and shower down, not wind and rain, but kindness and compassion. Here, in our candlelit valley, the angels can float their tidings of great joy softly on the winter night; but there are places where they could scarcely be heard over the thunder of struggle and the roar of poverty.
Perhaps you recognized the poet I mentioned a few moments ago – Leonard Cohen, whose lyric goes (as I’m sure so many of you know) –
Ring the bells that still can ring!
Forget your perfect offering;
There is a crack in everything –
That’s how the light gets in.
Tonight we follow the lead of the corps of angels who are the tireless and heroic students of Vista, who have mobilized so effectively to reach out to the people of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands ravaged by hurricane Maria and other storms this season. Those students invite you to forget your “perfect offering” and leave your gifts – your beautiful gifts! – in the ushers’ baskets in the Narthex as you leave the service tonight. Those students thank you in advance for your generosity and your kindness – for being some of the light that comes in through the cracks.
Because this world is full of despair,
(to the Choir and Ed Lawrence:) bless these voices and dexterous fingers
for the merry work of making joy,
and bless these minds for the spirited work of making hope.
Because this world is weary from limited vision and creeping boredom,
(to Brad Wells:) bless this imagination for the prophetic work of widening perception
and the mystical work of deepening awe.
Because this world is distracted by indifference and torn apart by heartless judgment,
(to Gary Caster:) bless this adorable heart for the ceaseless work of proclaiming love,
and the prayerful work of enacting grace.
Because this world is longing for light, yearning for peace,
(to the congregation:) bless these lives with courage for the work of justice,
and persistence in the telling of the truth,
and delight in the wonder of existence.
Send us home, like the wise ones, by another way, good Lord:
the way of peace, the way of love, the way of hope.
And because the world is watching for angels,
let us borrow their words and be their voices:
Hark! Hark! Peace on earth, and mercy mild!