It often seems when our family gathers at Christmas that the many activities, the many foods, the many gifts, the many reunions of cousins and brothers and sisters, fill the rooms to bursting, leaving no room for the story of the Incarnation. So, unhappily, on the birthday of Our Lord we are pulled away from him, away from the story of the Word made flesh, and God’s still small voice is muffled by the loud chatter of Christmas. So I tried something new this year at our family gathering. The grandchildren (age 12 through 20) read the nativity story aloud as we sat before the twinkling tree and the crèche figures arranged to the side.
The tree was bright and shimmering against a window of foggy sky, but the crèche – the fired clay figures of Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, the shepherds, the wise men, the sheep and cows – was dim and gray-blue, almost shadowy, set upon the river-rock hearth. The rough clay figures seemed more real than the fir tree, as though they were earthen, solid, but somehow eternal.
Our readers began with the words of St. Luke, “The angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary…” These words tell of the great event we call “The Annunciation,” when Gabriel announces to Mary that God has chosen her to be the mother of his son. It is a precious and fabulous moment in history, for while Mary was chosen, she still had to choose.
Sr. Mary Gabriel Whitney OP of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, relates this pivotal moment in a charming ballad included on the CD, Mater Eucharistiae:And so on that day The whole human race Held its breath to hear the answer Of the Queen of Grace.
The whole human race. Indeed, we all held our breath.
My grandchildren continued St. Luke’s account. We heard how Mary visited Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and how Mary sang the song we call The Magnificat, magnifying and rejoicing in God her savior. We learn of the historical census decreed by Caesar Augustus, how Mary and Joseph went up from Galilee to Bethlehem, the City of David, how she brought forth her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. We then see the bright angels appearing to the shepherds and bringing the good tidings of great joy… that a savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord, and they would find him wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. We learn of the wise men from the East who follow a star to the manger where the young child was. Finally, we hear how all fell down on their knees and worshiped the Child.
It was a short reading, but the story of the Incarnation settled upon our souls, warming us. For a few minutes we recalled why we were celebrating on this 25th of December, 2013. For a few minutes we re-called the Lord of Hosts and his awe-full act of love, coming among us as he did.
I often think how God chose to come to his people, in this moment in time. I think of Mary and her choice, her answer. I wonder at the choices we make minute to minute, day to day, the power each of us has to shape our world by what we do or do not do. In a way, the whole human race holds its breath to see what choices each of us will make this day, this hour, this minute. For every choice creates our future as the People of God and as the people of the earth.
This morning I worshiped at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley with my son, his wife, his son (11), and his daughter (8). My father, my son’s grandfather, Carl Thomas, was youth pastor there in the early fifties (I was five), and today my son attends a Presbyterian church in Boulder. So I sat on the long cushioned pew with my son and his son, and thought of my father and his charismatic, loving ministry. The pastors today no longer wear the long black academic robes my father wore. The building from the fifties had been replaced by a modern one in the eighties. But the cross stood strong and present before us, and the simple service echoed my childhood memories.
Thick candles burned and large tables of sand stood to the side. Long white tapers were laid out nearby. The pastor asked us to consider the old year, the ways in which God had answered our prayers and the ways in which we thought he had not. He asked us to pray for the new year, one in which God would be present in our choices. Earlier, a speaker had said he had gone on a mission with open hands and had returned filled and transformed. So we prayed into the silence, reaching deep into God’s heart, and then, one by one we rose, lit a taper and gently shoved it into the sand. Soon hundreds of candles burned before us, each one reflecting a prayer to choose with open hands and hearts. I lit my candle off my grandson’s and shoved it into the sand alongside my son’s.
As the Twelve Days of Christmas bridge the Feasts of Incarnation and Epiphany, they arc New Year’s Day. It seems a fitting cluster of events: the Word made Flesh, dwelling among us; the old year turning into the new, and our consideration of past and future, our choice-resolutions; and finally, the manifestation of the Word to the world, the light banishing all darkness.
Each of us plays a crucial part in this pivotal time. We are part of the greatest drama on earth. We look back to Christ’s coming in Bethlehem, and we look forward to His second coming to earth, this time in judgment and glory. We make our New Year’s resolutions, choosing his light, opening our hands to be filled with good things, so that we may be transformed, so that we may magnify the Lord.
Like the Queen of Grace, we pray, “Be it unto me according to thy word.”