During these twelve days of Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Messiah. Messiah, is a word the ancient Hebrews used to describe the anointed one. The one whom God would send to change the world. In Greek the word for Messiah is Christ.
On this Boxing Day, my thoughts swirl around a poem written by the unknown writer of the Gospel of John in which the birth of the Christ is describe as the WORD. It’s a mysterious cosmic poem that moves our minds away from the mundane everyday ordinary stuff of life to the extra-ordinary mysteries of creation, which when you think about it is what every birth does.
Just holding a newborn in your arms and before long you’ll find yourself pondering the mysteries of this life. Who are we and where do we come from? Why are we here? What does it all mean? These are all perfectly wonderful questions and speculating upon the many possible answers to those questions is a fascinating process. But in the end, our words will always fail us when it comes to answers. As we are speculating about the birth of this beautiful little baby, the baby is alive and among us, and needs to be fed and changed, nurtured, guided and protected.
Our speculations about the mysteries of creation are a little like our preparations for Christmas. All the preparations, the decorating, the shopping, the wrapping, the stuffing, the cooking, and the worrying, and in the end all our preparations aren’t really the point. The point is it’s Christmas day and the guests are here or we’ve arrived and the gathering is upon us, or not, and its up to us to welcome the Messiah, to celebrate Christmas.
The trouble is that sometimes, we are so preoccupied with the preparations, with the idea of getting it right that we forget the whole point of Christmas is the celebration itself; the gathering of the clan, the being with one another, the opportunity to be present to one another. It’s one of the reasons why I love the stories that the unknown writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke put together. In those familiar tales we hear a story of a couple of parents who were not at all prepared to welcome a child into the world. It’s an earthy story that brings the pungent aroma of a animal dung right into our carefully decorated living-rooms. And the Messiah that we greet in the story found in Matthew has no halo hovering over his head. The writer of Matthew makes it very clear that the Messiah comes from a very dubious pedigree, numbering a prostitute, a product of incest, an adulteress and sexual trickster among his ancestors. The Messiah’s parents were an unwed teenage girl and an unspeaking father, who wasn’t a father, and the pair of them appear to be homeless and then on the run, seeking shelter wherever they can find it.
Our romantic notions of a pretty little stable will have to wait a thousand years for St Francis to pretty up and launch us on a quest for cattle lowing, shepherds kneeling and magi bowing. Our expectations of the Messiah have become so very highfalutin, so otherworldly that I wonder if we are really prepared to welcome the Messiah this very morning. We hardly know what to expect from the Messiah. Are you really ready to welcome the Messiah? What do you expect?
There’s an old Jewish story, I can’t remember where I first heard or read it. I suspect I might have learned it from Scott Peck? The story is now deep in my bones. It surfaces most Christmas mornings to remind me that Christ is born in us.
Once there was a monastery with a long history of commerce and a thriving spiritual community. But as time wore on, fewer and fewer villagers visited the hallowed halls. Fewer people turned to the monastery for advice. Even the sale of their famous wines began to dwindle. The abbot began to despair for his community. “What should they do?” he wondered.
They prayed daily for guidance, but the brothers only became more dispirited. The monastery itself reflected their mood, becoming shabby and untidy. At last the Abbot, hearing that a wise Jewish rabbi was visiting, swallowed his pride and went to visit the rabbi to ask his advice. The abbot and the rabbi visited for a long time.
They talked of their respective religions, and the fickleness of human nature. The abbot explained his problem to the rabbi and asked for advice, but the Jewish sage only shook his head and smiled.
As the abbot sadly departed, the rabbi suddenly rose and shouted after him, “Ah, but take heart my friend for the Messiah lives amongst you!” All the way home the abbot pondered the rabbi’s words, “The Messiah lives amongst you.” What could he mean? Did the Messiah live in the abbey? The abbot knew all the brothers very well. Could one of them really be the Messiah? Surely he, the abbot, was not the Messiah… Was it possible?”
Upon reaching the monastery the abbot confided the rabbi’s words to another brother, who told another brother, who was overheard telling another brother. Soon the whole abbey had heard the news. “The Messiah lives amongst us!” “Who do you suppose he could be?”
As each brother speculated on who the Messiah could be, his view of his brothers began to change. Brother Louis no longer appeared simple, but rather innocent. Brother Jacques was no longer uncompromising, but rather striving for spiritual perfection.
The brothers began to treat each other with greater respect and courtesy; after all, one never knew when he might be speaking to the Messiah. And, as each brother discovered that his own words were taken seriously, the thought that he might become the Messiah would cross his humble mind. He would square his shoulders and attend his work with greater care and start acting like a Messiah.
Soon the neighboring villages began to notice the change that had come over the monastery. The brothers seemed so happy. Villagers flocked to the monastery and were energized by the spirit of the Brothers. And so the spirit grew and the monastery flourished. As each new brother was welcomed, the question arose, “Could he be the Messiah?”
Apparently the monastery still prospers today and it is often whispered both within its walls and in the surrounding towns that the Messiah lives amongst them. As you celebrate Christmas this year, remember that the Messiah lives among you.
If you are waiting for perfection, Christmas is going to be a lonely and frustrating time. If you are waiting for some future time, the wonders of this moment will pass you by. If you are expecting salvation outside yourself, you might miss your own wisdom. If you hold your loved ones to impossible standards you just might miss the Messiah who sits right next to you. I know that you’ve worked hard, and made all kinds of preparations, but today is the day it’s time to greet the Messiah, now. Don’t miss a moment of it. Enjoy. The Messiah arrives in you and right next to you! Enjoy!