I have a photo on my desk of my grandmother holding my daughter at Christmas in 2007. This was the last Christmas I had as a “civilian,” before I was ordained. Evelyn was 11 months old, wearing a red dress with fuzzy white sleeves. Both of them are laughing so hard their eyes are squinting. I remember Evelyn was at the stage where she wanted to just GO! Always go. She didn’t like to be held, because she wanted to run and crawl and get into things.
But Meme held her for a while, sitting there in her chair. By that point, Meme couldn’t get around well. She died a year and a half later, so she stayed in her chair that Christmas and we all came to her. She loved it when the little ones crawled in her lap, and I even had my turn in the chair with her! I sat on the arm of the chair, leaned next to her, put my head on her shoulder with my arm around her and just sat there, like I had done for almost thirty years at that point.
I look at that photo every day and remember that moment: to see my beloved grandmother holding my beloved daughter at Christmas time. And I miss Meme dearly. I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t think of her: when I see birds and remember how she taught me to love and feed them. When I see the two glass bluebirds on my window sill she gave me. The onyx bust of Nefertiti she brought back from a trip to Cairo, Egypt in the 70s. The blanket she made for me when I was born.
We always wanted to be held by Meme. We wanted to be embraced by her—and we wanted to embrace her in return.
Christmas is full of embraces. It is full of reunions and family gatherings. And, to be sure, there is more than a little pressure and strain that pops up during this time! There are those relatives who, perhaps, we dread seeing a little bit. Those who get on our nerves—some we would rather like to lock in a closet somewhere until it’s time to go home! And, I’m sure some in our family might feel that way about us! I know some of mine do about me!
But, all in all, it is a season of embraces, of being held. Because the iconic image is of a mother embracing a child. There is no more iconic image of Christmas, of the Nativity, than Blessed Mary holding the infant Jesus there with Joseph, with angels above, shepherds, sheep and animals all around, with the magi headed that way on their journey.
There is a deep comfort and peace in being embraced by the person you love. Of being held close, of being reminded that you are loved.
Being embraced in this way isn’t just some sentimental emotion. It isn’t fleeting or superficial. There’s something radical about such love in this season that we would do well not to forget! The love we experience is a reminder, an invitation, a mandate, to live more fully into our lives as followers of Jesus Christ: God Incarnate who came as an infant held by his mother and who stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross to embrace and reconcile the world to God.
When I look around, I notice that so much of the narrative we hear from Christianity is about being held, being embraced, “being saved.” A great deal of the focus has us on the receiving end of the love of Christ.
And, we desperately need this, and it is very much part of our practice of faith. We are held, loved, redeemed, reconciled…
But that’s not all that’s going on—or at least it shouldn’t be. Being on the receiving end of Christ’s love is only half the truth of our faith, and we would do well to remember that.
The love of Christ is a reciprocal love, an experience of both receiving and giving. This is the full image of our vocation.
It’s like William Porcher DuBose, former professor at Sewanee, who is one of the Episcopal Church’s most original and important theologians said once: “God in Christ is one half the Incarnation; Christ in us is the full and other half.” We have to complete the circle, and Christmas helps us remember that.
We live in a world where so many groups of people are pitted against each other. We turn on our computers and televisions and watch the news and see “the other” described in so many ways: people of other faiths, people of color, people of other ethnicities, people of a different sexual orientation, people from the other side of town, people who are different than us. “Those people,” whoever they may be. Different. Suspect. Foreign. Other.
When I hear some group being objectified, I always try to ask myself: “Who does it benefit to label this person this way?” “What fear, what vulnerability, is being avoided by labeling and disregarding this person?” And, I ask myself, ‘How would it benefit me to prayerfully live in the tension rather than participate in the labeling?” At least I should ask myself that, but oftentimes I label with the best of them.
The message of Christ pushes us out beyond the boundaries we impose on the world. The Good Samaritan challenges us. The image of the magi coming from afar makes us wonder. Christ at the well with the Samaritan woman questions our assumptions of who is worthy. The Holy Family fleeing as refugees to Egypt to avoid Herod’s diabolical rampage convicts us.
Even after Blessed Mary embraced Jesus and held him close, we see later in his ministry how he responds when challenged by those who felt he had gone a bit outside what was respectable. “Jesus, your mother and family are here to talk with you,” they say. His response makes us cringe:
“Who is my mother and brother? Those who do the will of my Father in heaven is my mother and sister and brother.” (Matthew 12:46-50).
And, then there’s the reminder we have from the beloved hymn:
In Christ there is no East or West,
in him no South or North,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.
In him shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find,
his service is the golden cord
close-binding all mankind.
No, Christmas love isn’t a sentimental love that stops at the warm feelings we have within our own hearts. It is a call to action, a call to compassion, literally, to be willing to suffer alongside those in our world who are struggling. To recognize our place in the human family and heed God’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Not out of guilt, or shame, or fear… But out of enormous gratitude for the reality that God has come among us. That God has come among us and continues to invite us to share in the all-loving life of the Creator.
Or, as the sage Howard Thurman once said:
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Christmas Eve, 7 pm
December 24, 2016