Christmas Eve 2016: God Makes It IN Alive

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Merry Christmas.
In the next fourteen minutes
we are going to zig and zag from Geneva,
to stars and light beyond our solar system,
back to Bethlehem, and then to Humpty Dumpty,
and to Geneva all over again.
Hang on,
and come with me if wish,
or just stay there and relax.

Every story
has a denotation and a connotation
just like a window faces in and faces out
all at the same time.
IF it is a story that matters – a life and death story,
or in any way holds serious implications for our own lives and how we live them –
then we had better know the difference
between its denotation and connotation.

The denotation of a story
is the direct, explicit,
even literal meaning of its words.
Directions for how to put together
the bicycle or organizer you just brought home
are denoted
and are not in any way symbolic.

The denotation of a story
is the meaning of its face value –
the words are given no license to speak imaginatively
nor for the reader to wander off the leash
of literal meanings.

The denotation of a poodle, for example,
is to its specific breed, a class of dog;
but it is not an indication
of the socio-economic class of its owner –
that would be its connotation.

The connotation of a story,
distinct from its denotation,
is a very different kind of animal.

While “house” denotes shelter,
home connotes a warm, safe place.
There’s the difference.

The connotation of a word or story
is what it suggests or implies,
rather than pointing explicitly to its definition.

The connotation of a story
wanders free of its literal designation
and into the dream-world imagery
of expressive ideas and secondary meanings.

Let’s take for example, the rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty.”

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the kings’ men
couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Humpty Dumpty, literally,
was the name given to a canon, as in a big gun.

Literally, the denotation of Humpty Dumpty
was a specific big canon
that sat on a fortified wall of an English city,
pounding the forces laying siege to it
that were also threatening King Charles 1st
with a Parliament.

Humpty Dumpty defended the King
against having to rule
in collaboration with a bunch of Commoners.
As fate would have it,
an errant rebel cannonball shattered the wall
below the big cannon,
and down Humpty Dumpty, that big cannon, fell.

As the rhyme tells us,
it broke into a million pieces.
There was no egg.

Humpty Dumpty,
the LITERARY character depicted as an egg,
came a hundred years later,
in Lewis Carroll’s, “Through the Looking Glass.”

So the original denotation
of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme,
was a rebel cheer
over their victory against Charles 1st
when the fierce cannon fell.

The connotation of the rhyme
was the English Civil War
with its clash of ideas about government.
But eventually,
both its denotation and connotation disappeared
and we were left with just a rhyme.
That is not unlike the Christmas story.
While it is the denotation of the Christmas story
we witness in crèche scenes
and hear in these carols we sing,
it is the connotation
of the Christmas story that matters.

Get it?
IT’s the meaning behind the images.
The Christmas story is an epic poem,
not a short story.

The Christmas story is understood,
not by tracking literal definitions on the page,
but rather, by hunting in the bush
of wild and wondrous meanings.

So let us leave behind
the familiar denotation of Christmas
like an old metal milk box on the stoop,
and follow the tracks of wild dreams and images
until we hunt down in this story
its strange and beguiling connotation.

A dark,

Dark…as in standing inside a closet –
or closing a casket.

Dark…as in no city,
no street lights flooding shopping malls,
no municipal parking lots,
or downtown streets.

No light
except millions,
zillions, even a gazillion
freckles thrown across the black dome above.
Sweet, twinkling, stingy
stars, holding back any shower of light,
refusing in their cold distance
to illuminate even the hillside above a village.

So dark…
the town cradled in the valley below
remains unseen from the hillside above.

Precious, fragile candles
in darkened homes
cast no more light to the hills above,
than ancient stars enlighten the
celestial shadow to those below.

rough and dirty.

Rough…as in a trough hewn by hand
from a rotten tree.
Rough, splintered, and ragged
left in apathy because
people don’t use it anyway.

Dirty…as in cows drink from it.
Thick, nameless film
and unidentifiable crust
gathered from cud and saliva,
bird feathers, and goat hair.
Just plain dirty.

Dirty trough…as in manger.

new Life.

Raw…as in the wall of blood and mucus
an infant must pierce
in order to enter this dark night.

New…as in seconds old,
choking like a fish stranded in mud.
Slimy, soaked body
trying to swim the air,
eyes sealed shut;
arms and legs like tentacles
searching for the warm water-world
left behind.

Life…as in his burning throat
sputtering for air,
choking as he thrashes in misery
the large warm hands of his father
cradle him with a swift and gentle motion,
placing him on the bare breasts
of his new world,
his new place of rest.


Mother…as in she who coos
with tears,
with pain still throbbing now diluted,
with relief still on edge
as the cold,
the dark,
the dangers,
stand unseen beyond the small shroud
of candle light and husband.

Mother… as in mystified co-creator
wrapped within an invisible bond
suddenly filled with love
that surpasses all her understanding.

Raw, new,
wrapped in hand-spun cloth,
placed in rough hewn
and dirty trough,
surrounded by the absence of light.

And then that one final element, God.

God…as in sliver of light
entering unseen
the dark envelope of night.

God…as in the warm breath
exhaled into cold air.

God…as in Life,
gyrating IN the arms
thrashing IN the legs
in search of this new body.

God…as in the invisible bond
holding them all together;
a love so sudden,
a rushing wind from nowhere
so virulent
it surpasses every thought, word,
and understanding.
God…the one who endures birthwars with us.
God…the one present in the aftersilence of death.
God…the night,
and the light,
and the stars;
who was and is the infant
the father
the mother.
That is Christmas.

Christmas…as in God
who cradles us
in the complicated stress
and loneliness
of a holiday.

Christmas…as in God
nestled in the dirty commercialism
we love and hate.

Christmas…as in God
slipping into the darkness of our grief
over those not with us this year.

Christmas…as in God
who is an infant in the dark;
tucked away in the anonymity of poverty,
hidden in a cave,
blanketed in dirt and coarseness.
As in not born of privilege.
As in not mediated by coercion.
As in not protected from our violence.
As in a story of impoverished vulnerability
lacking in guile
but massively in the face of our
and excesses
and fraudulent values.

That God,
the one not so big,
easily overlooked in the birth of newness
and nascent hope,
born even in this moment.

That God.
That Christmas.
That newborn hope.
That light in the darkness.

Let us wander around in that connotation
of those images
and of those words,
and away from the denotation of a set stage
that looks like a 21st century Hollywood image
of a first century rural village.

The power of the Christmas story
bubbling up through ancient Scripture
and whispering hoarsely to us
through the noise of our celebrations
is in its poignancy
not its romanticized images.

in the connotation of words and images,
not in the denotation of literal meanings,
the powerful poignancy of this story
is seen, and heard, and felt.

But one of the difficulties we have
in seeing and hearing the Christmas story
as Matthew and Luke may have intended it,
is that we always look up
as if at the bottom of an imagined pyramid
toward the pinnacle of power,
asking for a sign of what is to come
or for its meaning
and for clear directions.

We look up to the boss,
up to the president,
up to the parent,
up to the heavens…
But the Christmas story is about the cosmos
looking down toward the earth
for a sign…from us.

That is the connotation of the Christmas story.

The cosmos
in all of its unutterable vastness
looking down onto the pitifully puny
blue-brown planet
swirled in the white wisps of atmosphere.

The heavenly chorus of brilliant stars,
and vast expanse of interstellar space;
galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses;
all looking down, down, down
to a single point on this spinning orb.

All of it
looking down into the dark,
ordinary, anonymous world
that each of us knows so well
in our own way and in our own times.

The whole cosmos
looking down for a sign
of what we will do
with this God-filled moment.

We look up.
We look up to the heavens
and angels
and stars.

But they all point back and say:
“Don’t look up!
Look here,
look there,
look now,
look around.
Your birth is at hand.
See? God is born in your midst,
now, there, over here, there, now.”

The cosmos looks down and points to us
and pleads for us to stop looking up.

If the story of Christmas is only about Mary
and Joseph
and the baby Jesus;
if it is only about the shepherds
and the village of David;
if it is only about something that happened
a long time ago;
then all of this is just a very weak re-enactment,
like a grade-school play
about the life of Lincoln or the Erie Canal.

But it is not about something that happened
a long time ago;
it is not a re-enactment –
that would be its denotation.

Christmas is about God
who continues to be born;
born into your life and mine.

It is about God
who is born into a hostile and dangerous world –
born into the darkness
but makes it IN alive!

Christmas is about God
who is born into the lives of Sikhs and Muslims,
Jews and Buddhists,
and among those who do not know
or even look for a God.

It is about God
who is fulfilling ancient promises,
and making new ones.

It is about God
who pierces the placenta that insulates
old-time religions
and those of cynical belief,
and who is delivered into our hearts and minds
in spite of ourselves.

On this cold,
under the same sky
that has covered the millenniums;
the same dome of freckled lights
bathing us now in the dirty air
of the twenty-first century;
and surrounded now
by the high-tech but spiritless glow of electricity,
and dull blue screens;

God is born.

Here and now
God makes it IN alive
again and again
in Geneva,
Lyons, and
in Canandaigua,
Seneca Castle, and Seneca Falls;
and all parts
east and west,
north and south.

At this moment,
in this perilous milieu
of post-modern,
globalized consumerism,
and culture of abandoned megalomania –
and whatever else we are this night –
God is born.

God makes it IN
not far away in the distant past,
or on some hillside in Judea.

God makes it IN
to our darkness,
here in this place,
in our time
into our darkness.
Born here, and born now.
It is Christmas…as in “Emmanuel.”
As in, God is with us.

Let’s connote that with our own lives!

Merry Christmas.