Christmas Eve 2022: Presents? No, presence…

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A link to YouTube video version is available at the end of the text

Right here, right now
is the eye of the Christmas storm.
I love it when we get to Christmas Eve
and we get to be here.

Here’s what I mean.
According to Pew Research,
96% of Americans celebrate Christmas.
Not 96% of Christian,
but 96% of people whether or not
they feel any affinity with our religion
or any religion.
32% of Jews decorate a Christmas tree.
More than 75% of American Buddhists and Hindus celebrate Christmas.

So less than half of those who observe Christmas
see it as primarily a religious event,
or their religious event.

I love that there is still something
that so many of us share —
a common ritual of some kind.

I just wish I could tell everyone
that underneath this grand secularized holiday
there is a secret of sorts, that is hidden in plain sight.

And it isn’t even really about Jesus —
the Jesus Story
points to it
and reveals it even,
but it is about…God.

But I have gotten ahead of myself
so let me back up —
about 35 years to be exact.

When I was a new dad
I would marvel that my parents or Katy’s mom
would say they couldn’t remember something —
something we would ask them
about when we were small children —
perhaps to help fill in the gaps
of what we didn’t know as new parents.
But sometimes
about some things
they would say they couldn’t remember.
And I remember thinking,
”How could you forget something like that?”

Zoom thirty years ahead
and what I don’t remember
would fill the ocean.

But, there is something I do remember
and it is lodged in my brain
like a knot in wood.
In part, perhaps, because I had a refresher
with both my grandsons.

It is the experience
of rocking a baby in my arms,
her or him sleeping
as I peer down my chest
and watch that little puffy, puckered face
and hear that snuffly breathing
from a sleeping baby.

A baby’s presence is powerful,
whether quiet like that or screaming.
The presence of a baby
demands attention must be paid.

But in those afternoons
or late nights
of rocking a baby
back and forth
back and forth,
and softly singing sometimes too,
pretty soon that baby’s powerful presence
would pull me in.

You may remember what it feels like
when you become present
only to that moment
in that time
at that spot.
All else is obliterated,
even if only for a moment.

Being totally present in the moment.
There are many ways that can happen —
total presence.

Another, less idyllic version,
one I may have already mentioned before,
was when I was a chaplain intern
at New England Deaconess Hospital.
For several weeks that summer, I was called upon
to sit with a young man about my age
who had been burned over much of his body.
He was in some kind of hyperbaric oxygen treatment
and couldn’t talk well, only a few words here or there.

My job was to go sit with him for awhile every day –
just to be present.
He was in agony, of course,
and there was nothing I could do for him –
except sit there, be present.
”Is it okay if I sit for awhile,” I would ask.
He would gesture the best he could
in a way that welcomed me to do so.

While rocking a baby pulled me into
simple presence,
I had to work at simply being present
to the young man I sat with.
The baby too, if I’m honest.
It isn’t easy any time
to simply be with someone
and do nothing.

Random thoughts
will begin to cloud the brain,
call to us about things done
and left undone,
rain down emotions
that splatter
and wiggle
and writhe.

But learning to be simply present
in the presence of suffering
or even when we are just tired
or anxious
or otherwise distracted,
takes a lot of effort.

Simple presence,
being present with us,
is what Christmas is about.

If Christmas was a book title,
the subtitle would be, “God makes it in.
”The Story of Christmas, God makes it in.”

Did you ever have the experience
of God slipping into your grief?
Did that ever happen to you?
Maybe it did
and you didn’t think of it as God?
And maybe it didn’t even feel good at the time
but you look back now and are grateful for it?

I’m talking about a dark moment of loss
or a shattering moment of powerlessness
or a moment so anxious
you wanted to jump out of your skin.
Those kinds of moments.

And in such moments,
when you don’t think you can take any more,
something or someone happens…and
you realize you can take it…and
you have taken it…and
there is some kind of way

That someone or something
that gave you a hand to hold
or a sliver of light to hope toward,
may have been mere serendipity or
may have been a gift.

We do not get to actually know for sure
but in those moments of despair
or shattering grief
or deep, dark depression —
when we felt overwhelmed
or powerless —
we were empowered.
We were given something
or felt something
or heard something
that moved us.
Something entered into the darkness
and empowered us.
And then we made it to Christmas Eve
to a nest of community
where we know people love us.

I am not saying we get rescued
or saved
from every and all hazardous
That would be pure fantasy.

In fact, there will come a time
when we no longer go forward.
We know that —
it is a condition we call “Life.”
It ends.
But I like to think
that death is the mirror image
of birth.
In that manger
God slipped into Life
and in the manger we call death,
we slip into God.

I like to trust my experience like that.
When someone asks me to believe something
I have never witnessed or experienced
I just can’t do it.

I don’t necessarily reject
what I have not experienced out of hand,
I mostly just remain agnostic about it — as in,
”I don’t know.”

But so far in my life
my experience is that God slips in
some time
some way
and some times I don’t even recognize it
until much latter, looking back.
That makes me trust God
and trust God unto death
and trust God unto birth.

God slips into life
and eventually, we all slip into God.

That is the Jesus story, it seems to me,
taken as a whole.
Christmas Eve
to the night before he died for us
to the afternoon of Good Friday
to Easter morning
is all one seamless story.

There is some Episcopal prayer about that:
from the hard wood of the manger
to the rough wood of the cross, it says.

Anyway, God slips into life to be present with us
even if there is nothing to be done
to change our situation.

And we know, as the saying goes,
the difference between pain and suffering
is that suffering is pain
endured in isolation.
When we endure pain all by ourselves
and let no one know
or have no one to know,
then the pain grows into suffering.

It is almost miraculous
what a difference it makes
to open the door of our pain
so that people who care about us
can come be with us in it.

Like I said, in the moment
it may not jump out at us
but over the length of days
or looking back,
we will see and know
what a difference it made.

I do not for a minute
think that God was absent
before Jesus was born and died.
But in this story that was given to us
we have it revealed.
Our eyes were opened to it in a new way
and we could see something
that was always true —
God is with us.

And God’s presence with us
is so pervasive in this life,
when we experience it and even when we don’t,
that I cannot imagine
there is a time
or a place
or a realm
or an orbit
or a dimension
or a Black Hole
or a death
where God is not also present.

God slips into Life
and we slip into God.
Merry Christmas.