What is this all about? As I’m getting older, I find myself asking this question more and more about Christmas. Advent has always been a meaningful time for me but as the years pass and I’m immersed in the plastic-toy phase, I need Christmas to matter…
Let me tell you about the video you just watched, “A Brief History of Christmas” produced by Worship House Media. Right after my very academic Divinity school education, I began ministry in a suburb of Dallas. On staff was a man named Dan whose job was to visually interpret our sermons and create the Sunday morning visuals to match our words. We spent a great deal of time together on sermon prep, and with every sermon, he pushed me to drop more into my heart and leave that head-stuff behind, not even for Bible study. He first introduced me to this video, so every Advent, I watch this video and remember the sermon planning with Dan. Life wasn’t fair and he died from cancer at a young age with a young family. Maybe he’s in this room today; he’s somewhere screaming to drop into my heart.
Angels — that’s our topic today on this second Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of Peace. You’ve heard the two stories from Luke where angels take a pretty large role in interrupting the ordinary lives of a young girl and then again somewhere around 9 months later, a group of shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. We think angels bring peace, but they actually disrupt what we think is peace.
I’ve always liked the more energetic side of life. In some ways, I’ve wanted to be a witch. When I was in Texas, if I said this in a sermon there would be a collective gasp. Here in Canada, if I say that then someone says, “oh, they are meeting down in room 3.” As a kid I wanted and hoped and believed that somehow, someway the veil between this world and another world was thinner than our scientifically-based lives allows. Whether it be my fascination with angels, and I’m not talking about the cherub-kind but the larger than life brings out fear-in-you-kind —rather the kind portrayed by Emma Thompson in HBO’s Angels in America — kind, or its my love of Dicken’s ghosts in a Christmas Carol—how could there not be ghosts in 1800s London?
And even parenting introduced me to the stories of Strega Nona — by Tomie dePaola. Strega Nona, meaning “Grandma Witch” who lives in a little village called Calabria in Italy. In the tale, “Merry Christmas Strega Nona,” the bumbling village boy, Big Anthony, wants Strega Nona to use her Magic Pasta Pot to prepare for the feast she hosts for the villagers every Christmas Eve — to which Strega Nona tells him several times over, “Christmas has a magic all of its own.”
This has become my mantra — Christmas has a magic all of its own — so as Christmas-es come and Christmas-es go, when that feeling hits of enjoyment of the season, or, maybe its a Christmas with significant changes that have happened in the past year, or when it’s a Christmas that won’t be the same as all the Christmases that have come before it, those are the years when I wish the angels would interrupt my ordinary life or a Strega Nona would show up and pronounce the words “Christmas has a magic all its own” — something, anything, so that this season means more than just rushing and buying and eating.
Now here’s the difficult thing about offering a sermon on angels: to talk about things like angels, or Christmas ghosts, or Grandma witches, we have to ask the Enlightened, scientific side of ourselves, the left brain part of us, to relax. As Dan would say, think with your heart.
Because that part of us doesn’t like to let go, we’ve taken something like the angels and created a curriculum and a scientific approach to understanding them because we tend to be creatures who search for understanding in hopes of controlling. In the head vs. heart conversation, when the head takes over, you get things like “angelology.” Because somehow adding “-ology” makes something more legit.
We’ve lived this tension in Christianity since we’ve had to make sense of a supernatural story. How do you make sense of something that can be explained? How do you make the impossible seem logical?
Even in something as simple as a loaf of bread and a cup of juice or wine which we will share together today, there have been so many debates and arguments and lives lost over what this means that God is here with us. (Not to mention how many texts droning on and on about the different theories of what happens when we bless and when we eat this bread and wine?) The Roman Catholic church defined it as transubstantiation while Luther defined it as Consubstantiation while Zwingli identified it as Memorialism and then there’s Calvin who didn’t get a multi-syllabic word to define his view about communion but his words, “Predestination and Irresistable Grace” meant communion was only communion for those who have been chosen and the rest of us, well, good luck.
Please note how much I’m holding back on launching into a full-blown lecture of the historical thought and development of communion-ology. I like being in my head but will stay with my heart… It’s probably generous to say that the Orthodox have held space over the centuries for communion to exist somewhere closer to the heart-side of us as they’ve used the word “Mystery” rather than “Sacrament” to describe what this becomes.
I’m holding back because it’s way easier to stay stuck in our heads rather than fumbling around with a mystery, with angels, with ghosts and conjuring up the unknown.
What happens when we get stuck in our heads? It’s like we pole vault in order to keep from being here, right here, in this present moment, completely vulnerable without the defences of our talky-talk brains.
We overthink and pole-vault ourselves from the present moment by staying in our heads and then we over schedule so we grab hold of a zip line that carries us through the rush of our lives because we think not having a moment to stand still somehow validates our being.
If we aren’t over-thinking it, then we are over-scheduling.
Start up a conversation about angels, and some folk might have beautiful stories to tell of appearances made by loved ones after their death. As a minister, I’ve heard some stories that leave you stunned in your tracks by the strange things that can happen after a loved one dies. The ring that is found, the flower that blooms, the bird that lands in just a specific place—these things somehow happen.
I’ve sat with a few families as they have approached the end of life for a loved one and there is those tender moments with stories being told and even inside jokes being remembered and laughed at one last time. I’ve heard the somewhat half-serious requests that their loved one send some kind of sign after they die. And even though this seems sweet, I will never forget one person, when asked this request, responded, “Why would I want to commit myself to a to-do list for after I die when I don’t even know yet what my choices and opportunities might be?” I can almost hear the angel-voice over the loud speaker, “For all you type A who promised a loved one you would send a sign, please note that your eternity on a warm sunny beach will be delayed by two weeks as penance for still trying “to do” even once “your doing” season is done.
We over-schedule and overthink to pole-vault us out of being present in this moment, staying open to the possibility that even now an angel might be among us.
In the Christmas stories of angels, when they first show-up, their recorded first words are, “Do not be afraid.” My translation, “Stay with me here, right now.”
Those words are more than comforting; the angel’s greeting let’s us know that in this moment, the stakes are high. What is about to be said will change a person’s direction. What are the consequence of being afraid, of checking-out, of over scheduling or over-thinking what this moment right now holds?” We are paralyzed, stunned, and too fearful to take-up our role in this cosmic story.
A friend talks about there being just two emotions: fear and love. I no longer think they are two separate emotions; more like two sides to the same coin. To love means to open up to being vulnerable, and that’s a fearful place. To love means to risk and to risk means we won’t always know the outcome and that this state of uncertainty, what some might even call those awkward moments, those are really normal. And most importantly, love means we can risk without knowing the outcome, love means we can brew the potion, adding in a bit of this and that as we go along and gather life’s stories, and love means we don’t need to pole vault or zip line to escape the terrifying beauty found in the present moment. We can be here right now.
Want to see an angel? Practice being right where you are. See where love is. And go there.
Not in spite of your fears, but because of your fears. Go there.
Yesterday, Dec. 8, was the birthday of Roman poet Horace (books by this author), born in Italy (65 B.C.E.). He is most famous for his Odes, which take up a diverse set of topics, including springtime, Virgil, a friend’s farm, Cleopatra’s defeat, old age, and the Roman Empire. (credit to The Writer’s Almanac for this information.) One of the most famous phrases popularized by Horace is carpe diem, sometimes translated as “seize the day.” Carpe diem comes from Horace’s Ode I-XI, the 11 ode in his first book.
Heather McHugh translated one ode:
“Get wise. Get wine, and one good filter for it.
Cut that high hope down to size, and pour it
into something fit for men. Think less
of more tomorrows, more of this
one second, endlessly unique: it’s
jealous, even as we speak, and it’s
about to split again …”