Saturday, December 25, 2010

Becoming All Flame

“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid…I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”                                   —Luke 2:10

Two phrases dominate the Christmas story—“good news” and “great joy.” Listen to them carefully. Good news. Great joy. These phrases describe the core, the very heart, of our Christmas celebration. Even more wonderfully, these words spoken by the angels of heaven to the salt of the earth, are addressed quite directly to you and me.

Do not be afraid. Really. You have absolutely nothing to fear. Don’t you know? Whether you understand it or not, the very core of your being is infinitely good, and believe it or not, your life at its center is unimaginable joy. This is reality. This is the “dignity of human nature” described in the collects for Christmas and celebrated during this holy season.[1] This is our life. Divine life is already among us. Divine love lives within us. For in Christ we awaken, as Simeon the New Theologian wrote centuries ago,  and “all our body, all over, every most hidden part of it, is realized in joy as Him and he makes us utterly real.”[2]

There is a story of that comes from the hermits who lived in solitude in the deserts of Egypt during the fourth century. Brother Lot, it seems, went to a wise and elderly monk, Brother Joseph, and said “Father, as far as I can I say my prayers throughout the day. I fast from time to time. I pray and I...

meditate. I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” By all accounts, Brother Lot was a decent person. He would seem to be on track on the spiritual journey, doing things right, well along the path in  terms of his spiritual practice. Whether or not he was frustrated or wearied by the spiritual journey is not clear in the story, but still he seemed to know that there was something more, and still he asked the old man the question, “What else can I do?” As the story goes, the wise old monk listened patiently and sat thoughtfully and quietly for a moment. Then he stood, and rising to his full stature he stretched out his hands toward heaven. “What else can you do?” he said as his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. “Well, if you will, you can become all flame.”

There it is: “If you will, you can become all flame.”

I imagine that would have been as surprising and unexpected a response to Brother Joseph in the fourth century as it is to us today. But there you have it. That’s the discovery of Christmas, not merely that divine love is among us and with us in all its fullness, but that this love is who we are—that we are built, created, made in love to radiate unfathomable love to a world whose vision of itself has grown dark and whose senses have become dull and listless.

Imagine that: “If you are willing, you can become all flame.”

I am reasonably certain that this proposition was just as disturbing to those figures who populate the story of the birth of Jesus as it may be to us. Even standing face to face with the radiance of the angel Gabriel, Mary was perplexed and frightened. When told that she, a peasant girl from the Palestinian countryside, would bear within her and give birth to divine love made flesh, the very Christ of God, she could only say, “How can this be?” Joseph was faced with a rather different proposition—not with impossibly good news but with impossibly scandalous news that his betrothed was pregnant by someone else. A kind and practical man, he could only weigh his options and begin to make other face-saving arrangements. The shepherds, knowing all too well that they occupied the lowest of rungs on the socio-economic ladder of their day, could only have stood in the brilliant presence of the heavenly host with considerable incredulity.

But there it is: impossibility made possible. Somehow Mary says “yes.” Somehow Joseph, even recognizing the reality of certain scandal, embarrassment, and shame, finds it within himself to believe differently and to act differently on his belief. Somehow the shepherds, undoubtedly hardened and skeptical souls, are willing simply to take a look. Somehow they all consent. Somehow they all say “yes” to love, each in their own way. In spite of overwhelming cultural conditioning to the contrary, they all choose somehow to believe that God is actually doing something miraculous among them. And the miracle? They see the face of God in a child named Jesus and become themselves the face of God—those in whom and through whom divine love is fully revealed to a dark and listless world.

I am confident that everyone here tonight is a good person, and tonight we celebrate wonderfully good news of  unimaginably great joy—not merely that we are loved, but even more wonderfully, that we are love. Listen carefully. All of heaven already sings in your heart.

Did you know that if you will, you can become all flame?

[1] The Book for Common Prayer, page 214.
[2] Simeon the New Theologian, an eleventh century Greek Orthodox mystic, is cited by Cynthia Bourgeault in her book, The Wisdom Jesus, page 135.