Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Homily: December 25, 2012 [Christmas Day] Washington National Cathedral



Peanuts

            Charlie Brown goes to his front door, where Snoopy stands offering him a Christmas present.  “For me?” says Charlie Brown.  “Thank you very much.”  Then he opens the gift card:  “For the rounded-headed kid . . . Merry Christmas.”  As he looks toward the departing Snoopy, Charlie Brown observes, “It would be nice to have a dog who remembered your name.”
I have few secret passions in life, but one of them is Peanuts, the Charles Schultz comic strip featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang. I started reading Peanuts in the daily paper in fourth grade, and I have followed the cartoon through all its developments—Linus’s struggles to quit the blanket habit; the birth of Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally; the introduction of Snoopy’s bird friend, Woodstock; the arrival of the first African American member, Franklin; the search by Snoopy’s brothers Andy and Olaf for their desert-dwelling sibling, Spike.
This season my bedtime reading has consisted of working through a book that collects all the comic’s yuletide cartoons, A Peanuts Christmas. The strips are memorable: Linus agonizing over having to recite the Christmas story we heard last night in front of the PTA; Sally writing to Santa and rhapsodizing about the joys not of giving but of getting; Lucy slugging Linus because he shows her up by writing his thank-you notes more quickly than she does; Charlie Brown putting up Snoopy’s Christmas tree in his doghouse and asking if Snoopy would rather unplug the TV set or the clock radio. Peanuts is so much a part of my life that I cannot imagine Christmas without it. “It would be nice to have a dog who remembered your name.”
And part of why I love Peanuts so much lies in the way it combines a sincere appreciation of childhood’s joys with a frank assessment of the pains and struggles of life. It would be nice to have a dog who remembered your name.  I fantasize that our two terriers know who I am, but when I’m realistic about it, I realize they probably think of me only as the big guy with the leash and the treats.  We look for fulfillment where we probably shouldn’t hope to find it. “It would be nice to have a dog who remembered your name.”
Today is Christmas Day, and for most people in our culture the celebration of the season is coming now to a close.  In modern America, Christmas begins on Black Friday and ends at around noon today, when the carols suddenly leave the airwaves to be replaced by pop hits.  For those of us who live by the church’s calendar, though, the Christmas season is just beginning, and the next twelve days will open for us a series of abiding gifts, each one more surprising than the last.  Last night we heard the story of Mary and Joseph giving birth to the baby Jesus in a stable.  Today we hear not that familiar story again but a reflection on what it means.  From the beginning of John’s Gospel:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the father. [John 1: 14 RSV]
What both of these biblical passages are trying to say is that, in Jesus, God has come right into the midst of human life.  That’s a hard truth for you and me humans to take in.  We are prone to think of God as someone or something remote, distant, far away, removed from human experience.  But for Christians, and for all people of faith, that way of thinking is wrong.  God made human beings in God’s own image and invested us with divine significance.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.  The one at the center of creation is born in a Bethlehem stable.  Whether we know it or not, we are steeped in and surrounded by radiant holiness.  That is the perception at the heart of all the world’s religions.  It’s what Christmas is really about.
To burnish my reputation as an intellectual, I’ll add that in addition to reading A Peanuts Christmas, my other bedtime reading has been the poetry of William Blake. (You ought to see my nightstand.  It looks like a used bookstore.) Blake was a visionary 18th century English poet and engraver, and one of his best-known poems (“Auguries of Innocence”) gives voice to this universal perception that we’re steeped in holiness.  It begins,
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

Anywhere you look, says Blake, anything you pick up is charged with that holiness.  But the poem doesn’t stop there. Here is how it ends:
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day

Here’s how John’s Gospel puts it: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the father.”  Here’s how William Blake puts it:
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night 
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day
The pain of being human is that we live, as Buddhists tell us, in illusion.  We think too much, and when we think we fall prey to the idea that we are alone, cut off, walking around in darkness.  Worse than that, we fall prey to the illusion that God and we are somehow separate from each other.  Christmas is the antidote to that illusion.  The Word has become flesh and dwells among us.  God displays a human form to those who choose to live in the daylight.  The world is precious.  You are precious.  All your human brothers and sisters, all created beings are precious because they participate in God’s holiness. As a spiritual director of mine once said, “We are holy because God is holy.”
            One of my favorite living poets is a Buddhist woman, Jane Hirschfield, who lived for three years at Tassajara, a Zen monastery in California.  She not only writes poems, she writes about poetry and the spirituality of it.  Here is something she said earlier this year about what her Zen practice has taught her about the holiness, the preciousness of the world:
What is is enough. You don’t have to add anything to reality to feel awe, or to feel respect, or to see the radiance of existence. Radiance simply is. . . . It may seem simplistic, but I truly believe that if you put a person in a prison cell with nothing but the chance and the desire to pay attention, everything they need to know about the radiance of the world is there, available. [Jane Hirschfield, “Think Assailable Thoughts or Be Lonely”, Poetry, February, 2012]
            Everything we need to know about the radiance of the world is there, available.  That’s not only a mystic insight.  That’s the truth at the center of Christianity.  The Word has become flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.  The great gift of Christmas for you and me this morning is a further revealing of what the birth of Jesus means for us.  In John’s words, that birth means that we have been given “power to become children of God”.  To William Blake it means that God now displays a human form.  To Jane Hirschfield it means that radiance simply is. The Word has become flesh and lived among us.  You, your life, your household, your community, your world—all display the meaning and purpose and radiance of God.  The One whom we welcome at Christmas is not a strange visitor from another planet.  The One we welcome at Christmas is us, and we are him. 
            As you go about your life in the next twelve days, try to pay attention to signs of this radiance and blessing as they reveal themselves both within and outside you.  See that radiance when you look in the mirror.  See that radiance when you attend to the creation.  Be open to that blessing when you encounter others, perhaps in surprising and unexpected places and ways.  Christmas opens us up, as Blake says,
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

The Word has become flesh and has lived among us and lives among us now. You and your world and your life and relationships are holy in ways we can only now begin to imagine.  Snoopy may think of Charlie Brown as the “round headed-kid”, but if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that the God we know in Jesus remembers his name.  Amen.