For those of us who share — or try to share — Athanasius’s faith in the Incarnation of the Word, the world on Christmas Day can look like a highly charged place. If God’s action is not remote and distant, or localized in a special place, but abroad in the universe through the mysterious union of God and humanity, the whole crazy, kitschy apparatus of Christmas becomes a little easier to appreciate.
So by this view the ultimately Godless event would be something like the playoff-bound New Orleans Saints dismantling the hapless Minnesota Vikings 42-20. It’s low in cosmic significance and high in probability.
Natural and inevitable desires become a matrix into which the clumsy, inefficient reality of organic life gets plugged. The consequences of this development are ultimately more spiritual than political, as we risk becoming estranged and cut off from the physical world we have learned to use with such remarkable dexterity.
This is not to say, as politicians like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan have recently suggested, that churches can step in to replace the social safety net. But in their own small, often invisible ways, local churches do something that I am tempted to call radical in our segmented, individualistic society: They ask us to bear with one another.
The denial of death and guilt has become useful to us, even necessary. Ash Wednesday stands out, then, as a brutally frank reminder of things we have halfway persuaded ourselves aren’t true — that our lives are brief and that we need grace. It’s a reminder people seem to crave. I’ve made empty churches echo with the news that God embraces and forgives, but when the day comes to be marked with the sign of mourning and repentance, the pews are suddenly full.
But public acts of penitence and the need to escape the snares of daily living weren’t always thought of as so trivial. For me at least, a show like “Celebrity Rehab” — along with its other charms — demonstrates just how far we’ve gone to recast many of the insights of the ancient Christian and Buddhist monastic traditions into the modern, secular terms of recovery.
These were the clothes in which he had walked the highways and byways of Galilee. These were the clothes he was wearing when people with every disease came to him. They were clothes stained with the wine and oil of meals with tax collectors and sinners. They were clothes stained with spots of his own blood, drawn by the hard roads he walked. They were scuffed and dulled by walking through the grain fields on the sabbath. They had touched the widow’s son as Jesus raised him from the dead. They had been stained by the tears of the woman who washed his feet.
Note: I preached this sermon on January 31, 2016 at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois. Apparently I did not make a manuscript of it.
I remember being a college student in the desert in California and looking up at the night sky and being filled with a kind of awe I did not have a name for. I didn’t yet have any firm ideas about God. But it was as if I was being asked something: is there some great unity behind this vast universe? Do the stars in their courses have anything to do with me, a little tiny person on a mountain somewhere? There is something about beauty and vastness and the sheer power of nature that leads us to the edge of ourselves, right up to God.
And what you learn from this experience of insecurity is that the way we talk about this stuff—what we’ve “earned,” what we “deserve,” what we’re “entitled” to—is just words. There’s only what we’re willing to give to each other, and what the world can take away. The rest of it–all that “earning” and “deserving” and “being entitled”–is smoke and mirrors. The child in our care can see a doctor when she needs to and get the medicines that help her breathe because Americans pay for her, through Medicaid. And if we as a society are ever convinced that medicine for a child is a luxury we can’t afford, it can just go away.