31 January 2011

Christmas Eve 2010

St. Luke’s, Burlington

By Stuart Pike

When I was a teenager living in England, one of the marvelous things which my family enjoyed were the magnificent cathedrals.

Often on a week-end we would jump into the car and drive to one diocese or another - to Winchester or Worcester or Chichester or Salisbury or Exeter or to London.

We went to so many.

We basically Cathedral-crawled our way through England during the three years we lived there.

Each cathedral was beautiful; each one, in its own way, contained something perfectly holy within its walls.

First of all, one would get the sight of the Cathedral from a distance.

This would spark in me an excitement which would mount until we would climb the steps and, necks craning back to see the height of it, we would at last enter through the heavy wooden doors and into the holy space.

I would imagine the sheer weight of the structure, and would feel the solidity of the stones,

the history of human effort, which went into the construction.

Oddly enough, though, the holiness for me wasn’t perceived in the physicality of the building, but in the great weightless and invisible space.

The holy was in the great emptiness contained within those beautifully adorned walls.

It was so entirely fitting that all that stone and glass and wood be the physical container of this holiness

- it all filled one with awe and prepared one for the sacred experience -

but the infinite was in the space.

The other thing which I would often experience in those cathedrals, was the sacred music

- the organ, the beautiful singing, which, like the beauty of the cathedral itself,

would bring me right up to its conclusion: the silent and empty immensity in which was God.

The sheer beauty of the music would cause me to gasp, and in the drawn breath the holiness of that space would fill me.

- God is here!

The memory of it now fills me with the sense of excitement and wonder.

I still feel that way when I visit our own cathedral in Hamilton,

and I feel it within the beautiful wood and stained glass, and in the music of this Church of St. Luke.

And now for something completely different, as they would say on Monty Python:

The birth of Jesus was completely at the other side of the spectrum.

Jesus was born, not in some royal palace or hallowed hall, but in the squalor and stench of a stable.

We like to paint a serene picture - a humble, yet oh so clean tableau.

The animals are gentle, as are the shepherds

who have hastened to behold the holy mystery,

the baby tenderly and mildly smiles at his adoring mother who kneels at the manger.

Joseph, the strong and silent type, stands protectively by.

All my experiences of stables and their animal occupants and of babies and their birth tell another story.

A noisy and smelly and uncomfortable story.

A story of poverty and pain and of cries and tears in the dark

and of fear

and such great hope in the midst of it all.

Amazingly, God who created the universe, leapt across the chasm of infinity to be born in such a poor and rude place as this stable.

The poor shepherds were the roughest sorts of people you could find.

The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were desperate.

In my many decades since those teenage years and all those cathedrals, I have come to experience the holy in the meanest of circumstances as well.

Maybe it has something to do with Jesus saying to us,

“Whatever you do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”

Jesus: in the least, the poor, the lonely the sick and the suffering.

I experienced the holy:

In the woman in Uruguay living in the corrugated tin shack, without a husband, caring for her six children.

In the six year old beggar girl in Madagascar carrying her baby brother on her back.

In the man in his fifties reeling with the news of his terminal diagnosis.

In the last breath drawn by the dying person.

In the stark emptiness of these situations, there is, once again, an astounding holiness which cannot be explained in words.

I sometimes draw in my breath in recognition. God is here!

If God is in the exquisite perfection of the Cathedral, and God is in the baseness and poverty of the stable,

- just where is there a place where God is not?

I think that the thought contained in this last question is exactly why Jesus was born in a stable.

The story holds such extreme contrasts together.

Perhaps this is why the story holds such meaning for us, and why we tell it again and again.

Our lives contain such incredible contrasts. Our lives are sometimes pure and pristine, and sometimes they’re so extremely messy - sometimes all in the same day!

The maker of the universe, born in weakness and poverty.

The coarse shepherds are witnesses, alongside the chorus of heavenly angels.

God’s being extends to all sorts and conditions.

And God is where you are!

And more amazing than the place of Jesus’ birth is the fact that God was born into human flesh at all.

What a concept!

We forget to be amazed.

Because of Jesus’ birth we know that human is one of the ways God can be.

Being human is something which all of us experience

- in our relationship with others, and in our own being.

It is into the midst of this humanity that our Saviour was born.

In the midst of the noise of our lives and in the peace of quiet contemplation, God is.

In the profanity of our nature and in the wondrous harmony of our music, God is.

God isn’t only reserved for the pure and the noble;

God is for everyone:

the wisest and the dullest,

the purest and the basest.

Now in what I hope are my middle years, I have come to treasure the holiness which I experience in the beauty:

in the old wood and glass and in the music.

But I realize that I need to bring that sense of holiness out of the Church with me and into the rest of my life - into the humanity of it all.

And sometimes I gasp in recognition: God is here! Amen.

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