In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Lectionary can seem oddly out of synch sometimes. Today’s Gospel, appointed for the second Sunday of Christmas, is Matthew, which starts, “Now when the wise men had departed.” And yet tomorrow is Epiphany, and we gather tomorrow night to celebrate the wise men coming. But in any case I find myself rather reluctant to let the Christmas season go. I have two images from this Christmas season, two pictures. Fr. James pointed out in last week’s sermon that pictures often carry a heavier weight of meaning than do words on a page, and that’s certainly true of Christmas. You can see that in the way the birth narratives of Jesus are written, especially by Luke. He lays it on heavy. And when people complain about Christmas being sentimentalized, I think we can go all the way back to Luke and say, “You started it”: the babe lying in a manger, in swaddling clothes; the shepherds watching the sheep, at night, having the birth announced to them by an angel. Luke pretty much pulls out all the stops. He wants it to be sentimental. He wants those images to stick, and they do. And so I am unapologetic for having this sermon be about two Christmas images: one is about a child, that’s one image; and the other is a donkey. The donkey’s right there [pointing over to the Epistle side of the Crossing]. In my more than 40 years of parish ministry I have never before as I can recall used a prop for a sermon. But now at the end I guess I’m justified in doing so.
First of all, the child. At the Family Mass on Christmas Eve, often called the “Teddy Bear Mass” here, children and their families bring up stuffed animals and pajamas and put them in the crèche over there, meant for children who may not have those things at home, or certainly not have them in abundance. On Christmas Eve the Sacred Ministers were kneeling there as the children and their families brought the gifts to the crèche, and there was one child – I’m not good at estimating the age of children – maybe 5 or 6, who laid his gifts there but wouldn’t leave. Don’t bring out your devices right now, but there’s an image on the Advent website of this happening, of a little blond-headed boy, standing between the Sacred Ministers, transfixed by what he saw before him. And he wasn’t so much looking down at the teddy bears as he was looking straight at the crèche itself, and then up at the angel. We don’t know who he was, apparently a visitor. His mother was a little embarrassed and tried to drag him back, but he wouldn’t go. He stood there for a very long time, not moving, but just staring. In wonder, one has to think. One doesn’t know what he was wondering about, that’s the nature of wonder, not to be sure what one is wondering about, that’s what makes it wonder. But the fact that he was awestruck and had been taken to another place of consciousness I think is irrefutable. That child standing in wonder, in front of the crèche scene, is an image of Christmas I’ll take with me and remember for a long, long time. Because wonder is one of the essential elements in the spiritual life, along with longing. Longing is what starts you on a spiritual journey, longing for something you sense may be ahead, longing for something you know you don’t have, and which you really can’t even define. And then wonder is arriving someplace, seeing that for which you’d journeyed and searched, but not understanding it, or comprehending it, but knowing that you’ve reached someplace significant, and standing before that place, that consciousness, that event, that person, in wonder. Wonder is an essential component for the beginning of religious life, it’s an essential quality of religious life, of Christian life, from the beginning to the end. And once you lose that, if you lose it, you’ve lost the essence of the faith. We can have perfectly orthodox theology, our practice of the faith, of good works, can be correct and self-sacrificing in every sense, but unless we have with those beliefs a sense of wonder, then we’ve missed the point. It’s rather like saying the Creed as if it’s a recipe book: put all these beliefs together and then you come up with Christian faith, instead of seeing the Creed for what it is, a shouted hymn of praise.
What you should take away with you from Christmas is most of all a sense of wonder. Because when you go through the tough times in life, when you go through your own Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday, unless there is that wonder you remember to sustain you, I doubt if you’ll make it through.
So, that’s one image, that child. The other is the donkey.
The donkey made its appearance at the Christmas Pageant, on Advent III. I was really touched by the donkey coming down the aisle, with a little tinkly bell, in silence, bearing Mary on his back, led by Joseph. [By the way it’s the most impressive church donkey I think I’ve ever seen.] But what really moved me – and one person at the 8 o’clock service looked at me when I said this as if I’d lost my mind – and let me talk a little bit about inanimate objects. Inanimate objects, nonliving things, live when we give them a sense of meaning. I can remember as a 16-year-old walking into Chartres Cathedral and falling down on my bottom. I couldn’t stand up. It was a building of stone and glass, but 800 years of people worshipping in that place had made it a living entity. So I make no apologies for what I’m about to say about the donkey.
For some reason, I’m not sure why, the donkey has stayed here through the Christmas season, shunted into the vestibule just a few days ago. It had sat for a long time right outside the Lady Chapel. And when I would go to say my prayers in the Lady Chapel I would pet the donkey on the head. And I did that increasingly with a sense of, of what, gratitude, I guess. For what? Well, there was something about the donkey’s presence which I found humbling and reassuring. The donkey is brought out once a year, it performs its humble function, then it goes back down to the undercroft. The donkey for me became a symbol of patience, which is a quality I don’t have very much of. I want things to happen and I’m impatient when they don’t happen when and how I want them to. I make myself miserable with my impatience, and I’ve been told that I make other people miserable, too. Patience is a byproduct of an even more important Christian virtue, which is humility. Humility is basic honesty, about yourself, and about life, about your limitations, about your range of experience, knowledge, and sympathy. It’s knowing yourself for who you are. Not who other people see you as being, or how you want to be seen, but how you are now. Humility is what makes a person patient. Because impatience is about assuming you know how and when things should happen. Real humility makes you understand that you really don’t have the knowledge, the qualities, the depth of experience to know those things, how and when those things should happen And so the donkey for me became a totem, an icon, of humility and patience.
One more thing about patience. This isn’t my last Sunday, but it’s my last Sunday sermon. So I would like to thank all of you for making me feel so much at home in this place for the past year. And I’d also like to ask you to be patient during the next part of the transition, as you receive your new rector. There’s a lot of joyful expectation and with it some anxiety, as there always is when this kind of event takes place. I would like you to be patient with your new rector, get to know him, let him get to know you. Don’t rush at him with a list of unnegotiable demands. If you want to know him, let him know you, and not only your position on items, but why you’re here, what this place means to you, what you hope it will become, how you hope it will remain. And then listen to him talk about those same things, what his hopes are for this place and for his ministry here. And I pray that you will receive him with the same graciousness with which you received me.
And now to God, with thanks for all that has been, and with prayers for ourselves, that our response to God in the days to come will be “Yes. Yes.” Amen.