. . . God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; In paradise, the fruits were ripe, the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumme, his mercies are ever in their maturity. . . . He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons. -- John Donne, From a sermon preached at Saint Pauls, upon Christmas Day, in the Evening, 1624
Were we to look at the lovely readings the Roman Church sets for midnight mass at Christmas as literary texts, the principal image through which they speak to us is light, and the great message they offer is newness. The introit chants, "This day have I begotten you." The opening prayer is set against God's glory breaking on the world in a night splendid with light. The coronation march from the poet Isaiah numbers the blessings that hang upon a new king: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown." The refrain to the psalm repeats the word "today" and urges us to "sing to the Lord a new song." The earlier of the Christian texts, Saint Paul's letter to Titus, blithely mixes up the first and the second coming of Christ, in both of which it looks to see glory of the great God. Finally, the loveliest of all the Christmas gospels tells of the shepherds, the infant and his mother, the bright harnessed angels and the loud cry of the good news.
Christmas is so sudden and so complete, at least from God's side, that we take it easily as a feast of children. The time that breathes through it is now, a child's now. Nothing grows, nothing works slowly. Suddenly Jesus is born, the angels are there, and the whole world is forever different. As kids, we woke in the morning, rushed in pajamas to the tree, and all the bounty we could imagine was spread around its foot. Everything was sudden, full of light, rich with joy, and unexplained, because for children, happiness is its own reason.
I'm not trying to put down Christmas as a feast for children. Jesus reminds us in many other parts of His Gospel that it is good for us to become as little children. This is the use of memory: for liberation -- not less of love, but expanding of love beyond desire and so liberation from the future as well as the past. It is good that now as adults we rely no less upon God than we relied as children upon those who brought us the joy of Christmas. It is good in the newness of the coming of the Christ to know again our heart's charity's hearth's fire. It is good every Christmas, for all of us, to recatch the eternal "now" that marked God's coming, the church's understanding, and our own first Christmases.
The beautiful Christmas text from Donne's sermon catches this leap from childhood to adulthood. "Now God comes, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest to fill all penuries." This he speaks for the now of the child's Christmas which touches the timelessness of God. But Donne goes on to add, ". . . all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons." When he speaks of time and season, he draws us into the hurt and slower world of adulthood.
God's reality doesn't change; ours does. God's part is still sudden and complete. The leap of Christ into time is the instant of the Annunciation. The angels blaze over Bethlehem in light and song; like lightning, God's gift is sudden. Donne reminds us of our human rhythms and our own times -- slow, subject to season, conquering time only through time. Our share in the Incarnation was the birth and the growth of the man, not the God. We believe that at one moment and by one act of love God bridged the gap between Himself and His best creature. We also know in our bones that our faith can only work its way back across that instant slowly. It takes most of us a lifetime. This is the shadow Donne tells us God's noon will illustrate, this the penury God's harvest will feed.
We who live and work in universities, whose purposes are always beyond the end we figured and are altered in fulfillment, need most to see Christmas not as a feast of childhood, but as a feast for adults. We have no greater grasp of its timeless moment but much greater need. We are no longer stuck by image, nor can it satisfy us. We reach for the reality behind it, and kneel under the weight of our years. The child's Christmas is smiles and laughter. Our Christmas is closer to the vision of Botticelli, who paints a setting of faces around the Child and His mother where there are no smiles, but only reverence and awe as each owns how little reality humankind can bear.
Unlike the children, we know the imperious coming of God. Donne sees it, "not as in the dawning of the day but as the Sun at noon," come to illustrate all shadows, to penetrate motives late revealed, to probe the secret places where we hide things done to our and others' ill which once we took for exercise of virtue.
Unlike the children, we know that God's foison is rich with "sheaves to fill our penuries," but we know, too, how deep, how almost bottomless are our hungers. We have lived the gap between our littleness and the greatness of God.
Unlike the children, we know that Christmas is only one of the moments when we invite God's mercy; that all times, from cruel April to the unimaginable zero summer, from teeming autumn to midwinter spring -- all are alike the seasons of his mercies.
Let us, however, not leave out the children, because they are too real a part of what, despite our years, we are and do. Their joy, their now, their rush of happiness should serve as goals for us. Our job now, easier for Christmas, easier for so many children, the echoed ones in our hearts, the real ones in our families, as well as those who throng this house -- our job is to remind ourselves and all mankind that God has made no degree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies. "In paradise the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumme, his mercies are ever in their maturity."
At Christmas we celebrate His mercies in their maturity. We join the children, stretching back over 2,000 years of the church's history, 200 years of Georgetown's, a few decades of our own, and, in prayer and hope, we join our children in dreams of the decades that will be theirs. We go back to the 2013th year from the birth of Abraham, to the 1032nd year from the anointing of David king, to the 194 Olympiad, to the 752nd year from the founding of the city of Rome, to the 42nd year of the rule of Octavius Augustus. We count on God's sun to illustrate our shadow. We grasp God's sheaves to fill our penuries. We exult with the angels and shepherds, with Mary and Joseph, in this gracious and hallowed time, this Christmas season of His mercy.