Christmas is a chameleon of a feast, and through time changes under our hands. It is one feast for children, with the laughter and excitement. It's another for the young who throng Georgetown in their strength and hope, their clear eyes fixed on an unclear future. It's yet another feast for parents who catch and share the joy of their own children. For those who must acknowledge at the very least the wanton burden of the prime, for whom the limits of flesh and time grow inward daily, everything changes, and Christmas with it.
When there isn't much to remember, joy springs easily. The young see themselves with their back to the past facing the future, a curious modern view of time. As we grow older, we understand the wisdom of the Greek view, that we stand facing the past and the future comes up unknown behind us. As time goes on, what we face is harder to bear. Just as the poet says, "old men should be explorers," so also the added years need the quickening reminder of Christmas. We need the sudden break into the lock of the past, "this point of intersection of the timeless with time."
For these longer memories what does Christmas bring? Why is the break so important? Why is this day, of all the feasts in the Christian calendar, the great day of renewal?
Great preachers and even greater poets have striven to answer that question, not always with success. But let me try to piece together some of the elements, to grope toward an understanding of how Christmas tells us we can always start again, that the past into which we peer and the future that stalks us from behind are both escapable.
Precisely because Christmas breaks the lock of time, it tells us something that we all need to know, that our dreams, our hopes, our wildest longings have in the eyes of God as much reality as our deeds.
It tells us secondly that the break into time the birth of Christ makes was and is permanent. When we peel away old carols and new gifts, department store Santas and Handel's "Messiah," Christmas trees and cr of the matter, we must face the stunning truth that the Lord God, "midnumbered he in three of the thunder throne" has in mastery and mercy broken open his creation.
For that reason Christmas can be found again and again at each touch of God in our lives, especially when that touch, like the infant of Bethlehem, shows us need, suffering and weakness.
With the eyes of Christmas we can reread our sorrowing world. We can find the infant God in the starving children in Africa, in those stricken in Bhopal, in those dying in half a dozen small wars in far corners of the earth, in the thousand and more who wait for death in our jails.
If we keep locked in time, we see these things and want to cry out that they are too much, that humankind cannot bear so much reality. But crack open that lock, burst the Lord God into his creation, and we know him in the shape of an infant, "royally reclaiming his own," even though our limited wits let us see only the dark side of the bay of his blessing.
For all who believe, there is the terrible double pull of the Lord. On one hand, "the ground of being and granite of it, past all grasp God." And on the other, the infant of Christmas, the Christ who is "heaving flung, heart fleshed, maiden furled." The glory of Christmas is that for us and for all generations of Christians, the weakness and the gentleness of Jesus' coming teach us again and again that God's mercy and his mastery are one and the same.
That doesn't detract from the sadness of our backward glance. We bring our poor gifts, our failures, our hurts, our betrayals, the ridiculous sad waste of the time we have not used for his love, the chances we have lost to serve those whose weakness and need are so like his.
But it also means that we come to the Christ of Bethlehem with a reborn joy because we know this day that we are all at once what he is, since once on a hillside in Judea he became what we are. He tells us in his birth that we never have "the right to feel powerless."
As we gather around the incarnate Lord tonight, those of us who bring no years can bring their joy. We who bring many years can bring our sorrow. But both can know that what we bring is transfigured beyond our knowing, is taken up by the Lord of Creation, reclaimed by its rightful sovereign, and ourselves along with it.
He has come, and we all know that nothing can ever be the same again. The toughest prayer we can offer, the hardest change we can work in ourselves, is to know and rejoice in the knowing that we can never be the same again.