Babies and puppies. Who can see a baby or puppy and not smile, utter some inane babble sound, and reach out to touch, or even hold? I don’t think it’s only the cuteness of the creature before us. I think it has to do with their symbolism of newness in an old world, hope for a future that is yet to be dreamed, innocence that does not yet know betrayal and disappointment, and, at least in the case of puppies, unrestricted trusting joy in the presence of any other creature. I wonder if there was a puppy in the Bethlehem stable? There had to be one licking Jesus’ face. I’m sure of it.
For many of us, whether Christian or not, it is the image of that baby in the manger surrounded by loving parents, animals, shepherds and angels that evokes in us the same feeling of innocence and hope that we get when we see babies and puppies. It’s not a bad thing, and we need to rekindle that light each year because it can so easily be snuffed out. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the momentary delight of Christmas could become a reality the whole year long? But January comes, and it’s back to the same old grind. Here in the Pacific Northwest that means the same old grind in dark, gray, dank days. Oh, Jolly!
The curious thing is that the light and love that the baby Jesus brought into the world can become an inextinguishable flame in the life of each one of us because all the promises of his birth were fulfilled in his resurrection through which every person and all conditions of life were shown to be holy, loved by God. Some children in fortunate circumstances grow up knowing that, not because they were taught it in Sunday School, but because they experienced it at home. More than some children don’t. In either case the light fades in each of us as we grow into adulthood, and in some it cannot be seen at all. But that doesn’t mean it’s lost. It just has to be found.
Maybe you have read the Mitford series of books in which Fr. Timothy solved a multitude of intractable problems within a few hundred pages. They were stories of the light and love of Christmas lived out, but it was always hidden somewhere and had to be found. The key to his success was a favorite bible passage that he had made his personal prayer: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” It’s taken from a slightly larger passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that you can look up for yourself. Fr. Timothy and Mitford were fictional of course, but I think they were popular because they evoked a vision of what the promise of Christmas might look like if it was ever lived out in real life, except that beyond being fictional, the stories were excessively sentimental and a bit treacly.
Don’t get me wrong. I read and liked most of them, but for hard core reality how about the author of Paul’s letter to the Philippians? The passage that became Fr. Timothy’s prayer of hope and courage was written by a man in prison who would soon meet his death by imperial execution. He endured years of wanderings trying to encourage new communities of Christians, and his travels led him trough beatings, jailings, ship wrecks, escapes, and all the other hardships that came with those things. Yet there he was, writing from prison, telling his friends in Philippi not to worry about anything, and to put all their supplications before God along with all their thanksgivings. That is what a life living out the promise of Christmas looks like. Most of us don’t have to endure what Paul had to live through, but the changes and chances of this life can sometimes feel just as difficult, and it’s tempting to put aside the light and love of Christmas along with the decorations, or maybe just toss them out altogether along with the trash.
Don’t do it! Let Christmas light a fire that will burn in you right through the rest of the year. If Paul could do it, so can you. That homeless wino hanging out downtown was once a baby full of promise. So was the self important big shot who smugly passes him by. So was the struggling young family who owe too much on not enough income. So was the immigrant refugee, and so was the terrorist. Each of them was enfolded in the love of the baby Jesus, never to be let go, no matter how hidden that love had become. It’s there to be found in each of us, and in each person we meet. It may be well hidden, but it’s there. The hard core reality is to look for it knowing that it could end in your own beating or ship wreck and still, in everything and without worry, offer prayers and supplications with thanksgiving to God.
I’m not all that good at it, but I’ve still got a few years left to work on it. Maybe we can work on it together.