Last Tuesday I made a mistake: I went to Urgent Care without my copy of War and Peace. I had a long wait. I am not sure I used it as well as I could.
Waiting for the Christ to come may feel a bit like waiting to be treated in Urgent Care. You get a few promises up front, and are told to wait.
Hours go by. What is going on? When will I be seen? Have I been forgotten? When will I be treated? When will I be whole again?
But that’s not it. There is more to the story.
Waiting for the Christ to come may feel even more like reading War and Peace. While you are in it, it is totally absorbing. Then eventually you finish the book.
All those characters, all those people you have met, even friends you have made among them, now disappear into a past memory, only a haze. You are no longer in the world of the novel: now you are in the “real world.”
Of course characters in a novel are merely shadows in a play. But we might feel like that ourselves, sometimes. This world may seem a brief and transitory place. Real life lies ahead, as well as all around us (though hidden), in the mystery of Christ and of the Resurrection.
And this is like Paul’s comment, “now we see as through a glass darkly: then we shall see face to face.” Imagine what it will be like to see Christ in person.
Every week when we take communion, and at holiday times like Christmas when we remember loved ones, we put ourselves in touch with not only those who like us see through a glass darkly, those who are living, but also with those who have gone on before us to see God face to face. We ourselves are not ready, we protest, for such a blessing. Just a little bit more time, please.
In his mercy God is preparing us so that when we do meet him face to face, in the life to come, we will be able to stand it. That “glass darkly” is a little like the smoked glass you used to watch an eclipse through; it kept you from being dazzled by too much light.
These eyes, that dazzled now and weak,
At glancing motes in sunshine wink,
Shall see the King’s full glory break,
Nor from the blissful vision shrink:
In fearless love and hope uncloyed
For ever on that ocean bright
Empowered to gaze; and undestroyed
Deeper and deeper plunge in light.
(John Keble, “Fourth Sunday in Advent”, The Christian Year)
We need to be prepared, so that—not on our own merits but by the grace of Christ—when we see God face to face we will be able to stand it.
A foretaste of that glory is ours today, in the mystery of the coming of Christ. And a foretaste of that mercy is ours as well, for God came to us not in the form of a ruler or a man of power (much as we might have hoped for that) but in the form of a helpless baby. He comes as prince of peace.
As Luther said, “Divinity may terrify us. Inexpressible mystery will crush us. That is why Christ took on our humanity, save for sin, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console and confirm. …he is come, not to judge you, but to save.”
(Roland H. Bainton, ed., The Martin Luther Christmas Book, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1948, p. 40)
Salvation, however, does not wait. The message of Jesus, and the joy of life with him, is not postponed until some later time, after death or the second coming. It is present with us here and now, brought forth for us first in the tiny manger-dweller we meet on Christmas morning.
In this humble and innocent form comes to us the majesty of God. In other words, we find God not in inaccessible realms of glory but in day-to-day, even humble, form.
And we continue to find him, in practical terms, in loving God in our neighbor.
“You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.” (Luther, p. 38)
Even as we place our neighbor in the place of Christ, serving God in our neighbor, we begin to take on the characteristics Christ showed for us on Christmas morning.
He, the Son of God, being above all angels, did not take equality with God as a thing to be grasped onto, but allowed himself to be emptied into the form of a child, a helpless human infant. And then he began to serve.
“For unto you is born this day—that is, unto us. For our sakes he has taken flesh and blood from a woman, [so] that his birth might become our birth. I too may boast that I am a son of Mary. This is the way to observe this feast—that Christ be formed in us.” (Luther, p. 44)
And this is the secret: Christ in you, the hope of Glory. This is the season of a new birth—not only the birth of the Messiah 2000 years ago but also his emergence within our lives, as we become formed into the people God has called us to be.
December 23, 2007
Saint Alban’s Episcopal Church