I continue to read and be challenged by the poetry of the Welsh Anglican priest, R.S. Thomas. Listen carefully to this piece titled The Coming:
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
Through his poem Thomas challenges us to engage with God’s fierce love for this world; a world with slimy rivers, bare trees, and starving people. This is not a poem for a Hallmark card or Norman Rockwell painting. It is too grim and gritty for that. What it is is a reflection of our cultural and societal turmoil of the last century or so; a century of world wars, genocide, disease, and environmental destruction. The bare tree with the crossed boughs to which all hurting people look is of course the cross. It is precisely to this location that the Son desires to go.
In the season of Christmas we encounter a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger. It is an image that radiates warmth and brims with sentimentality. But the baby is here for reasons far beyond this. This baby is here to bring God’s holy love to a hurting and broken world. And we who gather this day are invited to let this love dwell in the deepest and darkest parts of our lives because Jesus says (to use Thomas’ words), “Let me go there.” Then, as God’s love finds a home in us and begins to grow – daily transforming us into something more holy than we could ever be on our own – we are invited to share the love we have found with others.
Steve Garnaas-Holmes, the Methodist pastor whose blogsite Unfolding Light I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday, recently was involved in a ministry to distribute gift bags to inmates at a state prison. He and eight other people greeted each inmate, shock their hands, and then gave them a bag. He reports that there were 1380 inmates in the prison. Garnass-Holmes described the experience this way:
To encounter such a wave of humanity, eye to eye, hand to hand, hit me deeply. They were in all states of age, race, health, stature and personality. Some were meek, some imposing; some fit and some in shambles, some appreciative and some aloof. But they are all neglected, condemned, and treated as less than human. One guy said, “This is the only touch of normalcy all year.”
For each particular inmate the greeting lasted only a few seconds. For those doing the greeting the experience took a couple of hours. It was for Garnass-Holmes a deeply spiritual experience:
I prayed that somehow they might… unconsciously behold some grace, experience some love. It was like serving communion: one after another of God’s beloved people coming by, each with their own story, needs, wounds, sins and gifts, each getting a little symbolic gift in a brief holy moment, a gift of pure love no matter their past. You hope they get it.
He goes on to write that just as God asked Joseph to trust that Mary’s child was of God, so too are we asked to trust that God is present and at work in everyone we meet. Sometimes that easier to do than others, isn’t it. In the silence before the worship service begins it is easy to sense that God is present and at work as we observe someone light a candle and say a prayer. It is not as easy when we encounter a person who is rude and disrespectful. Some of the men in that prison had done horrible things, but Garnass-Holmes holds to the belief that something holy is at work inside each one of them. He admits that some of them are “pretty rough mangers”, but still Jesus says, “Let me go there.”
The great challenge of Christmas is twofold. First, can I accept that God loves me just as I am; that the dark and broken recesses of my heart and my mind and my soul are the exact places where Jesus wants to dwell; the rough manger where he will lay? And second, can I see that in every person I meet and in every person I try to avoid and in every person I want to ignore and in every person I try to forget and in every person who I abhor that there is something holy at work in them as well? This is God’s fierce love that cannot be quenched, but it can be disregarded. It is this love made know through the birth of a baby that we celebrate this season. It is the reason the Word became flesh and dwelt among. It is the reason why the Word abides in us even now through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit we receive at baptism.