My prayer for all of us tonight
Is that we may be open to receive and to share
the Holy Gaze of God’s love.
The Holy Gaze of God’s love …
This is one of the gifts that we can receive through the sacred act of commemorating Christmas, of commemorating God’s love embodied in the Christ child born of Mary.
The Holy Gaze of God’s love. What can this mean?
I used to work with a guy named Jim, who was a Marine who fought in Vietnam. .
This is part of Jim’s story that he’d tell:
he was in Vietnam with the Marines during the Tet Offensive. And, long story short, in combat, he lost his leg above the knee. He almost lost his life – he survived, thanks to some hard and heroic work of a medic and doctors. But he lost his leg.
But when he came back home Jim was a lost soul.
He was very angry, deeply wounded, haunted by what had happened to him and what all he saw and did.
When he came back to the States he hid out in the mountains in Eastern Oregon. He was always kind of vague about where exactly. He booby trapped his property – you know, the whole nine yards. He barricaded himself in, alone in the mountains.
He was stuck in a nightmare.
But after several years, something happened to him, which began to bring him back to himself and to the world.
It was having children.
But more specifically, and this is why I tell this story tonight on Christmas Eve:
It was the experience, Jim said, of looking into the eyes of this new life and seeing only love looking back at him.
Regardless of what he’d been through and who he felt he was, this baby loved him and needed him as a caregiver.
This was for him a holy gaze of love from this innocent life, which he was open enough to receive.
This started a stirring in his soul, a soul that had gotten buried in the blasted mud, a soul that was hiding out from everything it has witnessed. This holy of gaze of love started to melt through the locked-down sense of himself as grotesque, as guilty, as betrayed by this corrupt world, as a monster nursing a hard resentment.
A baby doesn’t have any prejudices about who its parents are. It wants to be loved and to love. This makes a baby very vulnerable (Lord have mercy) … but also very powerful. If we dare to receive that love and to respond to it with our love, then that love can lead us into becoming just a little bit more worthy of it, whoever we are (Lord have mercy).
This brings us to the Christmas Story.
The Christmas story, if we ponder it in our hearts, like Mary, the Christmas story contains this holy gaze of unconditional love and makes it available to everyone in any kind of situation.
The particular story of Jesus and Mary gazing into each other’s eyes, becomes universal: Here is the gaze of love with which our Creator – the Holy One, Our God – has for all humanity, all creation.
A gaze both infant and ancient. Both innocent and wise. Both vulnerable and powerful.
The Christmas story makes an astonishing claim:
God’s Word made flesh as the Christ, meaning God’s creative wisdom embodied in the human condition, comes to us as an infant.
What does this mean?
Like an infant, God’s love embodied is unconditional, innocent in its need to love and to be loved…
But what else are babies like? I mean, let’s be real. This isn’t just a Hallmark Christmas card.
I’d love to see an icon of, like, the Madonna and Child at 3 am when the baby won’t sleep.
I mean, look at the cover of your bulletin. Well, first, talk about the Holy Gaze of Love. This is a beautiful contemporary piece of sacred art – Laura James is the artist.
But imagine a painting of Mary and Jesus at 3am, with baby Jesus (God bless him) screaming to high heaven and Mary with bags under her eyes trying to bounce him to sleep with her hair all wild, with streaks of gray that weren’t there last month. Maybe the halos are like lightning, I don’t know.
(Free idea for the artists out there. Just send me a copy.)
This is also what God’s love is like. This is also Holy.
A cry in the night that demands us to respond. The urgent demands of love that requires our ultimate commitment.
Now, I should mention, going back to Jim’s story for a moment, that this part of having a kid was also what was healing for Jim. Infuriating, yes, but healing too.
The urgent demands of his child’s love called him out of being totally absorbed in his own wounds. He had to take responsibility for someone else. He had to grow in love.
This reminds me of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.” Like a child crying at 3am.
The Christmas Story is about such a divine interruption.
The Christmas story is about the urgent demands of divine love in urgent times.
Let us not forget that the embodiment of God’s love was born in a place and a time that was deeply troubled, full of strife and suffering, as well as inspiration.
Right before Jesus was born there had been a failed uprising in Galilee against Rome, with many Jews meeting the same fate that Jesus would.
In the Christmas story we always hear about the census decreed by emperor Augustus. This census was like a stamp, a brand that said that the people of Galilee and Judea had been conquered, they were a subjugated people. And remember after the Christmas story, early in Jesus’ life King Herod sent death squads against him, and Mary and Joseph had to take him and flee. They became refugees in the land of Egypt.
(And thank God the people of that foreign land cared for them.
They knew that “God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.”)
When Jesus came of age in those troubled times, when he said yes to God’s call on him in this broken and beautiful world, when he embodied God’s love in the midst of a humanity tossed between the forces of violence and tenderness, joy and misery, courage and fear …
Jesus embodied a love that was unconditional,
a love for all,
a love that healed,
a love that restored,
a love that forgave, a love that transformed,
and a love that demanded.
“Love God with all your heart mind body and soul and love your neighbor as yourselves” – this is an urgent demand that calls for ultimate commitment.
But that ultimate commitment is possible only to the measure that we can receive into our own souls that Holy Gaze of Unconditional love…
The way we can allow that love to unlocked our guardedness before God, our Creator,
release us from whatever resentments we nurse, whatever fears barricade us, whatever anger or pain or guilt or cynicism has hardened our hearts.
God comes to us as a child
loving us as we are,
And calling us to bring our love and our care.
For that I give thanks.
Thanks be to God.