Joy and Hope
Rob Gieselmann, Christmas 2016 (A)
(rhinocerous joke: why do you never see a rhino hiding in a tree? They are so good at it)
Broadcaster Alistair Cooke liked to tell the story about planning a Christmas entertainment show with Leonard Bernstein. You remember Leonard Bernstein - he conducted the New York Symphony and composed the scores for West Side Story, and Peter Pan. The group was tossing ideas around, when Cooke suggested they offer a shortened version of Handel’s Messiah – Cooke noted, a hackneyed idea, but people will like it nonetheless. Bernstein looked bewildered, and confessed: Messiah? I don’t know the work. Imagine that, Leonard Bernstein unfamiliar with Handel’s Messiah. Somewhat ironically, Bernstein composed his own version of a faith symphony, years later, for the grand opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Bernstein aptly named his work, Mass, a postmodern interpretation of the Christian mass. At first, the entire cast: the priest, the choir, and the altar party,sing as though unified – harmoniously. At some point, though, division intrudes, an unpleasant note; the discordancy grows, and the choir falls into disarray. Their chaos and bitterness becomes palpable. They no longer believe God exists, and even if God does, why do we need him? They wonder. The tension builds into climax, when the priest himself finally erupts, throwing the chalice and paten, the holy bread and the wine, to the floor, smashing them to bits. Everyone on stage collapses into silence. And the stage turns dark. But … Then … after a minute … you hear a flute – darting about, searching for its note. The flute is the Holy Spirit, for with God, there is always, always redemption. Always an element of hope.
When the Spirit fixes on its note, one member of the altar party rises to sing a simple song of praise. The rest rise, too, returning to unity, singing harmonically. It is a fulfillment of the prophet: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. There is now peace. Pax Tecum. Go in peace, the priest intoned, sending them forth in the name of God.
And this is what is on my heart this dark night: I am wondering, how in this present world of chaos, this world in which trucks plow through throngs of Christmas shoppers, developed nations have fallen into political chaos, and wars ravage even children, Where do you – you – find your peace? On that night, so many, many years ago, the shepherds too, wondered at peace. They were equally afraid, Sore afraid.On your bulletin cover, you can see a representation of this fear –
This unique version of the shepherd scene was painted by seventeenth century Dutch artist Adam Pynacker. My son, Tate, and I stumbled across this painting at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always imagined the shepherd scene to be placid. But Pynacker paints of shepherds consumed by fear – The skies are roiling black, the storms held at bay only by the beating of the angels’ wings. The shepherds are stumbling over each other, for they are sore afraid. Even the animals are afraid, the bull ready to charge, the goat bucking rebellion. Deep darkness covethe earth, said the prophet. The deepest darkness. And yet – when life is darkest; when the stage turns black – there is, if only you could hear it – the singular sound of a flute seeking its note. The choir was sore afraid. The shepherds were sore afraid.You and I – we are sore afraid. Darkness forms a shroud about us.
But do you not know? Have you not heard?
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
In the old Provencal French countryside, they still tell an old Christmas legend – about a little shepherd, whom everyone thinks has been lost – they search and search for him, until they find him at long last kneeling at the foot of the manger – in sheer delight. He is exactly where he wants to be.
Dorothy Day – that twentieth century Catholic social activist – believed Christians have an obligation to delight. Despite the world’s great suffering, despite your own struggles and pain, despite chaos and discordance and confusion – We would be contributing to the misery of the world, if we failed to rejoice in creation. The world, she said, will be saved by beauty. One day, a wealthy woman came into their center and donated a diamond ring. Dorothy Day didn’t sell the ring to raise money to feed or house the poor. Instead, she gave the ring to one of their poorest of ladies – Outright. Just gave it to her. When criticized, Dorothy responded: This woman can sell the diamond to buy food. But, she might decide just to enjoy it. Do you suppose God created diamonds only for the rich? What diamonds did God create for you? The tiniest and most insignificant shepherd delighted in the baby at the manger. A poor old woman who could barely feed herself wore a diamond on her finger. And if you listen carefully – amidst the world’s fear and chaos – I promise, you will hear the single note of a flute rising. The Holy Spirit of God, intoning, delighting in, joy. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
Seize that joy, my friends, on this holy night. Delight in that grace. And be not afraid. For don’t you know? The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.