As I gaze out from the height of my perch – 7 feet above contradiction – I spy many familiar faces. Yet, what draws me are the faces of those I have not met, you who are visitors and our guests. Maybe you are drawn to wanting to come to a place of worship where you know you will get a good show. I don’t mean to be flippant about the need for a good show on Christmas eve, a time loaded with memories and associations from the past, where your hearts are lifted by the beauty of the music, your spirits resonate to the dignified rhythms of the liturgy, perhaps even where your minds are engaged by the quality of the preaching – although you may want to reserve judgment on that for a moment. I want to say to you all, visitors, annually returning old friends, spiritual seekers, the Episcopal Church welcomes you! Whoever you are, what- ever you think you believe or don’t believe, know that you are in good company here. SO welcome all, to Downton Abbey a world of bewildering, yet magnetic traditions.
For the Episcopal Church and in particular this Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, is the closest we shall come in the Phoenix of the 21st Century, to the spirit of Downton Abbey. If you have watched Downton Abbey, now entering its third season you will have been drawn into a great drama. Downton Abbey, is an intersection in time and place where the ancient traditions moulded over centuries of English life are brought into a tension-filled engagement with the pressures and demands of a changing world.
In this place of tension between traditions handed-on and the demands of life as it is actually being lived, the inhabitants of Downton struggle to find a way of living that gives new impetus and new energy to the traditions that have shaped them and from which it is impossible to escape.
The Episcopal Church, the American expression of Anglican Tradition, a transmission of the ancient catholic faith shaped by exposure to 1000 years of English culture, like Downton Abbey sits in the tension between the traditions we receive, which appear to have been crafted for another age, and the demands of life as we are actually living it in 21st century America.
America as a nation sits in the tension between the tradition known as the American Dream and the challenges of a rapidly changing world. The Episcopal Church, America’s best kept secret, welcomes you to life in the tension where the gritty struggle between faith and doubt, hope and fear, nostalgia for the past and terror of the future, continues producing the pearl that is God’s love for us.
Luke is the great historian of the New Testament. His Gospel places the birth of Jesus in historical time and place, yet it also comes to us across 2000 years of transmission. It depicts an enchanted world where God communicates through angels to shepherds, those who are on the margins of social acceptability. This is an enchanted world where the Creator of the Universe can be born as a baby, in a stable, in the most marginal of circumstances, and not only survive but be visited by wise men from the east.
For much of Christian history this story resonated so closely with the precarious vulnerability of the lives people actually lived, most in a similar rural poverty. It also resonated with the enchanted mindset in which God was experienced to be magically and mysteriously present in every aspect of the material world that surrounded human life. In this world of enchantment, God was never absent and people were never alone.
So how does this story resonate with us whose lives are lived amidst the urban and technological complexities of 21st century America? How does this story communicate to a people whose disenchanted mindset no-longer has room for the magical and mysterious presence of God at the level of material reality? In this disenchanted world, God seems to us largely absent. 300 years of Scientific progress has left us feeling alone, in a lonely, and potentially hostile universe.
It’s impossible for us to return to that enchanted mindset, no-matter how much we might wish to do so. Ours is not a world filled with the magical presence of God – 300 years of scientific rationalism has unalterably changed the way we think. Yet, human beings are still capable of imagination, we still dream.
The birth of Jesus is significant, not in the biographical details of Luke’s narrative, but because it still resonates with the deeper, imaginative dreaming parts of our lives. The birth of Jesus is God’s dream coming to rest through its incarnation into the limitations of the world of human reality. It’s significance poses us with the question:- so what do we dream that will not rest until it becomes incarnated in us?
We feel presently, that it is difficult to allow ourselves the luxury to hope and dream the answer to that question. All around us we see the signs of the world we once trusted and relied upon – disintegrating before our eyes.
We pull back in fear, no longer born on by the optimism that technological and economic progress will take us into a better world. We live increasingly in fear that the Environment, which for so long has been seen by us as something to be tamed and mastered. Yet, as hurricane Sandy has just shown us the environment, now increasingly delivers what seems to us, a revengeful punishment as Sandy, struck at the heart of the country’s most urban and technologically sophisticated region. We seem newly vulnerability in the face of the power of nature.
It’s a striking coincidence that the name Sandy features also in the place Sandyhook. Here, we could be anywhere in America and so recent events have plunged not only those intimately affected, but the whole nation into a deep collective suffering, the like of which has not been known in several generations.
We all live in this uncomfortable tension between the world that we came to trust and a newly uncertain future. Yet, the message of the Incarnation is that Dreams are nevertheless made real within the context of limitation and uncertainty.
God calls us to embrace the dream that is seeking to incarnate in us. Like God’s dream incarnated in the birth of Jesus, incarnation of our dreams happens within the limitations of our imperfect human lives. Propitious circumstances are not required for the incarnation of dreams.
Dreams are incarnated in us when we connect with our passions and dedicate ourselves to living passionately, with a compassion born from the realization we are interconnected and interdependent within the ebb and flow of a universe that is responsive to our dreams.
Our dreams are the most accurate reflection of the way the divine universe really functions. Life is not a plan – fixed and finished. Life is more like a dream, always evolving and in the process of becoming. Life is fluid ebbing and flowing around and in response to events and experience.
This is how it works. When we make all the resources of our dreams, our loving, our relating, our hoping and longing, our determination and our courage and especially our suffering and our fearfulness available for living, – the resources of life flow to meet us. At points of suffering and disillusionment the tide ebbs only to gather and return with flowing fullness towards us.
The message of the Incarnation is that God operates within the limitations of human nature and human society. So then must we. When we allow ourselves to dream and give ourselves over to the pursuit of our dream then abundance is the gift of life to us who pursue the courage to live abundantly.