Readings: Luke 2:22-40, True Christianity #530 (see below)
See also on Youtube at youtu.be/2GHEan1cVbE
Has anyone heard of “The Comfy?” This is a fun present that my daughter got for her birthday this year. It is basically a big cozy blanket that you can wear like an enormous sweater. It is soft on the outside, and fuzzy on the inside, with a hood and everything, so one feels cocooned and warm wherever they might be. And I know that this year especially, we may well have wrapped ourselves in the fuzzy sweet warmth of Christmas, because we have really needed it. But the lectionary doesn’t usually allow us to stay in the soft sweetness of Christmas for long. It bids us emerge, to wrap our heads around what Jesus’ birth really meant, to the people then and to us now.
For, yes indeed, it is very moving, that God would become so vulnerable for our sake. And we react instinctively to the beauty and vulnerability of babies; then add the notion of someone so powerful, like God, choosing to become so vulnerable for love of us, and Christmas is just made to get us in the feels.
But the story of the incarnation is not just about closeness, not just about solidarity, or God wrapping us up in hug. This is mainly what we, very appropriately, see when we take in the broad view, from a distance. We see God coming down, the stable and manger with the star above, the shepherds on a hill with the angel host in the sky. At Christmas we see the grand sweep of things. I do often preach God’s closeness and presence, because it is such a comfort. But that is not all that God was up to with the incarnation. Closeness and presence are part of a loving response, a very important part, but it is not always the only part.
So, now it time to zoom in a little closer on the incarnation. What exactly does the Christmas message of God’s presence and love tell us? As Simeon prophecies, it won’t all be warm peaceful fuzzies. The baby will grow up, and have a world-changing ministry, one that demonstrates what happens to us when we actually, truly, allow God’s presence into our lives. Simeon describes (as did Mary in her Magnificat) a great revealing, he describes opposition and confrontation, and he describes sacrifice.
And so we see that the incarnation is not only peace and joy. We see that God *does* mean to console us, but that God is not content with a “there there” bandaid kind of consolation that feels nice in the moment but that we can forget the rest of the year. With the incarnation, God intended for us to be given a blueprint for true healing and true transformation, something that gives us lasting consolation. Such true healing, true transformation, often requires something that doesn’t feel peaceful and happy at first: confrontation and change.
Fr. Richard Rohr describes the process..
“When the Scriptures are used maturely, and they become a precursor to meeting the Christ, they proceed in this order:
1. They confront us with a bigger picture than we are used to: God’s kingdom that has the potential to deconstruct our false world views.
2. They then have the power to convert us to an alternative worldview by proclamation, grace, and the sheer attraction of the good, the true and the beautiful (not by shame, guilt or fear).
3. They then console us and bring deep healing as they reconstruct us in a new place with a new mind and heart.”(1)
The Christmas story begins with signaling where the process is going (Peace, goodwill to all people) but then Jesus starts living his life, and that life leads us to the necessary deconstruction and reorganization that needs to occur before the reconstruction of our new selves can happen.
Swedenborg calls this process repentance, reformation and regeneration.
So first: Repentance, Swedenborg calls this the beginning of the church within us.(2) He rightly points out that it is not the same thing as as contrition or confession, which are just words; important words, but still just words. We teach our children to say “I’m sorry” when they have hurt someone, but only as a precursor to actually being sorry, having empathy, for the one who has been hurt. And so repentance might begin with words but it is a larger process than that. It is a process of examining ourselves in the light God’s Bigger Picture, as Rohr puts it, recognizing and admitting our sins, but then also actually starting to act in a new way that no longer hurts others.
Then, reformation: As we act in this new way, that no longer adversely affects others, our selfhood is reorganized by the Lord. Our willingness to act differently creates an opening and we are re-formed little by little. For change cannot always be instantaneous, we all have habits and perspectives that take time to be reshaped and relearned, and this will feel messy, but when we offer our intention and follow-though consistently and faithfully, then God does something beautiful with that offering.
And finally: regeneration, a re-birth. We are all served in some way by our sinful ways and perspectives; we receive ego-safety, praise, power, or any number of perceived benefits. And we will continue to feel the allure of that, even as we repent, even as work to act differently. Sometimes that might mean we feel like we are just going through the motions, but when we do this for the sake of others, it is a good thing. The end point of reformation, though, of the reorganization of our selfhood, is that eventually we will do what is right and good naturally, easily, spontaneously because it is all that want. The peace and joy and consolation flows, because we no longer captive to what serves our lower self.
This is the shape of our spiritual journeys, a shape modeled by Jesus for us, played out over and over again in large and small ways. There are parts of this procedure that feel scary, but this is what faith is, submission to a larger process that we believe in, even when it is not clear how exactly it will play out, but knowing that regeneration, consolation, is on the way if we are have the willingness and the courage to do the work of allowing repentance, and staying present to reformation. Regeneration, in essence, is constantly being born again, and this is how Christmas morning becomes unfettered from the day called December 25th, this is how Christmas becomes available to us any time, and all the time. This is what Jesus came for, not the gift of one day, but a gift for all days.
Even though we have zoomed in on the process, the peace, joy and consolation that we see in the wider view of the Christmas story is definitely still there. It is the undercurrent, it is the engine, it is the endgame, it holds all of the rest in place. But peace, joy and consolation have to come from somewhere to have real meaning in our lives, and they come from this process.
The book of the prophet Malachi is the final book in the Old Testament, and among its final verses are thus: “See I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” This is what we are left with right before we begin the story of Jesus’ birth. The work of God in us feels both great and terrible. But just because it feels terrible, doesn’t mean that God isn’t present to it, working in and through it. Simeon spoke of falling and rising, and a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart, but he also said “My eyes have seen your salvation” and that was enough for him to feel like he could leave this world in peace. Soon, that salvation would unfold, available to us all:
“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and grace of God was on him.” Amen.
(1) Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent, 85.
(2) Emmanuel Swedenborg, True Christianity #510
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord” ), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
True Christianity 530
The question then is, How are we to repent? The answer is, we are to do so actively. That is, we are to examine ourselves, recognize and admit to our sins, pray to the Lord, and begin a new life…
…Afterward, if we abstain from one sin or another that we have discovered in ourselves, this is enough to make our repentance real. When we reach this point, we are on the pathway to heaven, because we begin to turn from an earthly person into a spiritual person and to be born anew with the help of the Lord.