Each year on this night we revisit the scriptural telling of the Christmas story. This year it feels right to renew our acquaintance with the basics of this service of Lessons and Carols, to look closely at its liturgy to unpack and articulate the message wrapped inside it. We follow the form of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols developed at King’s College in Cambridge, England, but we adapt its content in several ways: using carols and readings from our hymnal, for example, and selecting some – but not all – of the same scriptural passages. In the King’s College liturgy, it is the same passages of scripture each year; in ours, three of the readings change from year to year. At King’s College, all of the lessons are passages of scripture; here, two of them might be readings from other sources, and one of them is a homily. Their liturgy begins with Genesis, the story of the garden, and ends with the first chapter of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word” – from the beginning and back again. Ours begins with the Ancient Vision of faith and spiritual practice, for how we navigate our lived realities of faith, justice and power; and ends with a message for today – from the beginning and on to tomorrow. The King’s College liturgy explores the Christmas story through a fixed ancient lens. Ours explores the Christmas story through the lens of the Ancient Vision, and also how that story has resonated down the ages, to today. Because for us, revelation is not sealed.
But we begin with the Ancient Vision. That ancient vision was twofold. First, it called for every person to seek justice and goodness, and to avoid idolatries of the mind and spirit – that is the meaning of “walking modestly” (or “humbly”) with your God. Second, it called for leaders of the people – and all of us lead something sometime – to follow “a spirit of wisdom and insight … counsel and valor … devotion and reverence.” Walking modestly but with all reverence for your own God – with trust in your own conscience and moral compass – as a leader you are to engage others in “a spirit of counsel and valor,” seeking the wisdom and insight that they have and you might lack, and by devotion and reverence for the wisdom and insight we may encounter together, that is beyond any one of us.
By thus walking humbly with reverence for mystery, you as leader will sense truth, judge with equity, and decide with justice. Your rule will be nonviolent: “nothing evil or vile shall be done, for the land shall be filled with” such devotion as yours. Your example will be followed, and a humble spirit of counsel will fill the land “as water covers the sea.” And please note: water doesn’t just cover the sea, it is the sea. Peace consists of a spirit of counsel and humility and reverence that we all share.
What does that peace look like? The Ancient Vision paints a scene where the lion lies down with the lamb and eats straw like the ox. That scene has a traditional name: “The Peaceable Kingdom.” This vision of peace is not a scene devoid of tension. It is filled with tension. It will take a disciplined effort for the lion to choose to eat straw when there’s an ox nearby, and for the serpent not to strike when it is afraid. This is a diverse population cooperating in spite of great tensions, conflict, and lack of understanding. Through ancient eyes, peace looks hard. But with devotion to justice and goodness – in thought, word, and deed – it is possible. It is possible because, as Isaiah put it, “the spirit of the Lord [alights] upon” us. Something we might call “the Spirit of God” shows up among us.
Our liturgy’s selections from the Christmas story each offer advice for what to do when the Spirit of God shows up – in particular, when it shows up in the most vulnerable human way possible, and the most compelling and precious: like a child. The Spirit shows up sometimes, present and inarticulate, but if you pay attention you learn what it wants. And even an infant has wisdom and insight to teach us. Did you ever watch a baby discovering the world?
The advice given in these selections:
- Don’t be afraid: stay in relationship
- Don’t be afraid: when the Spirit is there, nurture it
- Don’t be afraid: stick to your mission to nurture that spirit
- Don’t be afraid: instead, offer joy to those who are afraid
Between the time the Christmas story was first told and today, it has sounded down the ages, beginning in its own time, in the very texts that told it. Those three kings might not have been afraid to complete their mission, but they were cautious of Herod. Herod showed great interest in their mission, but he had a different one.
This Spirit they had come to honor had been foretold in the Ancient Vision:
- Look, a virgin shall conceive
- An ancestral house will be revived
- From that place will come a ruler and a shepherd
- And peace will come upon you
So also the opposition to that Spirit was foretold:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
Wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refuses to be consoled,
Because they were no more.
The prophet of that Spirit they came to honor, the prophet of the Peaceable Kingdom, was Isaiah, whose vision of the good ruler might have guided the king he served, Hezekiah, who is remembered for opposing idolatry and unifying his kingdom by inviting his diverse people into a common spiritual space.
The prophet of the slaughter of the innocents was Jeremiah, who saw Hezekiah’s peaceable kingdom destroyed and sent into exile in Babylon. He is a prophet of lamentation, a prophet of struggle.
The Ancient Vision knew the fragility of the Peaceable Kingdom, knew that peace is a struggle, and that the appearance of peace hides another struggle: that of the lion choosing the straw. They knew that a time of quiet or calm was not the same as peace, and warned against the temptation to say “Peace, peace” when there is no peace – no discipline to keep peace.
If you read through Isaiah, you find in it a pattern of alternating prophecies. First, God is tearing down, then building up, then tearing down again, then building up again. Here the land is devastated by divine wrath, and soon after comes the waterbearer offering comfort, and the trees are clapping their hands. The book of Isaiah moves like a tide, and like a tide this cycle of tearing down and building up is a power greater than we are. It’s up to beach creatures like us to find a way to thrive whether the tide is in or out. In the Ancient Vision, thriving means finding it within ourselves to keep working toward that Peaceable Kingdom, sandcastle though it may seem.
That is our mistake, our idolatry: to think the sandcastle we build is the Peaceable Kingdom. It’s not. The Peaceable Kingdom is what we build inside. The sandcastle is its shadow, its footprint. Whatever we build outside and around ourselves, always we must return to our humble pursuit of justice and goodness. Any system we build, any order we create, can become a vessel of sorrow or an agent of pain. The Peaceable Kingdom depends not on them, but on our spiritual disciplines of devotion and reverence, counsel and valor, wisdom and insight, conscience and example.
When we return to the Ancient Vision and its practices, it might seem we are building castles in the air. Henry Thoreau told us that’s where they should be. And then he said: “Now build foundations under them.” Those foundations, my friends, are the practices of the Ancient Vision: to seek justice and goodness, walk humbly, share counsel, and each be true in our being: one in our thoughts, our words, and every deed. The castle is not made of sand, but rests on us and the Peaceable Kingdom we make to bear it up.
The divine Spirit that enters the world as an infant is named in Christian tradition: the Incarnation. That Spirit made flesh. Its embodiment.
The rabbi Jesus – a distinct symbol from both the babe in the manger and the lamb on the cross – became the traditional way to depict the embodiment of that Spirit. In the way that, as we say, justice is what love looks like in public, the rabbi Jesus – Jesus the teacher – became the symbol of what that Spirit of peace would do, if it were made of the same stuff we are. The babe is its arrival, the rabbi its career, and the lamb – like the slaughter of the innocents and the exile to Babylon – its temporary defeat. But the tide turns again, and the Spirit is born into this world many times every day.
And we, in whom the Spirit remains to dwell, withstand the flood of tensions and conflict and fear and rage and violence, and hold high the Ancient Vision of a castle not drowned or hanging in air, but borne up by diverse members of a Peaceable Kingdom.
Merry Christmas. Amen.