Christmas 2020 – “God pursuing Godself, and that would be us”

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div.,Ph.D.

Christmas is, at the level of human experience, fundamentally personal.  I’m not talking theology, history, sociology, psychology or even philosophy.  I’m talking practicality about Christmas Spirit and doing for others, acting for peace, and carrying out the work of justice.  However, I would like to make the point that at its root it is the personal story that grounds, inspires, and motivates us.  The story of the birth of a child surrounded by those who love them is my story, your story, our story.

Last Thursday for our community weekly check-in Bill Erickson took us on a walk along Barstow St. in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  I’ve never been there.  But Bill has, being a native son and all.  What made it special was that he invited us to join the 10 year old Billy Erickson rekindling personal memories of this holiday decorated city street, of Christmas Carols filling that street over loudspeakers with sing-alongs arranged by Percy Faith.  We weren’t on that walk last Thursday for long before each one of us found ourselves submerged in Christmas memories of our own childhood.

Try it yourself.  You know if I started picturing the human-sized characters that made up the full-scale Bethlehem scene along the side of my home church of St. Ignatius of Antioch at the corner of Lorain St. & West Boulevard in Cleveland, Ohio, I bet I wouldn’t get past describing Mary & Joseph and you would already conjure up your own memories.  And that is why Christmas is personal.

Now, here’s my alert.  It is that we know we can all make the case that Christmas so full of presence (see what I did there?) can also be defined by absence.  December 25, as a date, would only be just another day if not for Christmas.  Which is also why December 25 is not just another day even when all that care, love, and peace is not present.  Here is what I mean, and I say this not to throw dark shadows on our community celebration.  But, this year, this time I feel it must be said.

We surely are aware of the absence from Christmas dinner tables that marks the Holy Day this year.  Families are mourning this Christmas because of covid – mourning made more desolate and grief-stricken because so many did not have to die.  Only recently have we learned for how long government political appointees acted in support of herd immunity.  “We want them to be infected” apparently were the buzzwords of an administration that denied in public what it intended to achieve in the hidden actions of its bureaucracies.  There is mourning this Christmas.

Other families were torn apart this year in the name of the American people.  Of course, I’m referring to the hidden (now, no longer) policy of separating at the border of the land of the free children from their parents and those government political appointees who denied in public that such a policy was being carried out by the American government.

I am reading now Jacob Soboroff’s book “Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.”  You may have seen his reports this past year.  He has documented how, why, and with what indifference a policy called “Deterrence” identifies the inhuman practice of family separation, especially over the past 2-3 years.

Here’s what I am discovering from the book.  Deterrence has been practiced by the US government as long ago as President Clinton and has been part of every presidential administration ever since.  The difference between the Trump administration and these others is the others acknowledged the responsibility to reunite these children with their parents after the parents went through the system.  Soboroff reports and shows how the Trump administration acted callously and without care, even to the level of preventing computer systems from communicating with each other.  This meant the agencies that tracked the parents could not connect with the agencies that tracked the children.  And it was all intentional!

When I bought the book I was expecting a total expose on a lawless, possibly criminal set of policies and people of the Trump administration.  Yes, there are heart-wrenching stories like the 3 yr. old daughter who, as she was taken from the arms of her mother, cried, “Don’t take me from my Mommy!”  And there is plenty of evidence showing heads of agencies (political appointees) not telling career public servants in these same agencies what had been decided, leaving the unknowing ones completely at a loss on what to do when these children started showing up at the doorsteps of residential facilities across the country.  Then, of course, there are the cages.

There is mourning this Christmas in America as well as in Guatemala, Salvador, Nicaragua.  There are people going door-to-door in those Central American countries looking for parents who were deported out of the United States but whose children are still living in Chicago, Los Angeles, or someplace in the west Texas hills.  Christmas is about presence.  But it is surely also about absence.  We pray for better angels, but as a matter of practicality even better than the angels – we pray for a caring, competent government.

Let me say one other thing about what Christmas is about.   It’s definitely about childhood memories – the ones about nurturing and caring as well as the tragic and the torn apart ones.

Somehow, though, we must put aside childhood memories so that we may, with a mature faith, face the demands of making the world better.  Make the world a place that the “Word made flesh” could recognize; a place that would not only receive but respond to the “glory of God’s Own coming from our God, filled with enduring love.” (John 1:14)

This coming of the Promised One, we say in faith, is evidence of Incarnation.  But how do we grow from childhood memories into mature persons who become one with God?  Figuring this out takes us to what some theologians call Deep Incarnation.  When you realize that it is union with the divine that underlies this Promise, that the One who comes is us then we are able to go from strength to strength.  We hate the tearing away of children from their parents while we also recognize that 30 years of Deterrence as a policy of our government carried out in our names and using our money to do it must be repealed and replaced.

When we do that then we will sing “Glory to God” for the justice that must be done.  We will know that divine fulfillment has come by our hands, for, once we accept then we must also respond.  Last week I received a message from one of our members who put it this way

“In all the years of search I thought I was pursuing God and in recent years realize God has been pursuing me.”

This thought reminds me that, after all, we are the image of God.  This Christmas we challenge ourselves to truly become Christ for the world.  We will clarify for the world that, “of this One’s fullness we have all had a share – grace following upon grace.” (John 1:16)

Maybe then we will breathe again as the O Antiphon for December 20, “O key of David” prays.  Maybe, our mourning will turn into laughter.

O Antiphon, December 20:  “O Key of David – O Clavis David”

O Key of David, you open, and none can shut; you shut, and none can open.

Come: lead us out of the prisons that oppress body, mind and soul.

Welcome us into the open space of possibility; let us breathe again.

SONG O Come, All Ye Faithful

A Prayer  (JR)

So, God, you live in us as your Word made flesh.  We receive with thanks your grace in our Christmas celebration, but what we hope for is the grace of seeing the backside of this virus.

We commemorate this Feast of New Light through both the presence and the absence of caring, of nurturing, and of making peace.  We praise your Christ who is us.  We glorify the light that shines on injustice, greed, and poverty only to motivate us to act.  We honor your trust in us that welcomes a New Time of kindness and love done in the Name of the Messiah, Wonderful Counselor, God Hero, Savior Forever, Ruler of Peace.   Amen.

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