December 25, 2011

Rev. Mark Caggiano - Chestnut Hill, MA

Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD…


Isaiah 52:8

Listen. The sentinels of Christmas Eve, the watchers of the flocks, the wise ones in the desert: they are lifting up their voices in hope. They are singing for joy. They see something on the horizon and they are trying to tell us about it. Listen.

But we do not always listen.

It can be hard to listen, or at least to figure out to whom to listen. Good sentinels are hard to come by. Some watchers of the flocks now are in need of watching. Wise women and men these days hire out to the highest bidder, who is often not the Most High. It can be very hard to listen.

What might we hear? What is the true sound of Christmas? That is the first step, really, figuring out in which direction to orient ourselves. Once we know what we seek, well, there we would be, there with ears perked up. Full attention riveted on whatever might be worth a listen.

But full attention? That is a bit much to ask. This is a busy time of year. Busy, busy. End of the quarter, end of the year. So many things to do, to buy, to arrange just so. All that does not happen on its own, you know. No sir, no ma’am. There will be time enough to get to all this listening business. It is on the list, right there. How about penciling it in for next year?


Listen for what is not being heard. Listen for what can no longer be heard. It is muffled under the blanket of busyness called business. It is lost in the sea of sounds assaulting ears and minds and souls moment to moment. What is it we are trying to hear? It is the still small voice buried beneath the noise of the season. The still small voice of God.

Listen, and not just to glorious Germanic orchestras or thunderous operatic tableaus. Do not trade noise for noise, spectacle for spectacle. Slow down and then listen.

It might come to you in a cathedral extravaganza or some other buttoned down churchly gathering. But sometimes it is hiding out in some cheesy Christmas music. Sometimes it dwells in corny holiday television and eye-rolling moments of hokey tradition. Sometimes the true meaning of it all exists right there at the dinner table amidst embarrassing relatives and green bean casserole. Listen.

Listen for what? Listen for the quiet presence of God in your not always perfect life and among the not always perfect people around you. Listen for that soft spirit of hope and love that at times comes into our hard lives of faith. Sadly, these sessions are not accompanied by choirs of angels, not highlighted by the beacon of a wandering star. Then we surely would listen, but no such Christmas luck.

But there it is, waiting to be heard in the background. There it is, trying to be seen, maybe a little to the left or right, up or down from where our eyes habitually fall. And the more we bear down to hear or to see, the less likely it is that we will perceive. For listening and seeing do not take effort. They take patience.

For Christmas is not about the gauntlet of tasks set out in the season, but the sentiment and care behind them. It is not about the glitz and glamour, but the sparkle and glow. It is not about checking if we are naughty or nice, but checking in with one another. When all is said and done, Christmas is not about what we are doing at all, but about why we are doing it in the first place.

Yet there is something particular to this season, something unique to Christmas. It is about the waiting, the sitting expectantly for the day of days to come. There is something about this time of year that can turn our heads, one way or another, away from the usually to the extraordinary. If we look past the ornaments, beyond the glittering shopping malls, there can be a sense of hope, a feeling of joy. Hope that we offer to one another as the most wonderful of gifts. Joy sparked in the loving eyes of another lovely soul. And then, suddenly, those hopeful and joyful heads just might turn ever so slightly and truly hear, finally see.

At Christmas we are supposed to slow down a bit. At Christmas we are supposed to think about peace on Earth, good will toward men and women. Supposed to, but not required to. Supposed to, but not always ready to. Shackled to the trite expectations of the season, is it no wonder that we cannot stumble beyond a pre-packaged facsimile of Christmas. Much of this is a self-inflicted wound, driven by a sense of the holidays as consumer frenzy or hopeless aggravation. Maybe it is time to let go of what is expected.

Try this next year (or next week) by yourself or with friends and family. Sing Christmas carols, good ones and bad ones, well known or half-remembered. Sing them well or sing them badly. In the car, at the kitchen table, in the shower. Embarrass the kids, make the dog howl along. Make some late Christmas cards. Yes, make them. Do it with crayons and construction paper. Put them on the refrigerator. Mail them to your more understanding friends and relations (and send some blank paper and a few crayons as well). Cut out some paper snowflakes. Gin up a few cutout decorations for the tree. Then draw the tree. Sprinkle a little glitter on it all with some Elmer’s Glue. And then giggle when Joseph and Mary look like camels. Laugh out loud if the baby Jesus bears a striking resemblance to Winston Churchill. And when you are done singing and drawing and laughing, that will be the time. That is a good time to listen.

Planning does not always get us where we need to be. Thinking will not often shed light on this problem. Hope and joy are not creatures of the mind. Love and faith are not easy to explain. But they are not so hard to recognize once we let go of fussing and fretting about a holiday and remember it as a holy day. Once we stop treating Christmas like a marathon, we can see it instead as a stroll. Then we can relax and wonder. Then we can spread out and grow. Then we can stop doing and just be. Then we can finally listen.