It seems strange to think that Christ is actually present in such a saving way in that little wafer of bread or in the small sip of wine. Or that God speaks to us in a literal book of ink, paper, and binding. Or that the pastor’s sermon is used by the Holy Spirit to create faith in our hearts. These are rather spectacular claims for what goes on in an ordinary church service, with its weakly sung hymns, crying babies, and fidgeting people in their pews. It is hardly credible to think that such a mundane and frequently dull setting could be the scene of such high and holy spiritual presences.
One might say the same thing, of course, about the central event in Christianity.
— Gene Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross
Tell me it isn’t a little odd that people can get together around some choppy CCM, creaky folding chairs, a beat up leather book, stale bread, and grape juice from a plastic container, and God is there. God. God is in that place. That name, and those words, don’t shake us like they should. It’s astounding. He’s in the stale bread. He’s in the beat up book, and the people’s hands, and mouths, and hearts. It sounds like it should be blasphemy, but it’s just the Gospel. I’ve had this- this mundaneness of the holy- heavy on my mind and heart these past couple weeks. It’s heavy because it’s hard, and heavy because it’s good. And it’s hopeful.
My English class concluded for the semester this last Wednesday. (I know; we were starting the last time I wrote. Timely updates are my Achille’s heel.) We had some brief exams, plastic mugs of hot chocolate, Christmas cookies on napkins, and a viewing of the 1966 version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I spent this whole semester learning how to teach in a way that’s helpful, with words small enough to slip through the gaps in the language barrier. It’s been a fun challenge, but I feel pretty wrung out.
Luckily, Christmas is for wrung out people. “Christmas is for everybody!” retort my inner editor and biblical studies, theological watchdogs of the interwebs (maybe), Hallmark movies (probably), etc. Yeah—I believe this. Thank God. The tired and the sick, though? The weak-at-the-knees people, “even the dogs” people, “Son of David, have mercy” people? I think Christmas is for them in a way that maybe only they’re looking for. Advent, even more so.
This year I’ve been particularly aware of how much I need a season like Advent, for remembering who I’m waiting for, and that I’m not waiting in vain. I’m ready and excited for Christmas, but I’m sustained by the greater truth outshining the lights draped over my dresser: I’m coming, he says. I came, and I’m here, and I’m coming. Hope like that is air in my lungs, and peace on days when I can’t figure out how to get the vocab to stick—for the days with more confusion than comprehension.
It’s a strange peace, because to find it, you have to know that you’re blind. It’s strange because it tends to grow where blood is sown. (My girlfriend wrote about this beautifully and at greater length. She articulates things that matter more clearly than I can think them.) Veith, the author quoted above, related the story of a man hospitalized, with kidneys failing, and yet peacefully crossing himself in the midst of his debilitation. How mundane is that? He crosses himself. How radical? There’s peace in the eyes of the sufferer. That image won’t leave me.
I hope you’re celebrating Christmas with people you love. I hope there’s good food, and a beautiful tree, and (should you be so blessed) snow on the ground outside. But I hope, more than any of those things, and especially if you’re feeling their absence, that you can see the plain, brown crucifix that stands beyond the plain, brown manger.
… and the empty grave, standing further still.
An update, for those wondering about support needs: They are still substantial, and in fact have actually grown. I’ve got some new ministry opportunities that I’ll be writing about here very soon, but in the meantime, know that every prayer and every financial gift is a huge help. Thank you, thank you, a thousand times, to those of you who have already contributed so generously in both of these ways. God bless you as you have me.