Christmas 2009

On June 27th of this year, Auden, my granddaughter was born. We all stood in awe at the miracle of birth. At the same time we were faced with the reality of the harshness of life. Within the course of forty-eight hours her mother had three operations, was paralyzed and blind. Fortunately my daughter-in-law recovered and is about 95%. Within the course of thirty-six hours we came face to face with being and nothingness, existence and annihilation, life and death, creation and loss. All the philosophy and theology books that I have read were suddenly trite and superficial. We were staring right at “reality”- the reality in which you and I live, and which escapes our easy constructs and concepts.

All of my life I have been aware of the fact that our perception of existence and our understanding of existence is exceedingly complex. The dichotomies between reason and emotion, between science and religion, between doubt and faith are false dichotomies. They are constructs that are useful, approach reality to some extent, but fall far too far from the mark. I have always thought that our ways of “knowing” were multiple and that our knowledge was always extremely nuanced and complex.

As I watch Auden grow and develop, I feel affirmed in my view that there are many ways of perceiving and knowing. Old theories seem stale and new “brain study” theories seem artificial. Yes the front lobe of her brain is reacting to the stimulus of my singing, but the rest of the brain is doing something as well in connection to the frontal lobe.

What you and I do every living moment is to respond to creation, to the world and to reality that exists, creates, recreates, is positive and has some sort of intention and meaning. In the first century the author of John sought to explain this when he rewrote the narrative story of creation, as found in Genesis, with his own reflection on the existence of God’s “showing forth,” which he calls “the word.” In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” The author of John leads us deeper into his meditation on the nature of God’s creative and revealing power, as he speaks of the way God, the very source of existence, moves. Then the author steps back and tells us about a man, named John the Baptist, who pointed to the real embodiment of God’s “showing forth.” The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The author knows that the embodiment of God in the baby, Jesus, who becomes a man, is also the showing forth of God’s glory and truth. “And we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the father, full of grace and truth.”

Now I want to tell you a story. Last Friday my wife, Faye, and I drove into NYC to hear the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fischer Hall in Lincoln Center. For several years we have had season tickets to the Philharmonic concerts and indulge ourselves with dinner at O’Neal’s before the concert. Driving into the city, and walking around it, you realize that it is like reality, ugly and beautiful, refined and coarse, a mixture of every race, religion, ethnic group and nationality. The city is defined by a brashness, defensiveness, cynicism, sarcasm, sourness, pessimism, fatalism, and outright scorn. (In fact the man sitting next to us at O’Neal’s that night was the embodiment of all of those traits.) NYC is truly the “show me state.” Missouri pales in comparison when it comes to being the “doubting Thomas” of society.

Faye is always switching concerts around like cards in a deck, so I am never quite sure what is coming up. Much to my surprise, we were to hear Handel’s Messiah, directed by Helmut Rielling. I have sung the whole Messiah as a first tenor and cringe at some of the high notes. The orchestra was superb and the choir excellent.  I had forgotten how much of the libretto came directly from the Psalms, Isaiah and Job. Much to my surprise I discovered that the entirety of the Messiah was being sung, not just the Christmas birth narrative but also the Easter resurrection section. A note in the program indicated that it was traditional for people to stand at the Hallelujah chorus. King George had stood at that part and it became a tradition. Some thought the king stood because of his faith, or the inspiration of the music, but it might have been because he had hemroids, woke up startled, or had a leg cramp. (Talk about deconstructionism!) We were assured that it was quite all right to remain seated. The concert hall seats 2,500. Right up to the Hallelujah chorus the music was impressive and stirring. Then they hit the chorus, with Phil Smith on trumpet. 2,300 people, jaded New Yorkers, rose: Jew, Gentile, black, white, Asian, Occidental, old, young, infirm, fit. It was awe-inspiring. But what was really awesome was that at the end they applauded and cheered. I was stunned.

You see, that great music, that work of genius, that inspired statement in word and sound, touched the souls of the hearers. They knew that they had heard something truly inspiring and beautiful, full of beauty and meaning, full of grace and truth. There is within each of us a longing for that which is esthetic and inspiring, for that which is perceived in ways of knowing that are not strictly conceptional or rational, but which have both a delicacy and profundity that can only be perceived by the combination of our senses and rationality which include the emotional and the rational, experience and expectation, creativity and finality, fear and hope, doubt and belief.

It is the uniqueness, the genius of Christmas that the narrative of the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, a birth every bit as dangerous as that of my granddaughter, and every bit as problematic and fraught with serious repercussions, speaks to the human soul. It speaks to our hunger for grace and truth, for hope and peace, for forgiveness and love. We, at our most sensitive, understand that we are hearing a narrative story that, set in the context of Israel’s Old Testament story, speaks of creation and recreation, of that which is positive and redemptive and which offers meaning and inspiration.

It is my prayer that my son and daughter-in-law will do those things in the rearing of Auden, that strengthen her sense of the aesthetic and moral, of that which is full of grace, beauty and truth, as well as her physical and rational well being. It is my prayer for all of you that you will open your hearts to the wondrous revelation of God’s presence in the gift of a baby in a manger, and the promise of love and hope which Jesus Christ brings and which we celebrate in this Christmas Mass. Amen. –Fr. Gage-