Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

It's almost 180 days that I've been on Active Duty at this point -- therefore, almost twice as long as the longest stint up until now (Chaplain Basic Training) that I've been on Active Duty.

For reasons that are not clear to me, my pay stub lists me as being on "Active Duty for Training" while I'm over here Down Range. This seems a bit odd, as there doesn't seem to be much in the way of "training" going on at present, and it sure appears to *me* anyway as if this is the 'real thing' and not some run-of-the-mill FTX (field training exercise).

However, what do I know? (LTC K would probably scold me right now with, "There you go again, Chaplain, expecting the Army to make sense.")

What I *do* know, however, is that today is Christmas Eve, and I'm far away from my family and friends. It doesn't feel particularly like Christmas, truth be told, despite the liturgical lead-in that is the Advent Season.

During times like Advent I'm very grateful to belong to a liturgical worship tradition. There's a power in ritual that belies its simplicity. Of course, there's the danger that the ritual could devolve into rote repetition, but so far that's not been a pitfall which has tripped me up.

Just this past Sunday a young Captain stopped me after Mass to thank me for really celebrating the Eucharist, rather than just reciting words devoid of any real meaning or emotional connection. "I felt you were praying with me and for me, and I felt connected to you and to the others in the room and to the God who is the "with-us God" ['Immanu El; Emmanuel] you've been speaking about in your homilies during Advent."

That lifted my spirits.

I love to pray. I love to invite others to enter into the ritual action by means of the words appointed for the Presider to pray, rather than just recite. After all, it's called the "Celebration of the Eucharist"!

As an aside, I once went to a wedding (that I'd not really been invited to, but showed up to, -- from across the county -- none the less, because I was annoyed at not having received an invitation) that seemed almost as if it were a funeral. When the priest was praying, his words were barely audible, which probably was a good thing, since he seemed bored as he recited them. Perhaps he was annoyed because he was missing lunch or something.

I suspect that many of those present felt it was a very "reverent" service. (Why it is that boredom, or ennui, and/or distraction are lauded as "piety" while real joy, gratitude, awe, wonder, and engagement with the liturgical texts are decried as "irreverence" escapes me.)

I couldn't wait to escape that place, and I wasn't even getting married!

Anyway, I believe the Eucharist is supposed to be a celebration, an honest-to-goodness spiritual party in recognition of how much we are loved in the midst of the goofiness and disorder of our lives. This year's Advent readings spoke to me very clearly of "God with us" -- Emmanuel -- in the midst of all that mess.

That's something -- someone -- worth celebrating, in my book! How amazing is it that Christians have a God who has embraced the mess of the human condition? Rather than being appalled by it, or repulsed by it, or enraged by it, or bored by it, God sees the whole history of human depravity, evil, oppression, sin, sadness, grief, shame, fear (and on and on) and chooses to enter into it *personally*, completely, becoming one like us in all things but sin (cf. Heb 2:17).

While we probably rightfully ought to have this celebration surrounding the Feast of the Annunciation (the true Feast of the Incarnation) in March, we wind up acknowledging all this on the Feast of the Nativity, which we honor this night.

Hanging out as I have done, for just shy of three decades now, with women and men who go to a lot of AA and Al-Anon and NA and other 12-step programs, it seems pretty clear that the God who chose to become enfleshed chose to do so in the person of a little child -- the epitome of human powerlessness. Amazing!
14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (NRSV: Heb 2:14-18)
The mystery of the Incarnation and Nativity means that nothing human is foreign to God. We are not alone. God is with us. Emmanuel.

This is indeed good news, and worth *really* celebrating.

Even here on Active Duty, Down Range, far from home and hearth.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your words and humanity and service to our troops and to those of us who are family members far away from our soldiers.

God Bless you and keep you safe on this amazing journey.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father Tim--
Your recent blogs give us a whole new appreciation of Christmas. You're in the prayers and thoughts of all your Thomas Merton family and many more.

Peace and blessings to you and may God keep you safe.

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