It seems to make life simpler if we can divide things into categories - holy and unholy, or rather holy or profane. Our minds seem to be shaped by a kind of dualism a sort of either or, way of looking at the world. Things are either, good or bad, right or wrong, up or down, holy or unholy. And yet life itself isnt that simple. The most profound parts of life are not so easily put into categories. For example, there is a profound truth in someone saying, "the more I learn, the less I know!" Or what about, "to be the greatest of saints one must be the chief of sinner." We know what that means even though they are opposites.
And then comes a long something that reshapes our world-view, our way of looking at life and everything else. A story or a scene that captures our imaginations and we look at life differently now. The Christmas nativity scene is one place where we look and see that there is more to this simple scene than first meets the eye.
Last week I came across a song by a Minnesota folk singer named Peter Mayer and I took the title of this message from it, "Everything is Holy now." It seemed to me to epitomise the message of Christmas Day. The birth of this little one changes everything. A child who teaches us that wisdom comes from the source of love and not just a good education. That we find power in the one who is powerless; discover hope in humility; and even joy in poverty. It expands life and gives our understanding a new horizon. Here are a few lines from the song (Which can, like most music be found on YouTube.)
When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles dont happen still
But now I cant keep track
Cause everythings a miracle
Everythings a miracle
Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isnt one
When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like Im swimming in a sea of it
But I walk it with a reverent air
Cause everything is holy now
Read a questioning childs face
And say its not a testament
Thatd be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say its not a sacrament
I tell you that it cant be done
This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now
It used to be a world half-there
Heavens second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
Cause everything is holy now!
If the Christmas scenes that we see and read about are to have an impact on us then we need to see the extraordinary in the extra-ordinary; to see the Holy in unexpected, not so holy places. Thats really what faith is about. It is not believing impossible things, but rather living deeply into the real stuff of life. Its catching a glimpse of the Holy in places others may regard as decidedly unholy.
From Holy to Wholly
For much of the history of religion in general and Christianity in particular, the word Holy has been used to separate. God was and is seen as Holy which means God is separate from creation, the world and even the universe, and particularly from humanity. And so a Holy person was one who was separate and often separated from the rest of us. Holiness like humility is not something one can claim for oneself. Saying, "I am a truly Holy person!" probably excludes you from the Holiness club.
But Holiness is not just about being separate, or special, it is also an awareness of what we might call the sacred or the Divine. "Take off your shoes," God said to Moses, "for the ground on which you stand is Holy." I think we all know what that means, that a place can emit the "scent of the sacred" (and when I talk about sacred ground I am not referring to the MCG!)
Its not just something being special; its that the place is alive with Gods presence and Gods activity. And I think we are beginning to see that the universe, the world in which we live and even our own lives are the theatre of Gods activity. Everything is Holy now! Not just the religious bits of life.
Thats what I see in this Christmas nativity. It is the theatre of Gods activity. It is in one sense the Holy present in the ordinary. And thats what makes it a life- giving story the Holy becomes Wholly all there is, everything. The best of our traditional theology says that God was there in the birth and life of this child Jesus. That human life and the human condition are not separated from God, but rather life itself is the vehicle that can express and declare the wonder of God, the Holy, the sacred and the Divine in the world around us. In theology it is called incarnation and should not be limited to one place and one time. When everything is Holy then the world and every activity is imbued with the presence of God.
This doesnt negate the very real presence of pain and suffering in our lives; nor does it excuse evil or hateful actions. Instead it recognizes that even in the awful dark places of life, God is present making the most retched place sacred. One cannot imagine the pain and despair of the asylum seekers who perished recently in the ocean off Indonesian coast. And while I hold this view with great care and good measure of humility, for me the most important responses are first, to see each of the lives of these desperate people as Holy ground and secondly, to work for justice and peace in the name of the one who was born in a stable, surrounded by shepherds and became a man who lived and taught a better way for human beings to live together.
If everything is holy now, then we can touch the sacred in the big events of life in our world, but also in the small and everyday experience of life. Even our Christmas table as we gather with family and friends and perhaps strangers becomes Holy ground for it is in these unexpected places that we glimpse the wonder of Immanuel, "God with us."