December 23, 2018
The Fourth Sunday in Advent
(Micah 5: 1-4; Luke 1:39-45)
The Isle of Iona in Scotland is a tiny, windswept place in the western Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. It's a skinny little island, only about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, but it's the destination of hundreds of people each year who brave a long journey involving trains, boats, busses for and more boats to get there.
At first glance it's hard for people to tell what the big deal is. Sure, it's a quiet place where you can get away from the sounds of civilization. Only about a hundred people live on the island, given its remote location. And while it's a beautiful place with emerald green grass, old stone buildings, and a landscape dotted with sheep that far outnumber the people, they say it's also a place where the rain and wind off the North Sea can drive right through you no matter how good your rain gear might be.
And yet, there's something mystical about this place -- the place where Saint Columba landed sometime in the sixth century to establish a monastic community, having fled his native Ireland. The old, 12th-century abbey that still stands on the east side of the isle acts as a sentinel of the island's past. It was there the monks welcomed many visitors who came to the island, searching for something missing in their souls. They were people who knew the early reputation of the place as what the native Celts called a "thin place."
Unlike so many Westerners who think that heaven is some place far away and far removed from Earth, the Celts believed that heaven and Earth were really about three feet apart. Sometimes, they thought, that distance was even smaller --small enough for those on Earth to get a glimpse of the glory of heaven. The Celts believed that Iona was a place where people could feel that thinness and experience the kind of revelations and feelings that one might have when so close to the holy. They believed that was true of other places as well, usually places far away from the crowd and wrapped in both mist and mystery.
The famous 20th century Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton once wrote that thin places are even more prevalent than the ancient Celts believed, but we just don't see them. "Life is simple," he wrote. "We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time ... if we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes ... the only thing is that we don't [let ourselves] see it." We miss those glimpses of the kingdom of God, breaking in on the earth, which is ironic given the fact that Jesus taught us to pray that we might see the kingdom come "on earth as it is in heaven."
Perhaps one of the most significant thin places and thin spaces we miss on a regular basis is the celebration of Christmas. In the midst of all the last-minute preparations for Christmas Eve tomorrow night and Christmas morning soon after, we can be caught up in thinking that this is just another Christmas season with the same traditions and myriad obligations (most of them self-imposed) that require all of our attention. We can miss the fact that Christmas really calls us to consider the thinnest place the world has ever seen -- not an island, but a manger; and not a feeling, but a person in whom heaven and Earth both fully dwell.
The prophet Micah called the people of Judah to focus hard on finding a thin place in the midst of the thick and foreboding threat of foreign invasion. Like a raging storm, the Assyrian invaders were bearing down on them to sweep them away as God's instrument of judgment against his people. They would dodge that particular fate at the hands of Assyria, but they would not escape the later Babylonian invasion. Like so many of us, the people of Judah made the mistake of thinking that God was far away and put up a thick wall of apostasy as a way of holding God at a distance. God would break through, however, and their walls, both literally and figuratively, would eventually come tumbling down.
And yet, even in the midst of all this impending doom, God offers a word of hope through the prophet with a promise to create a new thin place for his people -- a remote, out of the way place that, like Iona, was populated with only a few shepherd families and a lot of sheep. In Bethlehem, in a place few expected, God was going to bring the life of heaven to Earth in a very personal way.
Bethlehem was, of course, King David's hometown, and it was there that he was chosen as the unlikely successor to the reign of King Saul, who was Israel's idea of what a king should look like. God, of course, had a very different idea. The shepherd-boy David was anointed and would rule Israel successfully until his own moral downfall, but even then God would continue to honor the promise he made to David that one of the king's descendants would sit on the throne of Israel forever (2 Samuel 7:16).
In the meantime, God would give up his people to exile until that king would be born and his people brought back from distant lands. Then that shepherd-king will "stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God." All of that would happen because God was going to create a thin place there in Bethlehem.
Interestingly, most people in Micah's day thought that the ultimate thin place in the world was the temple in Jerusalem, which was the place where it was thought that God dwelled with his people. But Israel's salvation wasn't coming from the temple, the future of which was already in jeopardy. Security wasn't to be found in relying on the temple, but in God's true king who would bring security and peace through his righteous reign. Instead of a temple, the place where heaven and earth came together, the place where God would dwell with his people, was going to be the feeding trough in a back alley of the tiniest and most insignificant of places.
If you visit Bethlehem today, you'll find that it doesn't have the same kind of pastoral, quiet and mystical aura of a thin place like Iona. There's jostling with a long line of pilgrims waiting to get into the Church of the Nativity, monks yelling instructions to be quiet, cameras flashing, security officers mulling about -- all for people to get one chance to touch the star in the cave below that church that marks the traditional site of Jesus' birth. It's more hectic than holy in there on any given day, which makes it hard to fathom that whole idea of a "Silent Night."
But on this day before Christmas Eve, it's not the Bethlehem of modern-day Israel that we need to pilgrimage to in order to experience the thin place of Jesus' birth. We can do that right where we are by simply focusing ourselves on the humble, obscure and yet powerful way in which God chooses to bridge the gap between heaven and Earth. He doesn't come with chariots rolling or guns blazing, but in the soft skin and helpless posture of a baby, born to a family who number themselves among the poorest of the poor. Life was thin for Mary and Joseph, but the life Mary brought forth in the manger was full of more than God's people and, indeed, the whole world could have ever imagined.
In Jesus, God broke through the barriers between himself and humanity by becoming one of us. We don't worship a God who is distant, cloaked in clouds, and oblivious to our world. Instead, we worship a God who has deigned to humble himself, as Paul says in Philippians 2, and take the road to a cross. This is a God we can know because he has a human face and in him the best of heaven and Earth come together and show us what is possible for us and for the world.
So, as you prepare for Christmas, maybe the best preparation is to take some time to go to a quiet place and consider that God is not far away, that the king is quite near and his kingdom is at hand. Allow yourself to live in the reality of who God is and what God has done in Jesus. Take a pilgrimage into the heart of the biblical story of Christmas and read it as if you're seeing it for the first time. Serve someone who needs to experience the reality that God has come to give them real hope.
May your Christmas be thin!
Let us pray.
For schoolchildren on their holiday break, and for their parents, that the Lord may bless them during this special time. We pray to the Lord.
For those who are facing a difficult Christmas, that they may be comforted. We pray to the Lord.
As Mary was greeted with joy by her cousin Elizabeth, we pray for all women who are preparing for childbirth at this time that the birth of their child be a safe and happy one for them and their families. We pray to the Lord.
As we look forward to the joys of Christmas, our hearts are with those families who in the last year have lost loved ones. We pray that our belief that the souls of the deceased are in the loving care of the Father who created them is a consolation to them at this time. We pray to the Lord.
As we prepare for this holy feast of Christmas, we pray that we may be conscious of those who are in financial distress and that we may, in the true Christian spirit, share with them some of that which we ourselves are blessed to have. We pray to the Lord.
As we approach Christmas Day, we pray for love and reconciliation in our community, particularly in families, and that we make a special effort to reach out to those who are lonely or in need. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Generous God, you blessed Mary and Elizabeth, who trusted in you and answered your call. Loving Father, prepare our hearts with your grace, that like Mary, we may be a worthy dwelling place for your Son. Bless us, your faithful people, as we lift our voices to heaven with these prayers. Grant them in the name of your Son, whose coming we await, Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA