Once upon a time, about ten years ago, a group of eager American college students visiting rural Tibet set out to visit an elderly monk who had been meditating in a cave for over 15 years. The students had been told that the monk would introduce them to a guide who could lead them to somewhere truly special. The guide, they were told, would lead them to another cave, but this other cave was not found on many map. In this secret cave, the students were told that the famous Milarepa, the first Tibetan to reach enlightenment, had meditated.
The students could hardly contain their excitement as they approached the monk's cave. One student suggested they could all end up on the cover of a Buddhist journal. Another student speculates that all of them could easily be accepted into graduate school with a story like this under their belts. At the entrance to the elderly monk's cave, the eager students were welcomed inside to sit by the holy man's fire, and to share a cup of tea and some potatoes he had cooked for breakfast. Time passed, and the impatient students ate potatoes and sipped tea. Eventually, through their translator, the students learned from the old monk that the guide was not able to join them that morning. The students were disappointed, but they thanked the elderly monk for his hospitality and left. Only years later did it occur to one of the students that the other cave really wasn't that important after all, and that the breakfast with the elderly monk was infinitely important on its own.
Today with people all around the world we come together in this sacred cave of sorts to celebrate Jesus of Nazareth’s birthday. Many scholars believe that the holy family if the birth stories are to be taken as fact likely found shelter in a cave in Bethlehem since caves were the customary place where animals would have been kept and if the new born baby was really placed in a manger, an animal feeding trough, then a cave makes sense.
We could go on at length about the significance of caves and our human ancestors emerging out of them, we could talk about cave paintings, and sacred rituals that take place in caves even to this day in some cultures. As interesting as that exploration and investigation might be --- what does Jesus’ birth, the son of Man, Jesus the savior, liberator, prophet, teacher, and king --- the eternal word/logos/reason of God, the second person of the Trinity made flesh --- what real difference does this make beyond a festive fun filled family holiday full of carols, good food and good cheer? What’s the big idea?
Well, theologians would call it the incarnation --- the divine taking on flesh. The incarnation though is not just about a single event long ago, but is about the elevation of human life for all time. As St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote in the 300s, "God became man so that humanity (man) might become god."
So we need not head to Palestine to find a particular cave where X marks the spot: here is the "sacred cave" where you can experience the fruits of the incarnation. No, the truth of the incarnation is that there are many caves to be explored, an infinite number of places where we humans may discover the divine presence ---- the invitation is to seek the nativity, new life, everywhere among everyone most especially in the context of our actual daily lives.
As Dean Shaw quoted Meister Eckhart in her introduction to the cathedral Christmas concerts “What good is it that Christ was born 2,000 years ago if he is not born now in your heart?
St. Francis of Assisi who invented Christmas pageants by dressing up his hometown like the holy family --- seemed to understand that in order for us human beings to get the significance of the incarnation we long to somehow see, touch, and feel the divine presence --- we can’t just be told God abides with us --- we have to be shown. St. Francis told his followers --- preach the gospel, the good news at all times if you have to use words. Francis, our city’s patron, privileged the embodied word over the spoken --- whether it was his rebuilding of an abandoned church, standing naked before the questioning crowds, wandering through a battlefield to meet face to face with the supposed enemy of his people. The nativity --- the cave where Christ is born is not somewhere else, far away but within you, within us in the very fabric and context of our lives.
We often seem to refuse this gift --- the gift of the incarnation --- we would rather believe that God is somehow very far away --- difficult to reach, some place other than where we are. The ancients believed that if a person beheld God they would die. There is a privileging of the transcendent within the tradition, perhaps because to really appreciate the incarnation we have to let go of a certain kind of ambition, we have to accept life on life’s terms, we must deal with that difficult neighbor, we must deal with ourselves.
This Advent I’ve been reading and re-reading a poem by E.A. McLaughlin a poet, artist, and African American Episcopal priest who built the current church building of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church at the intersection of Lyon and Turk Streets in San Francisco and later served as a canon at Grace Cathedral but I’ve been told he never preached from this pulpit ---- here’s a portion of McLaughlin’s poem,
“Love” cries out for a human self, and waits for a response;
It remains but a theory, until given human expression.
A word is only an idea unless it’s acted out.
“Love” is a passive symbol, without embodiment.
So as we approach the cave, to discover the light of the world, may we be truly present and not anxious about getting some place else, or making some significant gain ---- let us simply appreciate the gift of love embodied in the eyes and actions of a newborn stranger.
What might life be like if we were always seeking Christ in one another, including our enemies, what might life be like if we lived fully with the conviction that Christ is within us? What fears would we let go of? What hopes would arise? What new possibilities could emerge? How might we welcome and care for the immigrants among us, how might we provide healthcare, shelter, education and food to those in the greatest need.
May we like Francis discover ways to act out the nativity --- not just in pageants but also by walking across the battlefields of our daily lives, finding ways large and small to embody love.
Christmas is about love being given a human self, not just in a baby born in a manger but also in our own dark and damp caves. In time we may discover there a fire has been lit, and that tea and potatoes are waiting for us.
A personal note:
At the end of December, I will leave the staff at Grace Cathedral to focus my work at St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church in San Francisco whose congregation leadership have called me to serve as Priest-in-Charge and in time as Vicar. I will be part-time there, and seeking employment in the surrounding neighborhoods. I am very grateful for the four years I have been at Grace Cathedral, and am excited about the adventure ahead. One of the sadness about leaving Grace for me is not having the opportunity to work closely with the new Dean, Dr. Jane Shaw whom I appreciate and admire very much. However, the histories of the cathedral and St. Cyprian's are intertwined and my hope is in the years ahead these links will continue to be sources of mutual joy, growth and inspiration. Please keep us all in your prayers. Merry Christmas!