December 23, 2021•421 words
My wife, Kate, and I have spoken several times this past week about what it is that people want to hear this year in a Christmas homily. She has even asked a few members of her congregation the question directly, and the answer has been pretty consistent. People long to hear a message of hope. What is the Good News that we can cling to in the midst of the continuous flow of bad news blaring from our various media sources? She and I agreed that the preachers, too, would benefit from hearing a hopeful message this Christmas.
The Christian hope, as outlined in the Book of Common Prayer, "is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world." The communal telling of the Christmas story each year is a testament to this confidence. The coming of Emmanuel, "God with us," is assurance that the gloomy clouds of night will disperse and death's dark shadow will be put to flight. Of course, all this is easily said (or sung), but feeling hopeful, particularly in an unsettling time, is another matter entirely.
The desert tradition offers wisdom for this challenge. Like us today, the desert dwellers of the fourth and fifth centuries hoped for paradise. They prayed that God's will would be done on earth just as it is in heaven. They also believed that God's will was being done in the here and now--paradise was currently in full bloom, even if it was hard to see. And so, their work, guided by God, was to sharpen their mystical vision. They labored to learn to see beyond the brokenness of the world, beyond its violence, suffering, and death into the heavenly kingdom that exists not apart from the world but in its very midst. The monks knew that this was a lifelong task. Hope takes practice. Author Douglas Christie calls this work "practicing paradise." That is, "learning to see and cherish the world, even in its degraded condition, as whole."
The contemplative practice you and I commit to as members of the Desert Prayers community is essentially this. Every moment we spend in silence with God we are learning to see the world anew. And, with our new eyes, we will surely discover God in the most unlikely of places, like, say, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.