In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
It was late November 14 years ago. I was nearing the end of my second-to-last term at seminary, and my service of ordination as a deacon – the process of officially becoming clergy – was only a few days away. It was a somewhat overwhelming time. There was last-minute rush as my family prepared for the ordination: company was coming and the house was a disaster. I had whipped myself up into quite a frenzy of housework and running around town shopping and picking up things that were needed; and on top of it all, I still had major assignments for school that were due the next week. My life had become one big checklist of things I had to do: the clock was ticking and deadlines loomed large.
It is common practice in the Church for people to be sent off on a spiritual retreat immediately before their ordination – probably following the same principle as getting your car tuned up before a long trip, and this was no exception. To my dismay and general frustration, a 2-day retreat had been scheduled for me and five other people from the diocese of Huron who were being ordained at the same time. In the midst of my hectic schedule it was the very last thing I wanted to do, but there was no getting out of it. So on a freezing overcast Monday afternoon in late November, I found myself sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on the 401 (my least favourite highway) in the middle of Toronto, exhausted and emotionally drained, reluctantly headed toward the convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine. I clearly remember muttering to myself as the car inched along that I just couldn’t afford this time away and that I really had better things to do.
Many of you may not be aware that Wendy Murray, now Wendy Mencel, was in seminary at the same time that I was; we were classmates. For those of you who don’t know Wendy, I believe she came here immediately after ordination and for several years worked as the Family Ministry Co-ordinator when Ken Anderson was the Rector. Wendy had likewise been invited by the Bishop to be ordained, and was heading for the same 2-day retreat. Feeding my already rather negative disposition was the knowledge that Wendy was bringing her 8-week-old daughter, Abby, with her on the retreat.
There are people in the world who go into ecstasies over infants. I’m not one of them. I readily confess that when the good Lord was handing out maternal feelings, I was standing in the wrong line. Oh, I did fine with my own son, and I’m greatly enjoying my newly arrived grandchild, but going out of my way to hold other people’s babies has never been one of my life’s priorities – I much prefer admiring from a distance! And in my rather exhausted, self-centred state, as the kilometres between me and the convent grew shorter, it became clearer to me than ever that the very last thing I wanted to do was to spend the next 48 hours in close quarters with a howling baby. So I deviously took stock of my options – a day-long shopping trip to the nearby Yorkdale shopping centre looked like a pretty good escape hatch – either that, or some extended time in my room working on the assignment I had brought along…. made more efficient by the earplugs I had very cleverly packed.
Well, you know what they say…. “When we make plans, God laughs.” We all arrived, got settled into our rooms, and the next morning after breakfast, our small group was sitting in one of the lounges at the convent, chatting. Abby was fussy and Wendy was anxiously trying to get her to settle, but it seemed that the harder she tried, the more Abby fussed. Watching this, I could feel something welling up to the surface, but darned if I knew what it was – and suddenly, a voice from somewhere in the room said, “Give her to me – I’ll take her for a while.” No one was more surprised than I when I realized the voice was mine, and suddenly the baby I had been desperately trying to avoid was in my arms.
Perhaps you can guess what happened. No one could have told me, and I would never have imagined it in a million years, but Abby and I became inseparable over the course of the retreat – and it was the greatest gift I could have been given. It’s really, really hard to think about anything else when you have a sleeping baby on your shoulder, except to be fully present with the living, breathing miracle that you’re holding. Suddenly the busyness of my life – along with the irritation and exhaustion born of doing, doing, doing – vanished. It all evaporated like mist in the morning sunshine. In order to hold the baby, to be fully present with her, I had to let go of everything else that was going on in my life, and simply savour the moment. It was a gift from God and a lesson I’ll never forget.
Christmas is all about a baby…. a baby much like any other, and yet so unique we can scarcely comprehend it – a baby who is here waiting and willing to be shared with each and every one of us. Tonight the carols we sing invite us to tag along with a roving band of shepherds, to hear the angel choir, and to come and peek in at the stable where he lies, to adore him. But more than that, tonight in the blessing of imagination he is ours to pick up and hold for a while, to simply bask in the sweetness of the moment. I would hazard to guess that many of us came here tonight feeling overloaded and preoccupied by any number of things – perhaps with fatigue, or anxiety, or the simple excitement of the season. But tonight – tonight is our big chance. Right now, there is no yesterday, there is no tomorrow…. there is only this magic, timeless moment of awe and wonder. Right now we have the opportunity to put everything else down and pick up the Christ child. Hold close to you the Word made flesh, listen to the sound of his breathing and realize that it sounds like your very own! Rest a while in his presence and marvel that the Creator of the stars came to live as one of us – as a tiny defenceless infant ready to fill our open hands and longing hearts with hope, peace, joy, and love. Thanks be to God.
The Venerable Nancy Adams