December 25, 2019 - Revised Common Lectionary, Year A
The Very Rev. William A. J. Heine, Jr.
(Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20; Psalm 96)
"Filled with Awe, Saved by Love"
Theological Truth: The Incarnation—the Embodiment of Love—fills us with the healing, unifying power of Awe.
This summer, Shannon and I took a long car trip out west. Like a kid on a scavenger hunt, I was determined to check off every National Park even potentially “along the way.” It was this obsession to see and document it all that led us to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry. It’s not a highly visited national park. It’s in Colorado, but hardly “on the way” to anywhere...except possibly New Mexico which is where we were headed so we decided to make the “short” detour to this deep but narrow canyon carved by the Gunnison River. It’s called the Black Canyon because, due to its narrowness, depth, and sheer vertical walls, there are some places that never get direct sunshine.
It had been a long day of driving with one other jaw-dropping landmark already gerrymandered into our day, so we had thought about skipping the Black Canyon. But it seemed a shame to miss out on getting one more stamp in my National Park’s passport, so we decided to just stop in quickly, and check it off the list a la Clark Griswold. The problem was we parked in the wrong spot, so our quick stop into the Visitor’s Center turned into a hike along the Black Canyon’s precipice. The setting evoked a physical reaction. Shannon and I both had this strange feeling of dizziness, anxiety and nausea. The place was beautiful, yet foreboding. It was like the Canyon was pulling us down into it, yet we couldn’t walk away. When we finally made it to Visitor Center’s overlook, we interacted excitedly with a family and their children from Japan whose mother kept reaching out to protect her kids. Like us, they were similarly and simultaneously filled with both excitement and fear. We were filled with what psychologists now are defining as the emotion of awe.
Poets, philosophers, and theologians have talked about awe for millennia, but scientists have only recently begun studying the mysterious and complex emotion of awe. In a landmark 2003 paper, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt suggested that awe experiences can be characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation.” (https://www.templeton.org/discoveries/the-science-of-awe). Perceived vastness can be either in terms of physical size (the Grand Canyon say), or something or someone of immensity or deep profundity (think of encountering Mother Theresa or Pope Francis). “Need for accommodation” means that the experience “blows our mind;” it forces us to rethink our expectations of how things work; we need a new framework to accommodate this awe-full experience. But it’s the effect that awe has on us that is so amazing. The psychologists say that experiences of awe “shift our attention away from ourselves, make us feel like we are part of something greater than ourselves, change our perception of time, and even make us more generous toward others.” (Ibid). That’s what happened at Black Canyon of the Gunnison. We weren’t thinking of ourselves, we were part of something bigger, we were part of a much bigger picture and timeframe, and we were delighted to share it with those around us. Awe does that. Christmas does that too.
Imagine being at that first Christmas. Luke describes shepherds being addressed by an angel of the Lord with the glory of the Lord shining all around them. They respond with terror. Then, as if that isn’t enough, suddenly a multitude of the heavenly host appear filling the night with songs of praise. Doesn’t that sound like an encounter with the vastness of the Divine, one that would require an adjustment to our understanding of reality? And what if you were Mary or Joseph? As if watching the birth of your child wouldn’t produce enough awe, especially given the desperate and dangerous circumstances of the delivery, then these breathless shepherds show up talking excitedly about angelic messengers saying this child is the long awaited Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. Vastness and power and Divine intervention that requires a reorientation of our worldview and revised expectations of the future. Of course they all stand around that manger awe-struck: this odd collection of witnesses to the power and love and presence of God in our midst. Who could blame the shepherds for going around telling everybody that would listen about the awesome thing they had seen. No wonder Mary treasures all these words and ponders them in her heart. They had experienced the Incarnation, the Nativity of the Lord. They were filled with awe and its effect on them is textbook: shifting attention away from themselves; making them feel like they were part of something bigger; changing their sense of time; and making them more generous to others. Awe does that. Christmas does that...even all these years later. And the world needs it more than ever.
The inspirational awe of the Word of God made flesh continues today, but like that trip to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we may decide to skip it. It’s tempting to continue speeding down the most expedient route on life’s highway. Or only stop for a quick overview....scenic but not involved, a glimpse but not an experience. The Love of God can be a scary thing—so powerful, so close, so intimate. Awful may seem like a more likely destination than awe-filled or awesome . Old fears of an angry God or an overly critical parent can take over our itinerary planning. Self-preservation can override our spiritual longing. Maybe that’s why Jesus tells us that to find our selves, we must lose our selves. To experience the awe of the Word made flesh we have to make the drive, take the time, allow the awe to fill us, open us, change us. Remember, the shepherds at first were terrified too.
This Christmas, I pray that we will have the courage to trust in the vastness of God’s loving presence with us; that we will be available to the awe of the Incarnation. Because the Word of God continues to be embodied in our midst, in our community, in our world, and in our very selves. When we see power of God’s love at work in a wife caring for her dying husband with gentleness and patience, aren’t we filled with awe? When a humble Heisman trophy winner’s compassion for teammates, whose families didn’t have enough food, unleashes over $500,000 for the local food banks, aren’t we forced to reconsider the abundance in our world and the inherent goodness of people? The more we look for these occasions of the power of God’s love embodied and made manifest in the world, the more we see them. Awe is contagious and habit-forming. Opportunities to experience awe are all around us, all the time. And when we do, we are less self-centered, we feel like we are part of something greater than ourselves, we change our perception of time, and we are more generous toward others. Sounds like a great Christmas gift for the world today, doesn’t it?
So let’s look for awe again tonight (today). Let’s bravely and faithfully take the time to see in the Feast of the Incarnation, the Embodiment of Love with all of its staggering, life saving, awe inspiring power. And then let’s continue to be open to experiencing the awe of encountering the Word made flesh all around us. Do not be afraid, remember the good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord.”
Collect of the Day
O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.