When I get a little room on the subway ride to and from school each day I am reading Kenneth Miller's "Finding Darwin's God: A scientist's search for common ground between God and Evolution."
It helps make that journey feel a little more fruitful and a little shorter.
Dr. Miller is a native of NJ, an Eagle Scout, a product of the Public School system, a Professor of evolutionary Biology at Brown, and a practicing Catholic.
The other morning as I was sandwiched between my fellow sinners, I mean commuters, balancing my back pack and book while trying to hold onto the overhead bar I read these lines:
"The contingent nature of history routinely enlarges simple matters into events of historical importance. Retreat far enough into the past and you will find that individual choices and chance events of seemingly minuscule importance have reversed the tides of history."
The tides of history turn on seemingly chance events and individual decisions.
Miller makes the argument this is as true in biology as in history. His thesis made me think of the significance of even our smallest actions and decisions, and how important they are on the spiritual level as well.
This is nowhere more evident than in the Christmas story.
At the human heart of that story, tradition tells us, is a teenager; someone about your age. Accepting the limits of a somewhat murky and speculative tradition, Mary the Mother of God is a young Middle Eastern woman about16 years of age.
Our faith holds that her simple decision, to use the language of Dr. Miller, "reversed the tides of history."
Think on it. Imagine yourself there. Put yourself in her position.
On the basis of her decision all salvation pivots; on the simple courage of a teenager all of salvation history and the action of God in the world turns.
Who would have thought that a teenager could be so important?
Why would the all-powerful, all-knowing God put the entire salvation of the world into the hands of so young an agent?
It is tempting to think that the Christmas story is both inevitable and requires no agency other than God's free, unmerited and miraculous grace. And that is absolutely true. The sovereignty of God is not to be gainsaid.
But our history also tells us God comes into the world not in spite of us but because of us; not regardless of what we do but through us. Whatever else the Christmas story is about these two truths are paramount: God comes to the earth out of immense love for us, and through the simple courageous free decision of a young woman.
The land of Jesus' birth was not very important politically or geographically. There are any number of periods in history that can claim greater importance and significance. Luke's Gospel is at pains to impress on us the marginalization of the birth: not in an inn but a manger; not among the important rulers but shepherds, not to royalty or celebrities but to a lowly teenage maiden under difficult and dubious circumstances.
Why is this important?
Matthew's Gospel suggests how deeply problematic this birth was for Mary. When Joseph her betrothed finds she is pregnant he "decides to divorce her quietly." That line modestly indicates that a woman in her position could have been stoned to death or at least shammed, and left without protection or resources in her male dominated world. Could God have come to this young woman at precisely the lowest point of her life? When she was feeling confused and vulnerable, afraid and alone.
Over the weekend I went to a Christmas Carol service at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights. It was made famous by the great abolitionist preacher Harry Ward Beecher. There is a seat there marking where Abraham Lincoln once sat. It was beautiful service with wonderful music and singing, many families with little kids all there to soak in the beauty of Christmas, full of good cheer and fine sentiment. The reception afterwards had tables of homemade cookies and big bowls of a delicious sparkling strawberry punch sitting invitingly under exquisite Tiffany windows.
It was a very effective way to begin Christmas and feel the hope and beauty it promises. Yet the more I have been reflecting on it the more I begin to wonder if we are not at times in danger of turning Christmas into something more sentimental than real. All over the world these next few days there will be Christmas crèches on display. Not to belabor the point, when you think that it was in fact a manger with animals doing what animals do I wonder how pretty it actually was.
When looking at the way Christmas is sometimes portrayed it is tempting to imagine that what is important is only achieved by important people at significant junctures in history and in places that are at least congenial.
Fr. Croghan reminded me that today—the 21st of December—is, in the northern hemisphere at least, the shortest day of the year. At 5:45 AM this morning the winter solstice took place. It is no accident that Christmas occurs at this time. Tradition has ensured that we celebrate the events of Christmas precisely when the darkness seems deepest.
If we sit and wait long enough the spinning of the earth on its orbit around the sun will lead inevitably to spring and summer… but what I hear so clearly in the fact that a teenager has such a pivotal role in the birth of Jesus the Christ is that what is inevitable in the cycle of the seasons is anything but guaranteed in the unfolding of salvation history.
God chooses to act in the world through the decisions and actions of human beings.
The crucial nature of simple human decisions can be seen clearly in the brave decision of a young woman to say yes to the messy and improbable desire of God. "Let it be done unto me according to your word."
Here is God’s most decisive action in the world is made on the margins of history among marginal people.
A few years ago I was in El Salvador just before Christmas, visiting some of the children for whom I try to raise sponsors. I was particular struck on that visit by a young mother of three children. Forced to flee from her home she had found her way to a shanty town on the outskirts of the city of St Anna. She had pulled together bits and pieces of other peoples’ garbage to build a “house”. Their water reservoir was an abandoned refrigerated turned on its side, door removed.
For a living she made these Christmas ornaments (show). She was selling them for about a dollar.
When I sat down with this Gospel I thought of this young mother in El Salvador. I thought of her tenacity despite considerable obstacles. I thought of her fidelity to her children and her passion to care for them and offer them a future denied her. I thought of her joy and genuine gratitude despite her humble circumstances and cruel poverty.
God operates most powerfully through some very unlikely individuals. As he did once in 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. As I believe, with deep sincerity, he is can though the teenagers of this generation.
God will offer himself freely and with equal abundance to the people of Brooklyn Heights and El Salvador; on the 4/5 train or in this beautiful church; at your desks across the streets or in the shanty towns of the world.
But I am equally confident that in all those places God’s incarnation, God’s becoming flesh is dependent on someone as open as the young mother of God.
What can a teenager do?
What can you, young men, do?
What difference will your choices make about how you conduct yourself at school and at home, on the subway or in privacy of your own heart?
What will you say "yes" to?
What small decisions and actions of yours will make a difference for the good of others?
I honestly believe all of us, but you, teenagers, in particular, have the position to "turn the tides of history". Our generation needs you to give birth to God's action in the world. Turn the tides of history.