He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. (Hebrews 1:3)
There were so many Roman Catholics in the South Louisiana of my upbringing that even as late as the 1980s, we never ate meat on Fridays at my public school. Half my friends were altar boys, who often were excused early from middle school classes to attend training with their priest. Given this context, on occasion as a boy I found myself in a Roman Catholic sanctuary. Somewhere along the line, even my mother—a cradle Presbyterian—fell into the habit of attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Benedictine seminary that lay hidden in the woods north of our town.
More often than not, I went with her. To be honest, I’m not sure why. What was probably only 45 minutes of Roman liturgy felt to this kid like an eon of chatter, not to mention the funny smoke up and down the aisle and those kneelers that were hard on the knees. As Protestants, we could not share in the mass-meal, but my mom always said she loved the scripture readings and the traditional chanting-in-song that went with them. As for me, all I wanted to do was get back home—back to bed, so as to shorten the chronological distance between me and my latest Lego acquisition on Christmas morning. My mom would count the chants leading to the birth; I was counting the minutes leading to my exit.
Except for the ceiling.
There was (is) in the chapel there at St. Joseph’s Abbey the most marvelous ceiling. To my discredit, it was the only feature of the night that ever held my attention. Sweeping arches, running in what seemed like every direction, with every space filled with the most marvelous fresco paintings I have ever beheld. The ceiling was chock-a-block with characters. Biblical characters. Adam and Eve and Moses and Miriam. All the prophets, kings, apostles. Mother Mary (of course), but also father Joseph. They were all up there, vibrant like Kodachrome, with their quasi-human faces. And of course, front and center in fab fresco was Jesus. Massive and magisterial, taking up more real estate than most others combined, he loomed large before us—over us, really. I can remember studying his steely eyes and flowing robes for what seemed like hours.
Ironic: We were supposed to be paying attention to everything happening all around us, but I confess I spent most of the midnight hour looking up above us.
So it is sometimes with the birth of the Son of God.
The title itself is grandiose. The expectations, enormous. “The Son of God!” No wonder the fresco on his Facebook page was 10 times that of all the others. This guy is a big deal. God announces the sending of a Son, the Son (meaning: the way a King sends a Prince, as in Psalm 2), and instinctively we all look up—to see power, to see prestige, to see a picture of God’s presence which of course must be high and lofty.
This is perhaps the great comedy of Christmas: We are all looking up to heaven, for the big bang of his appearance, for the pomp and circumstance of those marvelous vaulted ceilings, for a boy whose resume’ matches the Messiah we sing. Instead, Son of God comes as a mere neighbor to sit down on the pew, just next to us. He comes as a 1st century Palestinian rabbi from the other side of the tracks, with little to his name and even less for a bed. Instead of bang, he slips in with a whisper. Hardly the stuff of larger-than-life frescos.
It is not that he doesn’t deserve the ceiling, or could not himself secure it. It is that he consistently chooses otherwise, as in Philippians 2. The Christ appears in this world, not in a grandiose display of power and might, but in the arms of a woman who never in her right mind imagined she herself would one day be enthroned on the ceilings of sanctuaries. Every year, the world looks up for a Hail Mary pass from God; Jesus turns out once again to be a lateral move down on our level.
This is God’s glory—a birthing center full of domestic animals? This is God’s awesome power—mercy for those who need it most? This is the potency of God’s wrath—a life laid down for those whose life needs lifting up? Christmas comedy: I’m looking up at the sky for a Cecil B. Demille production; meanwhile, the risen Jesus comes alongside me as a stranger asking, with a touch of irony, “Hey, what are you looking for up there? I’m down here: in the broken bread, in the call to service, in the face of your neighbor in the pew and the stranger on the curb, in the stables, in the trenches, on the crosses. I’m down here: the true reflection of God’s greatest glory.”
Thanks be to God for the drab ceiling and the long pews.