Reflection: Kissing the face of God
Every year, in manses and studies and at the kitchen table, preachers and worship leaders approach Advent with a mixture of joy and trepidation.
Joy, because Christmas is the penultimate Christian festival—each week the excitement builds, every week another candle is lit, every year is pregnant with possibilities—but trepidation, because December 25 after December 25, the person leading the service tries to find something new to say!
Because we’re quite impatient these days, with repetition and slogans and the same old, same old. And we want something real: not some facsimile of Christmas with tinsel branches and limping reindeer; we want the genuine smell of pinus radiata and a champagne breakfast, no last minute defrosted turkey or re-gifted tins of biscuits!
We want the genuine article, the perfect gift: a real Christmas.
We might wrap our presents in brown paper and cotton twine, as if this costs the environment less than glossy Santas and curling ribbon, but we sneak an envious glance at adverts where someone unwraps several layers of hand-printed paper and finds, nestled in tissue, that perfect thing: proof that this year someone cared enough to choose it and write our name on the label; evidence that someone loves us. In the words of the fabulous advertising campaign that—even while we’re mocking it, makes us smile—because we’re worth it!
On Christmas morning when the beach is calling and the family’s gathering and the presents are a mystery (or definitely feels book-shaped anyway), and after the splendour and celebration of Christmas Eve, we don’t want Christmas Day to be an anticlimax.
We’ve gifted our Oxfam goats or geese and bought our CWS calendars, and what we’d like, on Christmas Day, what we really want, is for things to be—perfect. Just like the old days.
Something new, but also something familiar.
And that’s what’s so wonderful about the Christmas story, and why preachers penning their reflections approach with trepidation but also with joy: at Christmas, the news is all good.
Year after year, the traditional is transformed. There’s been drama and scandal and mystery but finally the child’s delivered safely. Over years, decades, centuries, the story evolves and grows, twists like a streamer and shines along a new star path.
And at its very heart is the thing we want, we need, to hear: You are loved. You are worthy. Your life is the most precious thing. You deserve the best: God’s Child, offspring of deity, Wisdom become flesh, creation personified through an act of loving generosity.
In our wisdom readings, Dorothy Parker’s poem assumes that Mary knew the things that would come later, and poignantly wishes that—for this day at least—she can spend time with her little one, unshadowed by future events.
And in the contemporary carol, we hear that amazing question: Mary, did you know… when you kiss your little baby you've kissed the face of God
What does it mean for us, to kiss the face of God?
to hear Sophia, wisdom of Creation, now in flesh appearing and to see God in the face of friend and stranger;
to hear the angel song that lifts our hearts and makes us wonder how we ever could have forgotten;
to hold in our arms, in imagination, that newborn and sense the hurts we absorb from one another, the grudges we hold, the wounded feelings we nurse, washed away by a wave of love we can’t describe and barely comprehend;
to feel our dreams born alive, held in hope, wrapped in love;
to unite with friends and lovers for peace, and joy and love.
Perhaps kissing the face of God is to walk lightly on the earth, to leave only footprints.
When we live with respect for our earth mother Papatūānuku and our sky father Ranginui; share the planet selflessly with all the creatures of forest, sky and sea; respect the Atua of river and mountain and city street;
when we share breath with other creatures of the earth, and hongi each other—maybe then, with Mary, we kiss the face of God.
Today the Christ is born again, in your manger, under your Christmas tree. Love comes gift-wrapped, hope shines over your garage door, peace is shared at your meal.
And in this shining hour, with this gleaming assurance, we can take a moment to reflect on those other days, the other mornings; the story that features not swaddling cloth but a shroud; the journey that leads through shadow lands, unhappy endings and loveless evenings, and hope exploding like methane in a coal mine.
We pause and recognise that today’s message is really just scene-setting, the set-up shot for the story of a life that ends not in a birth but a shameful, traitor’s death; to betrayal by friends and mocking by the indifferent. No gold or frankincense, but myrrh and vinegar and bitter aloe.
The story that leads from Bethlehem to Golgotha; from singing seraphs and startled shepherds, to the place of the skull.
In the silence, a baby cries, a bird sings, and we remember—it doesn’t end there. Just as Christmas doesn’t end in Bethlehem, the Easter story doesn’t end in a borrowed gravesite: it goes on, through the garden and the upper room, to Galilee.
And suddenly angels are singing again, and the star of Bethlehem is shining. Herod is outwitted by wise ones, farmers move their flocks to grassy fields—
and near the sea, the fisher women are also giving birth, to babies who will one day form a community around this child we celebrate; a company that will tell and retell their stories, adding a postscript here, a simile there, a metaphor for the reality of their lives.
Already a group is forming, of fishermen and tax assessors and political hopefuls, adulterers and lepers, the blind and the bleeding, the overworked and those bedevilled by illness, the rent boys and the zealots. But also, as the story grows, the healed and respected and released, Pharisees and lawyers, the sellers of purple and Ethiopian diplomats, the Corinthians, Ephesians, Mesopotamians—all, all gathered around a table that’s groaning with veges and stuffing and gravy, pavlova and fruitcake, muscatels, strawberries, bubbly; fishes and loaves enough for all.
And at its heart—the heart of this band of followers, the heart of the story, the heart of our deepest desire—is the gift that’s waiting for us every day:
Demanding, hungry, restless, embodied love. Love that cries from its manger, that’s inextricably bound with justice.
Love that humbles and inspires and compels us to care for the earth and its people, to feed its hungry and calm its seas.
Love that transcends its sometimes dubious beginnings.
Love transcending emotion, translated into action.
Love that yearns to be cradled close; to be kissed on its grubby, tear-stained cheek; the most demanding and rewarding gift of all.
This is the Christmas message; the reason we come back to hear it year after year, the words Mary treasured in her heart:
You are worthy.
You are the one to birth a miracle.
You are the gift that needs no label.
You are recipient and giver of this huge, indiscriminate love.
Yours is the face that is kissed by God.
This is our story: familiar, sometimes forgotten or taken for granted, and each year sounding new. So for the two thousand and umpteenth time: Shalom! Happy Christmas!
Today and every day until we meet again around the manger:
Peace be with you!
Joy to the world!
Love is born again.
Today, and every day, may you kiss the face of God.
So may it be.
© Bronwyn Angela White, 2010
The Word in Texts to accompany the Reflection
The First Testament reading is from Isaiah 52:
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the LORD returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for God has comforted the people,
God has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD will show his power
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.
From the Gospel of St John, chapter 1:
first from the New International Version, then a translation by Gilbert Wakefield from 1791:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son,
who came from the Creator,
full of grace and truth.
Gilbert Wakefield, 17911
In the beginning was Wisdom,
and Wisdom was with God, and Wisdom was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by it, and without it was nothing made.
What was made, had life in it, and this life was the light of men;
and this light shineth in darkness,
and the darkness hindered it not.
Prayer For A New Mother—Dorothy Parker
The things she knew, let her forget again—
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.
Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.
Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.
Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.
For the Word that was in the beginning, for the Word reborn in our hearts, for the Word embodied in us:
We give thanks
1 Gilbert Wakefield, A Translation of the New Testament, London: Philanthropic Press, 1791
Carol: Mary did you know Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered will soon deliver you
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby you've kissed the face of God
Mary did you know?
The blind will see
The deaf will hear
The dead will live again
The lame will leap
The dumb will speak
The praises of the Lamb
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I am