Homily for December 24, 2018
In “Five Minutes That Will Make You Love Classical Music,” a New York Times piece from this past September, the Times asked eighteen different people—critics, composers, performers, conductors—which five minutes of classical music would they play to help somebody fall in love with classical music. On the list were pieces such as the Finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird suite, the final Trio from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, and “Liebestod,” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, among others.
In addition to these “warhorses” that I might have expected were others that caught me by surprise. From Ravel’s Shéhérazade was the ridiculously beautiful aria “L’indifférent.” It’s absolutely gorgeous, with a text perhaps too racy to share from the pulpit on Christmas Eve… Anna Clyne’s Lavender Rain, a piece for violin written after the death of her mother, is 4 ½ minutes of music so simple—an ascending and then descending scale, basically, with a few chords for color—that it shouldn’t move one to tears, but it does. And Couperin’s Les Barricades Mystérieuses, in an arrangement for winds, is a playful series of dissonance and resolution that, again, is so simple that it shouldn’t be so beautiful, but it is.
And then there a piece that completely caught me by surprise; I’d never heard of it: Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus, “Twenty ‘glances’ [or ‘looks’ or ‘contemplations’] on the infant Jesus,” a piano work by the idiosyncratic 20th-century French composer, Olivier Messiaen. A quick Google search filled me in on the twenty “looks”:
There is the “Regard du Père,” the “Look of the Father;” the “Regard de la Vierge,” the “Look of the Virgin;” and the “Regard des Anges,” the “Look of the Angels.” There are also “looks” of “the Star,” “the Cross,” and “of Silence…” all looking—just looking—on the infant Jesus.
Then there is “Le Baiser de l’Enfant Jésus,” “The Kiss of the Infant Jesus.” The movement is so “French” and so “Messiaen.” It’s quirky, unlike anything anybody else was writing—think “1950’s Citroën” except music (and not a car)—and it is so unusual that it shouldn’t be but it is exquisitely beautiful. “Le Baiser” is more or less a theme and variations, with a repeating, four-measure ground of dissonant yet lush chords. It starts softly like a lullaby in the lower middle of the piano’s register and gradually builds, both in volume and expanse of register, as though watching Jesus sleep then maybe shift, then begin to wake; then begin to be hungry or to have gas, and then to be truly awake with a full-throated, piercing newborn wail. (Those who are parents, you’ve been there.) And then Our Lady must have made playful attempts to soothe him, maybe picking him up and rocking him and making cooing sounds, for the music turns briefly whimsical, with trills and playful melodies running free in the upper register. But Mary is a new mother, you see, and doesn’t quite have it, so Jesus slowly but surely works up a full head of steam before cutting loose with a massive, glorious tantrum: crashing, dissonant chords and jagged rhythms, all over the piano. At which point Our Lady must have figured it out—maybe nursing him, or holding him just so—for the music gradually calms and returns to the ease of its opening lullaby-like swing. And somewhere along the way—I can’t tell from the music—our Lady (or Joseph, or both) must have given him “un baiser,” a kiss.
If there is a word that most befits the Incarnation, the Nativity of Our Lord, that we celebrate this evening, it is the word “let.” At every step of the way leading up to the birth of Jesus, human beings did what we usually find it so difficult to do: we “let.” Mary let the angel approach. She let herself “ponder” the angel’s greeting. She let herself imagine what it might be like for “the Holy Spirit to come upon [her], and the power of the Most High [to] overshadow [her].” Mary said to the angel: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” And Joseph, too, “let.” Joseph allowed himself to dream; he let himself hear the angel’s word; he let himself take Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy. And the innkeeper, shepherds and wise men likewise let. The innkeeper let the holy family stay in the manger; the shepherds let themselves be drawn and “make haste” to find “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger;” the wise men let themselves be led by the star, and they let themselves kneel down and “pay him homage.” At every step of the way leading up to Jesus’ birth, human beings let; we let God be God, and ourselves to be human.
Whether we know it or not, those of us here this evening follow in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph, and of the innkeeper, shepherds and wise men. It is not by mistake that we are here this evening; each of us has let ourselves come. Like Mary, we let God approach and invite us. Like Mary, we let our hearts ponder God’s invitation. Like Mary, we let ourselves imagine what it might be like to be here, and we came. Like Joseph, we allowed ourselves to hear God’s words and did not dismiss them. Like the innkeeper, we let ourselves make room (in our schedule). Like the shepherds, we let ourselves be drawn to be here. Like the wise men, we let ourselves come to worship. We have done so much to be here tonight; we have let God draw us here; we have let ourselves accept God’s invitation.
Having done so much and come so far, I wonder if we might allow ourselves to take one further step. I wonder if we might let ourselves do as did “le Père,” “la Vierge,” and “les Anges” (the Father, the Virgin and the angels); as did the Star, the Cross and the Silence. I wonder if we might let ourselves look on the infant Jesus. Just look.
We’ve all seen infants. And if we are parents, we have first-hand experience of infants. What do you notice, as you let yourself look on the infant Jesus? What do you feel? What is it like for you, to let yourself just look on this little one?
It will take some time and space to look on the infant Jesus. Maybe, as you are visiting and need some time to yourself—or as you have visitors and need some time to yourself—take a few minutes in a quiet place and allow yourself to look—just look—on the infant Jesus.
When I allow myself to look on the infant, a curious thing happens: as I look on the infant as he is in the manger or in Mary’s or Joseph’s arms—or as he gets hungry or has gas or squirms or cries—I find that he comes to be born in me, too; he enters into me. Which is just what God wants to do, if I let God; and which is just what my heart wants, too, if I admit it. Perhaps this is because, as Ignatius of Loyola tells us, whenever we let ourselves come to look upon Jesus, Jesus is so attractive, so compelling, that we come to love him. To know Jesus is to love him.
I wonder, what is the “look” that you have on the infant Jesus?
We have already allowed ourselves to come so far, allowing God to draw us and allowing our hearts to respond. Why not let yourself to take a step further, to let yourself look on the infant Jesus—just look. And allow yourself to notice what you notice, to feel what you feel, and to do or say what seems right to do or say. For there is nothing more satisfying, nothing that gives our hearts more joy, more peace, than to let ourselves be drawn to, and come to love, this little one.