Christmas Eve

This past Sunday Evening, ABC’s “60 Minutes” aired a special on “The 11 Churches of Lalibela.” Lalibela is in Ethiopia, and the 11 churches belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which is one of the oldest, purest Christian churches in the world.

The 11 Churches of Lalibela are in a very remote volcanic mountain region that can only be accessed by dangerous mountain foot paths. There are no roads to the region. But carved into the lava/rock are 11 churches, carved from the outside – in. 800 years ago the carvers started by carving the outline of 4 story deep squares into the rock. Then they began carving away to produce the exterior of these churches, and finally the interior of each church. So there is no mortar, no joints, no seams, no wood. Each church is one great solid piece of rock. And there are 11 of them on 62 acres.

These churches have become holy shrines for the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians claim that the churches were built by angels. And people make pilgrimages to them,  all year.

But as Christmas Eve approaches, thousands of pilgrims, dressed in white and fasting, climb their way up those mountain paths to be at one of the 11 churches for Christmas Eve. Some have walked for days, weeks, even months. And by Christmas Eve, it is estimated that there are nearly 200,000 pilgrims present.

That’s approaching the population of Norfolk.

They now have lights on the site, but it used to all happen in the dark. And all night long, on Christmas Eve, the priests chant to the crowds in a rhythm set by ancient drums.

The reporter asked one of the priests   what the chants say. He answered,

“We tell the people that God became human – and a human became God. Because of Christ, we went from being punished by God to being his children again. Christmas is the day that forgiveness was born.”

When I heard the priest say that, my mind jumped to the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo’s depiction of God and Adam reaching for each other, and almost touching. We all know that image.

I think when we see it, we think that God is reaching to Adam to give him life. But Adam is already alive.

Adam is reaching, too. God and humankind are reaching for each other. Why?

A touch is not a “one way act”. A touch elicits a response. Both are trying to give something in Michelangelo’s mind.

“We tell the people that God became human – and a human became God. Because of Christ, we went from being punished by God to being his children again. Christmas is the day that forgiveness was born.”

That’s from one of the most ancient and perhaps primitive understandings of Christmas in the world. And Michelangelo “got it.”

So, we celebrate tonight God’s reaching out to touch us, with the new life of forgiveness, the new life of love, the new spirit of holiness – and we reaching out to touch the divine. What do we give in that touch? The same thing we receive: forgiveness, love, and holiness. That’s all we have. Think about it. That’s all we have to give.

In a minute, I would like for you to turn to a neighbor, and extend a finger, and just lightly touch the finger of your neighbor and hold it there a minute, with your eyes shut – in silence. Feel the forgiveness. Feel the love. Feel the holiness of that newborn baby that first Christmas Eve, under the town of Bethlehem. And feel it here – this Christmas Eve in this holy place. And understand why  200,000 people climb dark, dangerous mountain paths, walking for weeks and days without food – to be with each other Christmas Eve in the mountains of Ethiopia.

Please touch and close your eyes – now.


December 24, 2019

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