Scripture: LUKE 2:1-20
About fifteen years ago, the writer David Foster Wallace delivered a celebrated commencement address at Kenyon College in Gambier. He began with a short parabolic story: Two young fish are swimming through the water, and they come upon an older fish swimming in the other direction. “Morning,” says the older fish. “How’s the water?” The two younger fish swim along for a bit. Then one turns to the other and says, “What[’s] water?”
Wallace goes on to say a great deal in the twenty minutes that follow in his speech. At the heart of what he says so urgently to those graduates, though, is that most of us swim through the water so often without really even noticing it. What we notice and are aware of most vividly is ourselves. “[E]verything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” We’re all hardwired to think that the whole world really does revolve around us.
The trouble with this, of course, is that that way of looking at things leaves us oblivious to the reality and perspective of others. We may be upset by the woman in the store yelling at her child, or the driver who cuts us off in traffic. What we’re aware of is the effect those events have on us—just how upset or inconvenienced we are by other people’s behavior. And Wallace says what’s obvious but what we so easily forget, that maybe the “dead-eyed [woman] who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line [is] not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer.” Or maybe the huge vehicle that cuts you off is driven by a father who’s trying to get his child to the ER as fast possible because the child just fell off the fence and the father fears a serious injury.
All of us, says Wallace see ourselves as at the center of the world. I am the star of my own life. And I bet you’re the star of yours. Your hurts and triumphs and challenges and boredom and elation—that’s the film that’s playing in your head. That’s the story that’s occupying your attention.
I can imagine this is the way it is for “certain poor shepherds” (“The First Noel,” v. 1) who are “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8). Two sheep over there are getting territorial. One seems not to be getting enough to eat. There’s a question about where the flock should head tomorrow to get the best grazing. One shepherd is struggling with a painful knee, another is irritated by a fellow shepherd who is singing constantly, and always ever-so-slightly off-key. That’s their world. That, understandably, is what they’re aware of. It’s what they pay attention to. And they’re largely oblivious to the water around them.
As Wallace says, that’s the way it is for all of us. We know our own respective worlds. We know our worries and our preoccupations and our secret vices and our little victories. But that doesn’t have to be the way it is. Because, as Wallace says, we have a choice in what we pay attention to. We can choose what we focus on.
Suddenly, as those shepherds watch their flocks, an angel comes and stands before them. We don’t know what that angel looks like. Perhaps it has a human form. Perhaps it comes as a warm and brilliant light, not unlike in the marvelous rendition of the Annunciation to Mary painted by Henry Ossawa Tanner. Maybe the angel shows up as perfect comfort. Maybe it shows up as a song, or as a beacon summoning those shepherds. All we know is that something stops those shepherds in their tracks, and makes them look up, and takes them outside of themselves, even if only for a few moments. For an instant at least, the world is not all about them. It is about something bigger and grander and more all-encompassing than anything they have ever seen. For a shimmering instant, they know a beauty and a hope and a light to which they have become dulled. They see their lives for what they truly are: wrapped in arms of radiant love, and made to be bearers of that love in all their various corners of the world. They see the water in which they swim.
We live in a COVID-19 world. It’s a narrow and pinched world. It’s a world cut off from so much of what we enjoy and value. So many of us will not be with the family and friends we hold dear this Christmas. No parties. Little in-person shopping. This haunting virus has altered so many daily habits. I came around the corner in our house the other day, and there was Mary. And I instinctively backed away to keep what in any other circumstance would be an appropriate distance. I didn’t need to do that with Mary, of course, but I’ve been so conditioned not to be close to others that I stepped back even from her. Psychotherapist Philippa Perry says that the old “social dances” that characterized our life together—in the grocery store or at a party or at church—have been replaced by what she calls “dances of rejection.” We’re always moving away from each other. “Rejection occurs if a pedestrian steps into the gutter to avoid you, or when the delivery person you used to enjoy greeting sees you at the door and lunges backwards. It provides no consolation, Perry says, to understand why we repel others. The sense of rejection remains”
(https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/13/covid-19-rewired-our-brains-pandemic-mental-health). Even after vaccinations are widespread, we will wonder about shaking hands and hugging. We will continue to stiffen in fear at someone else’s sneeze. And it will be some time before many of us emerge from our weariness, our exhaustion.
And into that very world, Jesus is born. Into that very world, a light comes. Into that very world, the Spirit of God arrives in the flesh to say, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David,”—in the village of Chagrin Falls—“a Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:10-11).
This is the news that coaxes us out of our lethargy and sadness. This is the news that shows us the real water in which we’re swimming, the news that opens us to a light and love to which we may have become dulled. The birth of Jesus whispers to us with a kind of urgent insistence that life is full of wonder. It says, ‘Hard as things may be, challenging as the world may seem, weighty as each day may feel, a beam of light brightens your way and holds you close. This very day is pregnant with possibility. This very day gives birth to new life.’
The very fact that God takes human form is a staggering reminder that life is gorgeous, that it is filled with marvels, that it is invariably full of wonder. Our work is to live right inside that sense of wonder. Our very vocation is to give birth to that sense of mystery and awe and grace.
Radiance shines all around us. Christ is being born even now, even in our living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms, even around our Christmas trees and dinner tables and TV sets, even as we muddle through our days in fear and anger and fatigue and anticipation and hope. Our job is to notice that radiance. Because that’s the real water in which we swim, the water of marvel and hope and blessing.
Several months ago, two Federated girls lost her grandfather. The four-year-old sister was mystified by what had happened to their grandfather, and couldn’t make sense of it. Finally one day the six-year-old thought of a way to explain it. She said to the four-year-old, “Grampy became a star, and when you see a star twinkling, that’s him waving to you.” That’s the real world. That’s the world the birth of Jesus shows us. That’s the real water in which we swim, a water of hope and beauty and love.
At the end of his commencement address at Kenyon, David Foster Wallace tells the graduates that the only thing that really matters in life is “attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” Wallace tells the graduates, “The capital T Truth is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness, awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water’” (https://jamesclear.com/great-speeches/this-is-water-by-david-foster-wallace).
This is indeed water. We live in a world of magical mystery, in which God is at the center of even our worst moments, in which our truest freedom is to see beyond ourselves, and to take in the glorious beauty that is at the heart of every moment of life. Christ is born. And all, indeed, is “charged with the grandeur of God” (“God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins). On this silent night, this holy night, Christ is born to you, Christ is born to me. Christ is born to all of us. May we see. May we love. May we celebrate. For that is the water in which we swim.