Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “ See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…”
Be still, my soul. The Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide.
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul. Thy best, thy heavenly friend
through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.1
Good morning. I’d like to begin with an excerpt from a story that always comes to my mind in December. It’s not a Christmas story, but it speaks to me of the miracle and mystery of what we celebrate at Christmas. This comes from the story of a prince–a little prince.
The Little Prince lay down and wept at the sight of five hundred roses in a garden. You see, on the planet he ruled, he had a single rose who had told him that she was unique. Yet here were five hundred roses, just like her, in one garden. “She would be very much annoyed if she knew,” he said to himself. “She would cough most dreadfully and pretend that she was dying, to avoid being laughed at. And I should be obliged to pretend that I was nursing her back to life… “I thought that I was rich,” he thought sadly, “with a flower unique in all the universe.” If she were but an ordinary rose, who, then, was he?
Then the Little Prince met a fox who taught him an important lesson about love. “To me,” the fox said, “you are nothing more than a little boy who is just like a thousand other little boys. I have no need of you. And you have no need of me. I am just a fox, like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world, and I will be the same for you.”
The Little Prince returned to the garden of five hundred roses and realized that for all their beauty, he felt nothing for them. But he loved his rose far away on his tiny planet–the rose he watered and sheltered and cared for. “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes her so important,” the fox told the Little Prince. “You are responsible for your rose.”2
Like the one rose, the entirety of the Christian faith rests on an astonishing spiritual proposition: When God chose to redeem the world, God did not send an army, or a committee, or a plan. God sent one person. Jesus lived in a particular place and time. He was born of Mary. Through his one life we see the human face of God. We who call ourselves Christians are those who feel so drawn to that one life that we seek to live our lives in light of his. The gospel of our lives–our good news–is our story of how his life makes a difference in ours.
According to the Gospel of Mark, the earliest written account of Jesus’ life, his story begins not in the manger, but with a voice that cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
The season of Advent is one of preparation. But what are we preparing for exactly? Which for Christians is simply another way of asking, how are we to live? It’s a haunting question in a world that needs so much: For those who feel Jesus’ claim on our lives, what or who is our rose? For what and for whom are we responsible?
Our first responsibility must always be for the one life with which we have been uniquely entrusted. No one else can live our lives for us, nor can we live another person’s life. While we dare never minimize the impact of inequity and trauma, nor the randomness of fortune and disaster, we can and must choose our response to life. We decide how we will live, and to what degree we will allow the love of God in. We are responsible for our rose.
Our second responsibility is within our particular sphere of relationships–family, friends, and community. It’s no small task to love well those closest to us, and to own our part in the universal imperfection of relationships. It’s a daily discipline to seek the best in one another and forgive the worst; Every day we choose how we will show up with and for each other, to do our part, and more when life demands it. We are responsible for our rose.
A third responsibility is for our work, our contribution to the greater good. Through work, we take our energies and gifts and offer them up and out, beyond us. The realm of work is complicated and it changes over time. Sometimes our work is related to what we do for a living, but not always, for our work is always more than our job. Sometimes work plays a big part of our identity, but other times it’s simply doing what needs to be done. Sometimes we’re recognized for our work, but often not. Sometimes our work puts us right in the center of things, but most of the time we’re in a supporting role for someone else. Think of John the Baptist, the patron saint of Advent. His entire life was a prologue for Jesus’ ministry. Work helps us find our place and connect to something bigger. The former Czech president and poet Vaclav Havel said it this way: “By perceiving ourselves as part of the river, we take responsibility for the river as a whole.” We are responsible for our rose.
Even in normal times, whatever that means, life rarely affords the luxury of apportioning equal allotments of energy to each of these three realms of responsibility. More typical is for one area to take priority for a time, be it self, relationships, or work.
When the focus needs to be on ourselves, in a time of intense development, maturing, or rest, it can feel selfish, and self-indulgent. Yet more than one wise mentor has said to a restless soul, “Self-sacrifice isn’t worth much if you don’t have much of a self to begin with.” It’s a lesson I’ve learned and relearned many times. I am responsible for my rose. And you are responsible for yours.
In a similar way, when life requires us to drop everything for the sake of one we love, there is no option but to go. Once when a family member needed emergency surgery, I brought with me into the surgical waiting room all of my work for the coming weekend. I had a sermon to write, a wedding to prepare for, and meetings to plan. The extent of this health crisis had not fully registered, and I was trying to fit it in with my other responsibilities. I may have been in shock. It took the reality check of a friend, who gently but firmly told me that I wasn’t going into work that weekend. When someone in our immediate circle needs us, we belong there. We are responsible for our rose.
Yet there are also times when our work requires that kind of singular focus and energy, for creativity’s sake, or to accomplish whatever it is that we feel called to. When work demands it, the other realms of self and relationships can suffer. It’s a dangerous way to live indefinitely, but sometimes it feels necessary for a greater good. A few years ago the New York Times ran a story about a group of scientists at the National Institutes of Health who realized that they were nearing a breakthrough in some treatment for a rare form of leukemia. Driven by the hope of new treatment, they worked around the clock for weeks, missing their children’s soccer games and piano recitals so that someone else might live to see their own children play.
The same determined focus is evident now, as those who have the skill and capacity to create and distribute a vaccine are working at great sacrifice so that we might see a better day. It’s happening in our schools and hospitals and nursing homes and households–sacrificing yourselves for others. If you are among those tending to your work so that others might live: thank you.
In ways we still can’t fully measure, the events of 2020 have affected everything within our circles of responsibility–our own lives, our relationships, and what constitutes our work. It’s as if we’re all in a cosmic game of 52-card pick up, and we’re all scrambling on the floor to pick up the pieces of our lives.
As we consider how Jesus would have us live now, could we dare to believe that He first invites us to be still just long enough to acknowledge that impact and what’s required of us in light of all that’s happened and is happening?
It’s a rubber-meets-the-road kind of spiritual question: if Jesus is indeed God’s way of redeeming the world, if Jesus is God’s way of healing us, where do we need him most right now? Where do you need him? Where do I?
Our answers will differ according to our circumstances and the particular claims on our lives. His promise, however, is the same: Jesus comes and makes his home with us, wherever we are. He is the light that darkness cannot overcome. He is the love that shows up where love is most needed. That’s something to hold onto in the midst of all that we’ve lost. Presiding Bishop Curry said in a recent interview, “The truth of Christmas may be more profoundly true for us this year because everything else has been stripped away. We are not helpless. We are not alone. There’s a God that cares enough to come into this world.”
Be still, my soul. The Lord is on thy side. . . through every change, he faithful will remain.
One way for us to live, then, is to embrace the particularity of our lives in this moment, and focus on singular, specific expressions of love. So often we worry that we’re not doing enough. If that’s your worry, as it is mine, might we all agree, right now, to let that worry go, and choose instead, as Mother Teresa advised, to do small things with great love?
I first read the story of the Little Prince when I was a new parent, adjusting to the enormous shifting of energy and life priorities that parenting required. I was both comforted and challenged by the image of the rose–comforted in that I knew with unmistakable clarity where my responsibility lay and challenged, because I realized that if I didn’t rise to this, if I couldn’t love this one child, then all my efforts to love and to give in other realms would mean nothing. Now that child is a young man with a babe, with a rose, of his own.
It turns out that intentional expressions of love expand our capacity to love. The love we offer, no matter how small, has a way of multiplying as it goes forth from us. When we choose to love the lives we have been given, we have more love to share. When we tend to our relationships, we build a foundation of compassion and health that reaches generations. When we do work with love, we share in God’s redeeming of the world.
I think of the Little Prince every year as Christmas approaches, because of the one rose. “Lo, how a rose ere blooming,” we’ll sing this season, “It came a flower bright, amid the cold of winter, when half spent was the night.”
There is striking singularity about the Christian faith, focused as it is on one person, one babe born long ago. Yet it is the power and presence of that one life, living in us, that holds the promise of all that is good and just and true, all that we long for for ourselves and hope for our children’s children. In the face of all that this world cries out for, it may not feel like enough, but it is God’s way, in and through us. For Christians, Jesus is our rose. And we are his. Amen.
1 “Be Still My Soul,” Katherine von Schlegel; trans. Jane Borthwick; The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 534
2 De Saint Exupery, Antione, The Little Prince (USA: HJB Books, 1943; 1971) pp. 77-87