A few years ago, a film came out called, City of Angels, starring Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage. It’s truly a wonderful movie, filled with people going about their lives, unknowingly surrounded by angels. There are angels listening to their thoughts, guiding their actions, and showering them with love, warmth and compassion at every turn. The city of Los Angeles becomes literally a city of angels, filled with a multitude of the heavenly host. Yet the people, caught up in the routine activities and concerns of their lives, are entirely unaware of this angelic presence.
Almost entirely, that is. It wouldn’t be Hollywood if there wasn’t a love story. The angel played by Nicholas Cage, falls for the human heart surgeon, played by Meg Ryan, and in this case, “falls for” is exactly the right way to put it. Cage literally becomes a fallen angel for the woman of his dreams. It is a beautiful, very poignant story about the preciousness of life and the compassion of God.
When the movie first came out, I read an interview with Meg Ryan in which she talked about preparing for her role in the movie. She had worked with a couple of doctors, who helped her learn how to act like a surgeon. In the interview, she said that at one point in her training, she’d had an interesting conversation.
Meg asked one of the doctors: “Do you believe in God?” He said, “No.” Then she asked him if he had ever seen a miracle and he said, “Oh, yeah,” and he started to describe a miracle. “I thought that was amazing,” Meg [said]. “He didn’t see that he was contradicting himself. It was almost like he was boxing with God, saying, ‘I don’t believe in you.” By the mere act of boxing with something, you’re acknowledging its existence.”
I like that line, “boxing with God,” probably because I can relate to it so well. Almost all the people I know, myself included, find themselves at times in that kind of a relationship with God; wrestling with something we’re not even altogether sure is there. For some reason, for me, that wrestling always seems to come into focus on Christmas Eve. We come to this beautiful, late night, candlelit service. We hear again the ancient stories of shepherds, wise men and angels, a savior born in a manger. We look on with a mixture of doubt and wonder, uncertainty and awe, and ask ourselves, “How are we to understand all this? What does it all mean? What does it matter?”
It’s always tempting, as a minister, to simply give answers. That’s one of the hazards of the profession. People turn to their clergy for answers so often that we eventually begin to get the idea that we actually have some. As tempting as it may be simply to tell you what Christmas means though, it is rarely a good idea to give out pat answers to people. The answers we discover for ourselves, the ones we work for, the ones we seek after, are almost always better than the ones handed down to us.
So rather than telling you what I think it means for us all to be gathered before the manger, let me just say that I believe we are being extended an invitation: to look, to listen, and to experience it for ourselves. The invitation of the manger is not to swallow whole some prepackaged notion of who Jesus was and is. The invitation is to spend time at the feet of Christ, to live into the mystery, to cultivate a hope and a trust that whatever questions we may have, there are answers to be found if we but open our hearts.
That’s where we are tonight, all of us: standing before the manger, spending time at the feet of Christ, living into the mystery. Like you, I come to lay my own gifts at Jesus’ feet, along with my doubts and questions, my awe and wonder. Once again, we are invited to believe that there is genuine magic in the birth of Christ. We are invited to believe that God is alive, even though we might still occasionally pull out the boxing gloves and go a few rounds. We are invited to believe that we are surrounded by angels, who shower us with the love, warmth and compassion of God at every turn, even when we can’t see them.
May you once again know the mystery and the majesty of the birth of Christ.