In 16th century Spain, where Teresa of Avila was the abbess
of a convent, the high point in Catholic mysticism
was a vision of the Virgin Mary.
One night a novice rushed to Teresa’s door and breathlessly called,
“Rev. Mother, Rev. Mother, I have received a vision
of the Blessed Virgin.”
Teresa replied, “It’s alright. Just keep praying. It will go away.”
Teresa, you see, had read today’s Gospel lesson
in which the Shepherds teach us a spiritual practice
that runs 180 degrees opposite
to what we sometimes call “spirituality.”
This story isn’t about getting into some “spiritual” zone
-- an out-of-the ordinary state above this world
of jobs, bills, and car repairs.
We may think of “spirituality” as a place
of deep serenity, or visions, or a glow of love
where our feet don’t touch the pavement.
All that’s good. I’m not disparaging it.
But Luke is about a different spirituality – related but different.
Like Teresa’s novice, our Shepherds were in the zone
-- gazing in awe at the night sky.
They saw angels, heard the heavenly chorus.
But what did they do next?
They could have just reveled in their advanced spiritual state,
maybe built a shrine to mark the spot.
They could have travelled to a holy place to give thanks
—maybe to Mount Zion -- or if they were interfaith
to Delphi, Kathmandu, or a Celtic thin place.
The Jerusalem Temple was just up the road.
Instead they went to a stable in po-dunk Bethlehem – population, 300
-- to see a poor couple with a new baby.
To imagine this scene the way Luke painted it, just for today,
we need to set aside our creche and Christmas carols.
We’ll go back to them later but —just for today –
let’s look at Luke’s description
of what the shepherd’s saw in Bethlehem.
There are no angels – no wisemen – no little drummer boy
– an ox, maybe, but no lamb.
If the poor baby woke, he cried. This wasn’t the zone.
They were looking at earth, not heaven -- at people, not angels.
This is “the sacred ordinary” – a spiritual discipline
of simple, caring attention to people.
The words “look” or “see” appear in this Gospel over 100 times.
Luke keeps saying, “Look at what’s right there in front of you.”
Christian practice begins with holy people watching
– the holy watching of ordinary people --
the grocery store cashier, the furnace repair technician,
our neighbors walking their dogs.
It takes an interest in people – not their roles or functions –
-- attending to their stories, their situations,
the expressions on their faces.
We don’t evaluate them like an HR executive,
diagnose them like a therapist, or judge them like a magistrate.
We see them personally -- or as painter might,
as DaVinci saw Mona Lisa
and Vermeer saw the girl with a pearl earring .
Chaucer, Burns, Hawthorne, and Melville
all worked in Customs Houses.
Their jobs were so boring they had to watch the people there
just to stay awake.
Those people became characters
in some of the world’s greatest literature.
John Donne’s newest biographer says Donne’s core message is that
“for all its horror, the human animal is worth your attention.”
We are on stage with a wild and wonderful cast of characters
– if we just look up and notice them.
Paying attention is delightfully engaging,
but it isn’t just for entertainment.
It’s the foundation of morality.
We cannot treat people justly unless we first see them clearly.
Morality – Buddhists call it “right action” – is a natural,
nearly automatic, response to other people if we just look at them.
20th Century philosophers, Simone Weill and Iris Murdoch,
both taught that morality isn’t following a rule book,
and it doesn’t spontaneously gush from our good hearts.
Moral acts happen -- almost reflexively --
when we really see each other.
Today’s neurology supports their point.
Murdoch said, morality begins
with “patient, loving regard directed upon a person . . ..”
Weill said, “Attention, taken to its highest degree,
is the same thing as prayer.”
Weill left her professorship to work in factories and on farms
with ordinary people.
Knowing them led her from agnosticism to Christian faith.
Murdoch was an atheist.
But Weill believed that an atheist who pays attention to people
is a better Christian than is a Christian who doesn’t pay attention.
Luke’s primordial commandment is, “Look”
because seeing is itself an act of justice and mercy.
In The Death Of A Salesman, Willy Loman is
the most mundane of people.
But, at his burial, his widow pleads,
“He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog.
Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.”
The Bible says, “If we don’t find Christ in our brothers and sisters,
we won’t find him in Heaven.”
True, but Christ is both divine and human.
His humanity is our contact point.
Eventually, we may see his divinity in someone and say “namaste.”
But that’s advanced practice.
First we connect to Christ’s humanity
by looking for the humanity in others.
Just see them as human and take an interest.
So I invite you to make this your 2023 spiritual discipline.
Look. Look closely.
Look beneath people’s orneriness, wrongheadedness,
rudeness, and outrageous politics.
Those are just costumes. Look beneath them.
Look deeper for the struggling, vulnerable, mortal person
who is Christ just by being human.
When we see people as themselves, we bless them.
It may make them better. It will make us better.
It certainly makes our world vastly more interesting.
Brothers and sisters, Bethlehem is all around us.
“Let us go to Bethlehem and see.”