The Breath and the Glory
"But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:"
December 22, 2017, Words By: Ken Sikes, Image By:
First it was an alarm, next came water and last week it was light. God uses each of these elements to wake us up. As we approach the eve of God’s arrival, are we still awake? Are we alert? Will we recognize the advent of our God?
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” I know what you’re thinking. If an angel suddenly showed up at my work, shining like the morning, I’d wake up too. But things are different in the real world. In the world that exists outside nativity scenes, we shepherds just keep watching and watching and watching…night after night after night as our mundane mutton bleats and eats and lays down to sleep. Little to no glory ever appears.
Ricki had Alzheimer’s. It forced her out of teaching and into early retirement. Eventually it forced her out of her home and into a facility. The last time I visited her, she barely recognized me. Instead of a conversation, I spent my time following her around the facility as she looked for something. I wasn’t looking forward to another visit.
The health workers seemed a little surprised when I arrived. I noticed a sympathetic look when I mentioned Ricki’s name. As one worker led me to Ricki’s room, she mentioned that Ricki was in the gurgling stage, likely due to some fluid in her lungs. I didn’t understand why she’d have fluid in her lungs until we reached the room; she was lying gaunt and unconscious on the bed. She was in hospice care, days if not hours from dying.
The nurse brought me a chair and I sat down next to the bed. What do you do? What can you say? I prayed. Now I don’t mean to brag, but it was a good prayer. I quoted scripture, I remembered things about her life, I even sang a little. It was a good prayer, and there was no one to hear it. No multitude of heavenly hosts, no angel, no glory, just me, Ricki and her labored breath.
“But the angel said to them, “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 a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Like Rudolph’s nose, the angel attempts to tamp down her luminosity, “Don’t be afraid…I’m not here to smite you…I’m here with good news…the Savior is here…” I imagine the shepherds kneeling, leaning back, peaking past their instinctively raised elbows. Their minds likely racing simultaneously realizing, “I can’t wait to tell someone” and “no one’s gonna believe this.”
As if the angel were able to read their thoughts, she offers a seal, a stamp, a kind of signature as proof for their encounter. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” I wonder if the shepherds shared a confused glance? Did they scrunch their forehead and furrow their brows? Did they mutter quizzically, “wrapped in rags…lying in a feeding trough…what kind of sign is that?” Perhaps it was the slowly raised hand of one of these shepherds about to ask for some clarification that led the angel to wave her baton and strike up the heavenly host, “Glory to God in the highest…”
Glory. Yes! If we only got a little more glory in our fields at night, in our homes by morning, our office by noon, our classrooms by mid-day and our kitchens by evening. If only we encountered more glory we’d be awake, alert and alive. This is what we think when it may be just the opposite that is true. Perhaps it is being awake, alert and alive that leads us to recognize God’s glory. “The glory of God,” writes Irenaeus, “is humanity fully alive. To be alive is to behold God.” To be alive is to be awake to the presence of God. So…
Dim the lights, hush the crowds, still the triumphant band. These are just a taste of glory. The real wonder begins when the angels depart. “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place…”
With nothing else to say, I just sat there beside Ricki’s bed, eyes closed and listening. Ricki’s breathing was labored, rattling. At times it seemed she wouldn’t be able to take another breath, only to suddenly inhale again. I listened to the raspy in’s and the rattling out’s and slowly I began to hear. This sound was familiar. I’d heard it late at night from the cradle next to my bed. It was the sound our infants made when they had a cold and struggled to breathe…to sleep. Ricki’s breathing ceased to sound like that of a woman on the edge of death and began to sound like that of one on the edge of life.
In Genesis, God forms the humans but they remain lifeless until we read, “God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…” This breath, this fading gurgling breath of a woman who had lost every memory and physical function was not just oxygen, it was the presence of God, Immanuel, God with us.
I arrived at the facility with little hope or expectation, mired in the mundane. I was not ready for what happened. I was not prepared to encounter God. But I departed different, a little more alert, a little more alive, a little more awake to the God whose glory shows up wrapped in gowns and lying in a manger…or hospital bed. Wake us up, Oh Lord, wake us up.