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Cultivating Wonder

“The child's father and mother marveled at what was said of him” (Luke 2:33).

Today, our message is about wonder. Christ is born. The shepherds, magi, and heavenly host all gather around and wonder. You can only imagine what they felt. The shepherds had spent their lives in the fields. They lived a hard life, but a slow life. They’d each spent hours to themselves with nothing to distract them but the clouds in the sky, the bleating of sheep, and the rustling of the trees. You can imagine how life had taught them to wonder, and now they find themselves face to face with the God-child. They wondered.

The magi had spent their lives studying books and stars. You can suppose they weren’t the type to be content with life down here. They were always looking for something more. They strained the eyes of their heart so far that they eventually found a star pointing to God. They left their homes behind them and ended up in the manger, wondering.

The angels had spent eternity adoring the invisible God. Yet, they’d never before seen God as He appeared today. He is no longer invisible, but visible, and small, and soft. His throne is no longer sapphire, but wood and hay. His voice is no longer thunder, but the small coo of a baby. You can be sure they wondered.

In our gospel this morning, we find two new characters who wonder. Simeon was a man “just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him” (Luke 2:25). He was an old man who had spent his whole life hoping to see God. What old man, with a heart and a soul, doesn’t light up when he holds a baby in his arms? Well, you can picture the twinkle in the eyes of this old man when he held in his arms the God he loved most, here, as a baby cooing and yawning. He wondered. The Prophetess Anna had been a widow for 87 years, never leaving the temple, but praying and waiting day and night. Immediately she recognized the Christ-child and she wondered. Through everything that transpired, our scriptures tell us, the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph together wondered.

If there’s one thing Christmas must teach us, it is to wonder. In Greek, the word for ‘wonder’ is θαυμάζw, which means: to marvel over and to be struck with admiration and adoration. To wonder is to contemplate, to meditate over, and to take delight in something. Wonder is not just an emotion. Wonder comes from the heart. Socrates said, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” A modern philosopher has said, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” Every child knows what it means to wonder, but we forget when we grow up. Maybe that’s why God came to us as a child. We have to learn to get back down to the level of children before we’ll ever be able to see God.

We have to learn to wonder. Wonder is written in every page of the Scriptures. The psalms describe the happy man as he who’s “delight [who’s wonder] is in the law of the LORD, and in his law he meditates day and night” (1:2). King David prays, “One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold [to contemplate, to delight in, to wonder over] the beauty of the Lord” (27:4). In his 2nd epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul tells us that we, “who with unveiled faces contemplate [or wonder over] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (3:18). It isn’t an option. It’s an obligation. It is an absolute necessity for human life to learn to wonder over God.

“Question the beauty of the earth,” St. Augustine preaches, “Question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air, amply spread around everywhere, question the beauty of the sky, question the serried ranks of the stars, question the sun making the day glorious with its bright beams, question the moon tempering the darkness of the following night with its shining rays, question the animals that move in the waters, that amble about on dry land, that fly in the air…Question all these things. They all answer you, ‘Here we are, look; we're beautiful!' Their beauty is their confession. Who made these beautiful changeable things, if not one who is beautiful and unchangeable?"

This is our challenge, through these 12 days of Christmas, to wonder over our incarnate God. It is just as hard to learn to feast as it is to learn to fast, and just as important. We aren’t very good at this in America. That’s why a friend of mine once said, “I always go to American churches on regular Sundays but ethnic churches on the feast days. They know how to feast.” I suspect most cultures would be struck by the way we Americans treat food. We either gorge ourselves or we diet. But food exists for one purpose, to help us to worship God. Fr. Alexander Schmemann teaches, “all exists to make God known to man…divine love made food.” The sweet or savory things are sweet and savory to help us to contemplate and worship and wonder over God. A beautiful song is beautiful because it awakes our heart to God. All of nature, in the sky, in the woods, in the trees, everyone with open eyes wonders at it all precisely because it points to God.

So, in these 12 feast days, we are called to slow down and savor the beauty of life. Relish in it, and let it wake in your hearts a little wonder. The Church gives us this gift as we enter the New Year. We don’t know what God will bring in our lives. We don’t know what challenges He’ll lead us through or blessings He’ll pour down on us. We do know that Jesus Christ is born and we can now touch Him each and every day wherever we are. God is with us. Cherish Him.

Moreover, we start the New Year with this invitation, to learn to wonder. Let this be a commission to all of us in our prayer lives. Why must we aspire to be more consistent and more genuine in our prayer life? In the morning and evening, and every moment in between, as we pray the psalms, hymns and meditation, here is our opportunity to wonder. You can imagine prayer like savoring a favorite drink. We mustn’t rush through our prayers. We should relish every word, slowly and delightfully. Cherish each syllable as a cause for wonder. In your prayer life, in your Sunday worship, in your interactions with one another and the world abroad, kneel down in the hay and wonder at God.

“She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37-38).

We too must become a little more like the widow Anna, praying in our hearts wherever we are, marveling at God’s work. We too can learn to wonder.


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