Big Data

I am told that we are now living in the age of “big data.”  The term refers to all the information floating out there in the digital world.  Information that is added to the data set when you make a phone call, or send a text message, or search Amazon for a book to read, or post dopey photos of your dogs on Facebook, or send an email, or search for anything at all on Google.  All these (now daily) activities generate data that is being stored somewhere for someone to use for some purpose or other.  Walmart is using it to figure out what to sell you.  The Department of Homeland Security is using it to determine whether or not you are a potential terrorist.  And the Obama campaign used it to figure out how likely you were to vote for the incumbent president.  Some people estimate that the amount of data to be stored or tracked in the world doubles every 1.2 years.  That’s a lot of data.

In many ways Christmas seems like a big-data kind of holiday.  There is lots of information to keep track of: shopping lists, recipes, holiday parties, Christmas cards, mailing lists, etc. 

And the whole Santa gig seems like it lends itself easily to the world of big data.  There are big sets of binary data for Santa to keep track of: girls and boys; naughty or nice.  If the elves aren’t into big data yet, they will be soon.

And what could be a bigger big data gig than God’s?  I mean whose got more to keep track of than God?  This year, managing not only all the usual stuff but also keeping one big-data-eye on the Mayan calendar as well!  God is all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful.  God is the original big data user.  The more we learn about the universe and its size, the more impressive is God’s capacity for big data.  Not only is our own planet exploding with growth and complexity, apparently the entire universe has been expanding for millions of years.  What God must know about big data would put Google to shame!  And Christmas, we are reminded, is a holiday for everyone.  Jesus came into the world for everyone, and we have been continuing the celebration of his birth for more than two thousand years, so the data around this holy night must be getting bigger and bigger by the year.

Which is why it is odd that actually the Christmas story seems so devoid of big data.  There is this one particular pregnant Jewish girl, and her particular, patient mensch of a fiancé.  They make their way to a particular small town, well outside of the big-data capital of the day, and all the lodges are booked, so they find shelter in the tiny, particular sanctuary of a stable.

At the time, the data about what was happening was actually only a tiny set of information.  A prophecy here and there, a few angels in the sky, and some shepherds who had nothing else to do.  This is not a big data moment – it’s more like performance art.  There is the matter of the star that shines to mark the place of Jesus’ birth – and one star out of millions does seem like maybe it could be tracked with big data – but the wise men are wise enough to keep the information to themselves, and the star guides only them.  In fact, the only potential user of big data in the entire Christmas story is the villain – Herod the king – who sets out to destroy every baby boy in Bethlehem, while the Holy Family slips away in tiny obscurity.

In our own time, Christmas has become such a huge holiday that it is no longer even just about the story of that little family.  Christmas is about peace and joy and love in any shape or size, from Whoville to Hollywood, and everywhere in between.  It’s about marketing and shopping and malls and sales and parties and movies, and parades, and music.  It is about big, big data, which is probably OK, probably not hurting anyone.  Maybe sometimes all the data around Christmas obscures it, but so far no amount of data has ruined Christmas.  And part of the miracle of Christmas is this: that despite the great proliferation of data, the whole thing persistently boils to down to the very small data set of two: you and the child, Jesus.

In a world that is sifting through big data to send you a targeted Groupon, Jesus is being born for you.  Not someone like you; not someone in the same demographic set as you, but being born for you.

For God, who has all the data in the universe available to him, has little need for it.  God does not have to figure out what kind of advertisements you are most likely to respond for, or what size shoe you wear, or what kind of music you listen to, or whether or not you are behind on your mortgage, or who you voted for in the last election.

This is information everyone else wants about you, needs about you, to try to get what they want out of you.  But God already knows all this about you, and tonight, it hardly matters.  Tonight, God doesn’t want anything out of you at all.  Tonight God wants to give you something.  He wants to give you the gift of his Son.  And this is a tiny piece of data – no bigger than an infant child – it has not gotten any bigger after all these centuries.

God gives this gift to you and to me because he sees how much we need to be transformed.  He sees how easily our hearts are hardened, how selfish we become, how unwilling to share, how ready to fight.  He sees how we make much ado about nothing, how we grapple for power, how we live for things that are not important, while the important things in life go wanting.

God has ample data to show that we are not ready to receive a gift from him – even after all these years.  He already knows that he will send his Son into the world and the world will receive him not, again and again.  There is immense data to demonstrate this to God.  These days the data points to the possibility that more and more people don’t give a damn about God or his Son, and even those of us who claim to care, often do a rotten job of acting as though we do – unable to follow his one simple commandment that we should love others as he loved his disciples.

So, God has been crunching the numbers, year after year, Christmas after Christmas. Perhaps this year he has upgraded his technology, increased his server-power, and really thrown himself into big data.  Who knows?

But still, as Christmas comes, there is this remarkable fact that it all boils down to the tiny data set of you and Jesus… me and Jesus.  There is no big data here.

There is only the fact of God’s love and his power to change our lives for the better – a fact that could constitute a universe of big data…

… but instead has been somehow implanted in the womb of a virgin girl, born in a stable in Bethlehem, visited by shepherds and wise men, and sung to by angels in the sky.

And which tonight is just about you and the child Jesus… about me and the child Jesus…

… who has given up his power to master all the data of the universe, in favor of simply being cradled by each of us in our hearts…

… in this tiny, little data set of two…

… on this dark, and rainy, and eventually… on this silent night.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Christmas Eve 2012

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


Posted on January 2, 2013 .