Irrational Exuberance

On the fifth of December, 1996, when the New York Stock Exchange closed, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 6,437.10 points. In a speech that day, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, wondered how we would know when “irrational exuberance” had so inflated the value of assets that the market could no longer sustain such lofty heights. Greenspan was discussing the phenomenon we have come to commonly call a “bubble.” And he was wondering when it would burst.

That was the beginning of the so-called “tech bubble.” Since then we’ve seen a housing bubble, perhaps an energy bubble, and recently the whole stock market seems to have burst like one, big, over-blown bubble.

These economic bubbles occur when people are willing to pay a lot more for something than it is actually worth. And some would say that starting the day after Thanksgiving, most of America participates in a sort of Christmas bubble as we spend the next month or so buying gifts, decorating trees, stringing up lights, baking cookies, sending out cards, traveling to see family, carving up turkeys, reveling at parties, and, yes, even going to church.

There is much to be skeptical about in our American preparations for Christmas – not least the way we spend money. And it is fair to ask whether or not we get what we pay for every year in our Christmas bubble; fair to wonder: is Christmas worth it?

And if there is a Christmas bubble of shopping and spending and singing and partying, then Midnight Mass is the bubbliest of Christmas bubbles – when we have stayed up late, gotten dressed up, readied our voices, tuned our instruments, hung up all the greens, pulled out all the stops, lit up all the candles… and for what? Is tonight all just so much irrational exuberance that far exceeds the value of whatever it is we think we are doing here?

More and more this attitude takes hold in our collective thinking. This story of Jesus’ birth – very nice for the kids – but a bit far fetched, isn’t it? A star in the East? A baby born in a manger because there’s no room at the inn? Angels singing to shepherds? Wise men riding on camels? Who are you kidding?!

And if this baby born tonight is everything we say he is why is the world still so crazy, mixed up, and dangerous? If he is so Wonderful how did things get so bad? If he is such a good Counselor why are so many homes in foreclosure? If he is king of kings why has he not brought order and justice to places we hear about every day where despotic rulers still make the lives of ordinary people miserable? If he is lord of lords why has he not found a way to house those who sleep on the streets in the cold, to feed those who are hungry, to help those who struggle with addictions, to free those who are stuck in abusive relationships? If he is the Prince of Peace why do wars still rage, why do terrorists still get to do their cruel killing, why are there still so many people shot dead in the streets of our own city every year?

We have come here tonight, it is true, to be exuberant, but the question – like the question about all bubbles – is this: Is our exuberance irrational? And that depends entirely on this baby Jesus, whose birth we re-visit again tonight. Does the celebration of this birth mark just the beginning of a little bubble of joy that will have burst before the wrapping paper from tomorrow’s gifts has even made it into the recycling bin?

Most of the evidence these days seems to point to the bursting of the Jesus bubble. Fewer and fewer people go to church regularly, the churches themselves are mired in scandal, natural disasters and the progress of climate change don’t say much for a supposedly benevolent God, and the more we know about the truths of the world we live in the harder it is to believe in the myths of a religion like this one, that tells stories that don’t necessarily add up.

And so it has become easy for most of us to stop searching for God, to give up the prayers we were taught as children (and have learned to think of as childish), to rely only on ourselves, to put no trust in God, and certainly not in any church or institution claiming to represent him. Instead of reaching up for God, we put our hands to good use raising our children well, making a decent living, doing an honest day’s work, improving ourselves as best we can.

But here on this night, as we enter this Christmas bubble, it is not actually the time for reaching out to God, not the time to stretch up on your tippy-toes and see if tonight you can get close enough to catch the bubble of God’s love and keep it in tact. Tonight is a night for bending low by a cradle, for seeing that the glory of God is nothing more than a child who does not ask us to reach out to him, because he is already reaching out to us, as only babies can, reaching out for his mother, or his bottle, for a shoulder to be burped on, reaching out to grasp your finger with that surprisingly strong grasp that never fails to delight us, and that makes us wish the baby would hold on like that for a long, long time.

Tonight the God whom we have more or less decided is not powerful enough to rule our lives reaches out to us in perfect weakness as if to prove us right.

(Does it occur to us that God could have sent his angels as an army to compel us to do his will, instead of a choir of singing messengers of the birth of this child?)

The baby looks at us, and we are smiling stupidly, (after all, we have been to his crib last year, and the year before that, and so on). And of course this exuberance is irrational! It made more sense to put our faith in the stock market, than in the hope that this infant’s birth means more that it appears to mean, holds hope for the whole world.

Tonight is a night for irrational exuberance precisely because the God of all creation, who holds the stars in his hands, and stirs the wind and the seas with his breath, the Mighty God came to us with all the weakness of a baby. And knowing what we know – that things have gotten bad, that money is tight, that the world is a mess, the hungry are still hungry and the homeless still without a home, that war and terror and gunfire still rage in our streets and abroad – what other kind of God could we believe in, than one who is willing to be as weak as the weakest child? Having turned our eyes from heaven, what other kind of God could we ever relate to, than one who reaches out his needy little fingers to us, when we will not reach out to him?

And that is what is happening here tonight: a little baby has been born. And although nothing seems different yet, we have heard the song of promise from the angels, we see how even simple shepherds could tell that something unique was happening, we remember how this story meant so much to so many generations before us. And we realize that we have had a tendency to get irrationally exuberant about all the wrong things. (How can anyone truly be irrationally exuberant about a credit default swap?!)

But if we close our eyes, we can almost see that baby reaching out from his cradle and opening his pudgy palm to grasp just the tip of our finger (that’s all he needs!). And the God to whom we had not thought to reach out is reaching out to us. And there is nothing threatening or frightening at all about being so close to God. There is only this baby, so near to us, so much in need of milk and of sleep (which is why we always sing a lull-a-bye on this silent night), holding onto our fingers, almost as if he may never let go.

And you can’t even remember Alan Greenspan’s name, or what your monthly mortgage payment is, or why you were mad at your sister, or any of the long sickness before your beloved’s death, or why two nations would ever be at war, or why you thought you couldn’t face this challenge, or what your objection was to asking for help, or why you thought you weren’t good enough.

Because this baby has you by the finger. And the exuberance you feel while that baby holds on tight, is surely irrational, because not one thing in the world is any different than it was a moment ago…

...and yet the whole universe is changed by this love, born in this bubble of holy time and space.

And we wonder how long the world, or this congregation, or even our own hearts can sustain these lofty heights, the value of which is awfully hard to pin down, in any case.

And do we dare to hope, that if we are very, very careful with the love of this child; if we sing his lull-a-bye very softly; maybe this bubble will not burst?

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Christmas Eve 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on December 26, 2008 .