Archives for December 2010

Welcome the divine glory, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2010

December 26, 2010

Isaiah 61:10-62:3Psalm 147 or 147: 13-21Galatians 3:23-25, 4: 4-7John 1: 1-18

The familiar Christmas story that features angels and shepherds, a brilliant star and a silent night, Mary and Joseph in a stable, and the newborn child asleep on the hay – this is a story that captures the imagination. It is the source for countless carols and pageants, greeting cards and paintings, and nativity scenes. It is sung about, seen, and celebrated wherever Christmas is kept.

But this Christmas story from Luke’s gospel is not the only perspective on the birth of Jesus that appears in the New Testament.

There’s also Matthew’s version, which emphasizes the dreams of Joseph, Herod’s fear and violence, the magi and their mysterious gifts, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.

There’s the opening chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, where the Son of God appears as heir of all things, victorious and triumphant.

There’s the passage in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which describes Christ born of a human mother so that we can be adopted as God’s children.

And there is also today’s gospel, the opening verses of John, which offer still another perspective on the birth of Jesus, another view of Christmas and what it means for us.

Luke’s familiar story engages the imagination. John’s approach is different. It is not opposite to that of Luke. It is not more or less important. It reveals the same Christ. But it is different. For where Luke engages the imagination, John’s verses can be said to engage the mind.

The symbol for John’s gospel is the eagle, because the eagle soars to the heights and has keen vision. Nowhere is such symbolism more appropriate than in the opening verses of this gospel, where immediately we are taken up to eternity and daringly witness that before anything was created, the Word already was, and this Word was with God, and this Word was God.

But what is this Word, and how does this passage deal with Christmas? Again, if Luke’s focus is imagination, John’s focus is thought. And so John borrows a term from the most sophisticated thought of his time, both Jewish and Greek. This term we conventionally translate as “Word.”

This term has a rich history among ancient civilizations living on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It does not mean simply “word” in our ordinary English sense. Instead, it means at least three things.

First, it refers to the structure that underlies the universe, what holds everything together, what makes things work. It is this Word that scientists of our time endeavor to hear and understand, whether they be physicists or biologists or astronomers. The glue that somehow unites all aspects of our wonderfully complex cosmos – this is part of what John means in today’s gospel in making reference to the Word.

The second meaning has to do, not with what is, but with what ought to be, the divine law and intention. Atoms and galaxies are obedient; they follow laws appropriate to what they are. Human beings are manifestly not obedient, yet still we understand there is a law. All people recognize this, however imperfectly, and ethicists and legislators work to express this law. So the way we are meant to live, in all its power and profundity – this is part of what John suggests in making reference to the Word.

Yet another sense of this term has to do with meaning and purpose, with a question that haunts every human heart: What’s it all about? We endeavor to connect with purpose and meaning through myriad forms of philosophy and religion, literature and art. We rage against the suggestion that the grandeur and sorrow of earthly existence is without significance. A persistent sense of purpose in the universe – this is part of what John means in making reference to the Word.

John’s focus is the rigors of thought rather than the richness of imagination. He borrows this term, the Word, from the most significant thought of his contemporaries. And he makes impressive assertions about this Word. This Word is not made at some moment in time, but always was, and always is, and always will be. The Word is with God and is God. The Word is the creator of the universe. In this Word are both life and light.

Wherever, then, people have some awareness of knowledge, of ethics, of purpose, they are enlightened by the Word, regardless of whether or not they know this is happening.

It is now that the drama begins. This Word enters the world in a new way, but remains unacknowledged, unrecognized, even by people who should have received the Word. But the Word persists, with that persistence we call love.

It is here John makes his most astounding claim. He puts together what human reason would say are incompatible. He announces that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

On the one hand, flesh: humanity in its finitude and frailty. Not the body simply, but human nature as subject to suffering, decay, ignorance, and destruction. It is this that the Word becomes by choice.

And remember what the Word is: the structure that underlies everything, the way we are meant to live, the purpose of existence. The Word who creates and who sustains the entire marvelous universe, from unimaginable galaxies down to unimaginable subatomic particles – this Word becomes flesh, a baby who wets and cries and shivers in the cold.

Luke’s familiar story engages the imagination, electrifies the imagination. John’s verses, on the other hand, engage thought and blow the circuits of the mind by audaciously uniting, and uniting forever, what human thought sets apart as opposite: our frail human flesh, with its ills and weaknesses, its ignorance and destruction; and the Word, which come forth forever from the Father and underlies all creation, all ethics, all meaning and purpose.

Luke and John demonstrate different approaches to the truth of Christmas. They are not opposite, and one is not more important than the other, but they are different. Their differences appear in what we have already considered, and also elsewhere in their respective accounts.

Do you remember how Luke’s Christmas story ends? Mary treasures the angelic message delivered to her by the shepherds, and ponders its significance in her heart. The shepherds return to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard. Thus Mary appears as a model of contemplation, the shepherds as a chorus of praise. It is not hard to imagine Mary as reflective, realizing in new ways who her child is and the purpose he was born for. Nor is it hard to imagine the bright-eyed shepherds dashing off, full of joy, different people than they were only hours earlier. Thus we have a picture on earth of the life to which we are invited in heaven: the contemplation and praise of God.

Recall now a point in John’s verses where he shifts attention undeniably to himself and his audience: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”

Luke appeals to the imagination; John appeals to the mind. And here John entices, teases, and excites the mind with the claim that we can see God’s glory. We can see it in Jesus: his birth at Bethlehem, his cross on Calvary, his resurrection appearances at Easter, his love alive among his people.

This is the glory that flames forth in the heart of blessed Mary.

This is the glory that makes shepherds sing for joy.

This is the glory available to every heart and mind that welcomes the truth of Christmas.

So then, allow your imagination to be delighted by Luke’s beautiful story. Let your mind be enlivened by John’s announcement that the Word has become flesh. Ponder the depths of divine mercy along with blessed Mary. Sing with the shepherds of Bethlehem, for the angel’s message is meant for you as well as them.

Welcome the divine glory today and all the year round, for it is ours to see Jesus, both now and throughout eternity.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).

The best news, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2010

December 25, 2010

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 9; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

People spend a lot of time waiting: we wait for services to be delivered, we wait in line to be served at the post office and the bank, and we wait for next year, hoping perhaps it will be better, and possibly fearful that it won’t be. “Waiting for the other shoe to drop” is an expression of dread, and one on the lips of many who worry about their jobs, their futures, and their health.

Our culture tries to address all this with panaceas, things to make waiting more tolerable. We have things we can buy to wear in our ears so we can listen to music while we wait, we have online banking so we can avoid the lines, and we can even print our post office postage online. Waiting for the other shoe to drop is countered by shopping, eating, dieting, exercising – the list is inexhaustible. Then why are so many of us anxious and cynical?

By now most of us just want a little peace and quiet to savor Christmas, even if we haven’t finished the to-do list. But then, there’s the stuff to take back and exchange, the year-end financials to file, the decorations to take down and put away, the …

Wait! What was that in the second reading this morning? “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”

That may not have been in any of our presents under the tree, but it truly is the greatest of gifts, something totally unearned, undeserved, and if this is the dropping of the other shoe, let it be!

We don’t have to make ourselves happy. We don’t have to classify things as “fun” or “not fun”; we can see them all as part of the gift of life. We don’t have to solve the unsolvable or try the most expensive remedy. God gives to us as we are, for how we are, for what we are. God gives us a babe born in a manger not to mock, but to affirm our humanity. A babe born in a manger is hard to resist and opens our hearts to tenderness and awe – and there is nothing we can buy or bake that will do that in the same way.

An older man recently got a Christmas card from someone he barely remembered. Years ago the man had been a teacher in a tough school in a hardscrabble industrial community. One of his students told him he was going to quit school and go to work in the car factory; he’d make good money. The man told him not to do it, that he would live to regret it. The boy’s father came to school the next day and scolded the man for interfering in family matters. The father told the man all the children in his family had gone to work and quit school, and they had all earned good livings.

But this boy heeded the teacher’s advice and stayed in school and graduated. Later he got into some trouble – bad trouble that put him behind bars for a long sentence. While incarcerated, he wrote to his former teacher and told him, “You were the only person who ever acted like you cared what happened to me, and I have remembered that even when life has been pretty ugly.”

That is the story of Jesus being born into the world. God is concerned about us, cares about us more than anyone else can.

Biblical scholars tell us that all of the titles ascribed to Jesus – Messiah, Prince of Peace, Anointed One – were all titles ascribed to the Roman emperor. The Emperor had to use raw and terrible military power to protect those titles. They were inscribed on Roman coins and statues as constant reminders, and legions were summoned to defend them when necessary.

Jesus’ entry into the world, proclaimed by the angels and witnessed by shepherds, is a soft entry that mocks the political order. The shepherds witness the babe, then tell a few friends, then disappear into history. But countless millions take up their witness and even today, this very day, some for the first time will realize it is true, that God born in the flesh is good news, the best news, and the most precious of gifts at Christmas.

There is so little we truly need once we embrace the babe in the manger, and even less that we want. Jesus becomes the answer to all our longings and hopes, the resolution of our dreams, and the failing of our fears. Time and again we are reminded of God’s goodness toward us, and the birth in the manger is the beginning of a journey that will end with the cross, the true sign of God’s outpouring to us.

Well might we join with the angels and proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

 

— Ben Helmer lives with his wife in Holiday Island, Ark. He will be delivering this sermon on Christmas Day at St. James’ Episcopal Church in nearby Eureka Springs.