In the Beginning…, Christmas 1 – December 31, 2017

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

The first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John are certainly well-known—“In the beginning was the Word.” But this passage can seem too floaty, too esoteric, too obscure, abstract, and idealized. It’s poetry, yes, but it’s not particularly helpful poetry, and when we read the Bible, most of us like to gather some sort of concrete idea of what to do in our lives on an everyday basis.

But if John thought poetry was the best way to introduce Jesus and encourage us to encounter Jesus, why was that?

This text reveals that we need to think differently about who we are. It’s very easy as we go about our daily lives making our daily mistakes to get very down on ourselves, to believe we are constantly disappointing God and everyone else. And while it’s important to never lose sight of our feet of clay, the fact is that God created us but a little lower than the angels, and sometimes we need to rise into the stratosphere with John and live into that a bit.

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means being changed. We are born blessed by God, created in the image of God, but salvation makes us a new creation in Christ. Listen to how Isaiah talks about how God has changed him in our lesson today: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels…You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.”

Our trust and faith in God that we struggle so doggedly to maintain and renew makes us, who are already cherished by God, into souls who shine with new potential and the beauty of life immersed in God. This is true even when we are sinning because the underlying reality of our desire and hunger for God will always drive us to stand up again when we’ve fallen, to reach out again when we’ve lost contact with God, to open up again when we’ve hardened our hearts.

What can we learn about what Jesus wants us to be from what we learn about who Jesus is in John’s prologue? John says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” You were part of a process much greater than your parents creating a biological exchange. Jesus Christ himself, the great and eternal Word, was the vehicle of your creation, was the medium and the messenger that spoke a unique word into the universe that never was before and never will be again. That’s you.

You might not believe little old you could be that special or important. But John says it himself: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” You are a child of God born of the will of God.

In fact, we were so important to God that Jesus chose to leave all his heavenly glory, emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave, as Philippians says. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,” John goes on. That’s what we’re celebrating today, on this first Sunday of Christmas. God chose to humble Godself to the level of a poor, limited, human creature. And more than that—notice that John adds, “And we have seen his glory.” Jesus didn’t just become human for a minute or an hour or a day and then go right back to heaven. He lived among us for thirty-three years, enduring the messiness, the heartbreak, the inconvenience, the joy, and the pain of human life.

And he never walked out on that pain. He could have used his power at so many moments to ease his way. It would never have affected his healing or his teaching. There was no reason for him to suffer the pain he went through, from getting sick to getting in arguments to having clueless disciples, to having friends die, all the way up to the excruciating suffering he experienced on the cross. But he did it because he loves us, and he would never abandon us to suffer alone.

He entered the pain willingly because he wanted to go to the darkest depths of human suffering, because that is where all of us end up at some point in our lives, some of us more than once. That is what John means when he says “and we have seen his glory.” Not his glory in the sense of being powerful or mighty or wearing a robe that shines like the sun and ascending to heaven on a cloud. We have seen his glory as he dwelt among us because there never has been and there never will be any place of pain, lostness, suffering, or addiction that we can go and not find him there with us, bearing it with us and for us.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known,” John says. This can help us see the Incarnation and the Christmas season in a whole different way. If Jesus had not been born, that first sentence, “No one has ever seen God,” would still be true. Mary and Joseph and Peter and John would not have seen God, and we would not have seen God. But because God made the choice to share Godself with us in human form, we have seen God in Jesus Christ, and it is amazing.

And that second sentence, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” This shows us once again what Jesus gave up and sacrificed to come to us, a completely different sacrifice from the giving of his life on the cross. He was close to the Father’s heart. That was where he lived, in the perfect Trinity of love. And he left that peaceful, radiant and loving place, the place close to the Father’s heart, for us. And why? To stay with us forever? Yes, but more than that. To bring us to that place. To bring us close to the Father’s heart. He told us so himself: “I go to prepare a place for you.” He doesn’t even take his special place back for himself. He gives it up for us. And this is the fundamental reordering of the universe that happened on Christmas that we celebrate today.

It’s worth living in the poetry sometimes. We can get frustrated when we don’t get concrete direction from a Bible passage. But the poetry is what explains the why of all the literal actions of discipleship we’re trying to do. What takes tithing and studying and praying and worshipping and serving from being rote, mechanical duties to being our offering of our very selves to the living God, is the cosmic story of God and humanity of which John sings. The beauty of the words, and underneath that, the beauty of the truth that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—that poetry is what makes our souls catch fire for God and all God asks of us.

This is why scripture matters so much. Because when real life comes crashing in, when the divorce papers are served, when the job loss happens, when the cancer or Alzheimer’s diagnosis comes through, we have to have somewhere to anchor our souls. And we do, in a few simple words a man named John wrote a very long time ago. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The hard knocks of life plus the poetry of scripture give us the chance to build our lives so that we become a word of poetry ourselves, one little phrase expressed by the great Word that is God.

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Associate Rector the St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1 (B).

The Work of Christmas, Christmas Day (III) – December 25, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14

Note: There are three approved lectionary readings for Christmas Day. Find sermons based on other readings here.

This is John’s Christmas. This is incarnation. No shepherds, no angels, no crèche, no Magi. John’s story is so utterly unlike the familiar crèche or pageant. How on earth could one make this, John’s story of the incarnation, into a pageant? It begins before time itself!

Note the opening words: “In the beginning…” The first to hear or read John’s Gospel had heard these words before. We all have. The entire Bible begins with these words, “In the beginning, God created…” Jesus’ origins are cosmic – at the very root of the universe, “all that is, seen and unseen.” And we now know that fully 95% of the created universe is unseen: dark matter and dark energy. Only 5% is anything at all like us, and animals and rocks and trees and stars and planets. God’s creation is mostly unseen.

John puts Jesus, the Word, the logos, present before anything was made. Before God said the word, “Light!” and there was light! God speaks and things come into being. Before God speaks, however, there was the “Word.” In Greek that is logos – word.

But for Jews and Gentiles alike in the first century, this word logos meant more than what we think when we say “word.” For at least six centuries before Christ came into the world, logos had currency among philosophers, and meant something like the principle of reason that rules the universe. Logos could also describe the Hebrew idea of wisdom – hokma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek. According to the rabbis, wisdom was responsible for creation. So universal is this Word, this logos, that it is in everything that has been created. There is nothing “made that was made” that is not made through this Word. This is why we promise in our Baptism to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Christ as logos is in all persons and in all things. Thus, our need to care for the Earth and everyone and everything therein.

The Word, says John, is life. And this life is light – the light of the world. This light is a beacon that shines and cuts through all darkness – and darkness does not overcome this light. That is, there is evil, not just in people but in all the created order. Our redemption in and by the Word – the logos – is a vital part of a larger project – the redemption of the entire universe of God’s creation.

Yet, we who come from this Word, this logos, do not readily recognize him. He comes to those of us who claim his name as our own – Christian – and yet we know him not. This continues to be a problem. Just look around us. Two thousand years of claiming his name as our own, and just how brilliantly does the world around us reflect this life-giving light? In a world of ongoing brutalities – torture, killings, mass shootings, capital murder as retribution, bombings, not to mention hunger, loneliness, hatred, bigotry, poverty, and rejection of strangers. We are promised that all who do receive him, accept him, follow him, are given power – power to become “children of God.” We say we receive, accept, and follow Jesus the Word, but is this at all reflected in all that we do or say? Or, in all that is done or said on our behalf by others who claim to know, receive, accept, and follow this Word?

It makes it all the more remarkable that this Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood. The text literally says he “tabernacled among us.” That is, he pitched his tent; this Word, this logos, set up shop right in our midst despite our not knowing him. We are meant, of course, to recall that other time in our tradition’s past when God tabernacled among us in the tent of meeting in the wilderness – that place where “the glory of the Lord filled the tent.” Again, we behold his glory!

For John, this is Christmas. The Word of God comes and pitches his tent to sojourn with us, giving us another chance to know, accept, and follow him. We behold his glory. He adopts us as his own.

A story is told about some Navy SEALs sent to free a group of hostages in one of the corners of the world. As they storm into the hiding place, they find the hostages huddled on the floor in a corner of the room. The SEALs tell them they are there to take them home. Get up and follow us. No one moves. They are so damaged by the experience of their captivity that they do not believe these are really people sent to set them free. So, one of these SEALs does something: he takes off his helmet, puts down his gun, gets down on the floor, softens his face, and huddles up next to the captives, putting his arms around a few of them. No guards would do this. He whispers, “We are like you. We are here to be with you and to rescue you. Let us take you home. Will you follow us?” One by one, the prisoners get up and are eventually taken to safety on an aircraft carrier and brought home.

Lots of rhetoric and ink have been spilled to explain the miracle of the incarnation – how it is God becomes one of us to take us home – to redeem us as a step in redeeming a broken world and broken universe. God sees us captive to many things, unwilling to simply step away from those things that keep us in prison – often prisons of our own making. In Jesus, God takes off all his glory, gets down on the floor with us, huddles up with us – tabernacles among us, pitches his tent among us – and whispers, “It is OK. I am with you. I am one of you now. Come with me, follow me, and I will take you home.”

John tells us that the essence of Christmas does not need a crèche, does not need shepherds, does not need angels, or greens, or red bows, or piles of gifts, or carols, or turkeys and roast beefs with all the trimmings. All Christmas needs is for us to know the Word. To accept the Word. To get up and follow the Word. There is no way we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Christ, the Word, we can see his light and the logos. He will lead us home. This is incarnation. This is Christmas. It is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the work of Christmas to begin.

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among people,

To make music in the heart.

Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations 

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day.

Zigs and zags, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2015

January 4, 2015

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

The start of this new year invites us to take out the map of our life and look at it carefully. This is a time to recognize where we have been, so that we may be better prepared for the future that awaits us.

Where have you traveled in your life during these past 12 months? What is there to celebrate? What is there to lament? Who have been your companions on this journey? What have been the regrets, the surprises, the delights, the moments of judgment, the seasons of grace?

The end of one old year and the start of a new one invites us to look at our maps, review our travels and reorient ourselves for whatever road lies ahead.

The gospel for this Second Sunday After Christmas Day presents us with a map to look at. It is a map of where the Holy Family traveled in the months, perhaps years, after the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem.

This is a zigzag map. The silent night, holy night when all is calm, all is bright, does not last long for Joseph, Mary and the baby.

It seems that when Christ’s birth is made known, King Herod trembles for his throne. The news of another monarch born in his territory raises in his mind fears of insurrection, the end of his time as ruler, maybe the end of his life.

Meanwhile, Joseph wakes up in the dark of night out of a troubled sleep. In his dream, an angel demanded that he take up the child and his mother and leave town, because Herod’s soldiers, the servants of his paranoia, were already about the cruel business of slaughtering every baby boy in that vicinity in order to eliminate the newborn Messiah. Even as husband and wife stumble about, making the briefest of preparations, the devouring sword draws near.

The angel does not send them back to their hometown of Nazareth. Instead, he sends them on a journey lasting hundreds of miles, which takes them in the opposite direction.

They are to go to Egypt, a strange and alien land. This route saves their child’s life, yet it is a zigzag, not what they expected when they lay down to sleep the night before.

In Egypt there are large Jewish colonies, and probably it is in one of these that Joseph and his family find a place to live. The baby prospers in that strange land, and days and months go by quickly for the young family.

Finally Joseph, the man of dreams, is awakened again from his sleep. Again an angel has appeared to him with momentous news. Herod, that killer of children, is now dead. It is safe to return, safe to go back to the land of Israel, that place they left in haste and fear. Joseph, Mary and their toddler son pack up and leave, invigorated by a sense of relief and hope.

Perhaps they had expected to remain permanently in Egypt, but there is another zigzag. Back home they go.

Once they arrive in the land of Israel, they hear that Herod indeed is dead, but his son has succeeded him, Archelaus, who is no better than his father. So Joseph and Mary decide to keep away form Judah, the region where Archelaus holds sway. In response to yet another dream, they continue northward to Galilee, to their own town, Nazareth. There they find safety and familiar faces welcome them. This is yet another zigzag,

A long and unpredictable journey, a zigzag trip, has taken them back home again so long after that census in Bethlehem. It’s a strange sight to see on the map, the life of this young family and their travels over many months.

Matthew’s gospel recounts events around the early life of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies from the Old Testament. Thus, the opening chapters of Matthew are studded with Old Testament quotations.

This happens, in particular, with the zigzag trip taken by the Holy Family. Two quotations are cited to shed light on this journey. The first, from Hosea, is applied to the flight into Egypt and the return to Israel. “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” are the words attributed to God.

The other quotation, of uncertain origin, is applied to Jesus when he’s finally a resident in Nazareth. A single word describes him: “He will be called a Nazorean.”

The significance of this second quotation is unclear. It may represent a play on words referring to Jesus as the long-expected branch growing up from the stump of Jesse, father of King David.

But the significance of the first quotation is clear. “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” The reference here is to Egypt as that place where Israel was enslaved centuries before the birth of Jesus.

God heard the cry of his oppressed people and acted decisively to win their freedom. Moses became the Lord’s agent in the struggle that culminated at the Red Sea. There the people of Israel passed through on dry ground while the Egyptian army that was pursuing them was swept away by the returning waters.

The Exodus was the Lord rescuing his beloved child, calling his son out of Egypt. This was the event that made Israel a people, the people of the Lord.

That God also calls his son Jesus out of exile, out of Egypt, back to his home, means that Jesus is a new and better Moses, about to lead a new and better Exodus, one that will deliver all people out of the realm of sin and death.

So in the story of the Holy Family, the zigs and the zags have their purpose. The path taken by this little household – driven as they are by angels, led by a man who listens to his dreams – is no purposeless wandering. It serves the intention of God’s mercy: to offer new and lasting freedom to all the people of the earth.

Now is a season for each one of us to look at our own map; not simply the past 12 months, but all the years we have lived, and those still to come.

If we consider that map with care and honesty, we will recognize zigs and zags along the way, times that seemed to make no sense, moments when the road simply disappeared or led to places that should be avoided.

Look at the map, and there may be those nights, those days, when what drove you was a dream with a good angel, one seeking your safety, your redemption and new life not for you alone.

There may be for you no straight, consistent, logical lines, no paths that make ordinary sense. There may be instead greater themes, themes that take more time to satisfy, that make sense only further down the road, themes that require you to listen to your life for what is both very old and yet still fresh.

You may find that some phrase sums it up, like a prophecy fulfilled. For once Israel was led forth from Egypt. Then Jesus, still a child, came forth from Egypt. God remains in the Exodus business, and it may be that your story, your map, reveals that once again God has brought forth his child out of some slavery into the bright hope of freedom.

God writes straight with crooked lines. Let’s amend that saying just a bit: God uses zigs and zags to prepare an open road for his people.

Like the Holy Family, you may find this true if you look intently at the route you’ve traveled. Like Jesus, you may discover that time you spent away, literally or metaphorically, was for the sake of calling you home and so that others could march home with you.

Now is the season for each of us to pay attention to what we’ve lived, the map we’ve traveled. The zigs and zags may point to angels who speak in good dreams, who in turn point to One who still calls each of us “Child” and welcomes us back home.

 

— 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, 2003).

The power of a name, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2015

January 1, 2015

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

“All hail the power of Jesus’ name, let angels prostrate fall!
Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all!”

So proclaims one of the great hymns of the Anglican tradition. It calls upon the people of God to worship the Name of Jesus in anticipation of the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This what the church does today, on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus: We gather together to glorify his name.

In worshiping Christ’s name today, we join a long line of believers before us who have invoked God’s blessings by calling on the Savior’s name. But the questions arise – what is the importance of Jesus’ name, and why do we celebrate it today, a week after Christmas?

Names can be powerful things, and throughout the Bible God uses names to communicate his purposes and to mark his covenant blessings on those who enter into relationship with him. Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah when they embrace the call to become the forbears of many generations of believers. Their son is named Isaac – “laughter” – on account of the joy God gave them. After a night-long struggle, the shadowy stranger changes Jacob’s name to Israel because he had wrestled with God. In the burning bush at Sinai, God reveals the Divine Name to Moses. He is Yahweh, the great “I am,” the Holy One.

Today’s lesson from Numbers, Chapter 6 tells us that God commanded the Old Testament priests to bless the people of the covenant with this holy Name: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

God promises to bless his people when they invoke his Name. The Name of God is blessing to those who call upon him faithfully. In the Ten Commandments, we learn that reverence for God’s Name is serious business: “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

Because to honor God’s Name is to honor God himself, centuries ago pious Jews ceased pronouncing the name revealed to Moses, saying instead only Ha-Shem, “the Name.” The more familiar custom of English Bibles replaces the divine name Yahweh with “the LORD” in all capital letters.

Several centuries after Moses received the Law, the prophet Isaiah declared that among the titles of the long-awaited Messiah would be the name Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” From the gospels we learn that before this Messiah was to be born, the Angel Gabriel announced to the child’s mother that he was the Son of God and would be named Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. It was an auspicious announcement that brought both exceeding joy and grave concern.

In St. Luke’s account of the Nativity, a portion of which we have read today, the evangelist informs us that indeed the Son of God was born as the angel had promised. Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, it was an occasion of great happiness that brought hope to the many people who eagerly waited for God to save his people – people such as the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, the shepherds of Bethlehem, and later on people such as Simeon and Anna. Matthew’s gospel shares how the news spread quickly throughout Judea and especially in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

A week after Christ was born, in obedience to Jewish Law, Mary and Joseph circumcised him and named him Jesus, just as we read in today’s gospel from Luke. This is why we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus today on the Eighth Day of Christmas. We remember that a week after he was born, Jesus was circumcised and received his name in obedience to God’s commandments.

The angel’s message that Mary’s baby would save his people helps us to understand the significance of the child’s name. “Jesus” (or Yeshua) literally means “Yahweh saves.” The child whose birth the angels praised with songs was destined to save God’s people – a covenant people drawn from all the nations of the earth – by shedding his blood and giving his life for ours. The name of Jesus is above all other names, and in the words of the psalmist, is “glorious throughout the world” because it reveals what the covenant God we believe in is like: He saves.

Christians ought not to forget that, while still a baby, Jesus shed his blood for our redemption when he was circumcised. As the Apostle Paul writes in today’s reading from Galatians: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

The law required that boys who were born to Jewish parents had to be circumcised as a sign that they belonged to God’s people and that they shared in the God’s covenant promises to Israel. In a way, Jesus’ circumcision was his first public act of obedience to the Father’s will, and the blood Jesus shed on this occasion was the same blood he would shed later on the cross.

Although he was fully divine by nature, the Lord Jesus was born in the humblest of human circumstances in order to save us from our sins. He was willing to undergo suffering, shame and death in order to fulfill God’s desire to save the world. What kind of obedience could be more perfect, and what kind of love could be more merciful? Jesus Christ loves the whole world.

When we understand that the Holy Name of Jesus is a sign and symbol for us of God’s great love and of his desire to save the world, we can see why God would honor his Son’s name by declaring it the most glorious name of all. In his love, God’s Son came to the earth, took on our human nature and willingly gave his life so that we could be reconciled to God.

Because God has honored the Holy Name of Jesus, we, as Christians, ought to do the same. We ought to respect his name and love his name.

As St. Bernard of Clairveaux, an 11th-century French abbot, tell us, to praise the Holy Name of Jesus is to receive light, food and medicine for the soul.

So, what is so special about the Name of Jesus? The answer is to be found in what the name tells us about the God we worship. The Holy Name of Jesus tells that “Yahweh saves.” For those who turn to him in faith, the Holy Name of Jesus is joy, hope, peace and eternal life.

 

— The Rev. John J. Lynch is rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church, Yorktown, Va.

Christ doesn’t belong back in the box, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2014

December 28, 2014

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

The poet W.H. Auden captured the after-Christmas feeling very well. Toward the close of his long poem, “For the Time Being,” he wrote:

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.”

Auden’s “For the Time Being” is a Christmas oratorio written for the bleak mid-winter, post-Christmas malaise. The excitement of the holiday is past, and now we get back to our daily lives, made all the more dull by the brief holiday.

“For the Time Being” was written on the heels of Auden’s conversion to Christianity. The lengthy poem gives Auden’s understanding Christianity, particularly the meaning of the Incarnation – God becoming human in Jesus. Auden wrote:

“To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

Auden wrote this oratorio in England in 1941 and 1942 and published it in 1944. He, like other Christians of the time, desperately wanted the brief glimpse of the Christ child to sustain the world in a time of war. The world was full of people naming other humans “it.” That’s how you get well-educated, thoughtful Germans to participate in the horror of the Holocaust. You rename another person as an “it” instead of a “you.” You dehumanize the other person. You certainly don’t try to see Christ in them. That the temptation to demonize the enemy existed on both sides of the conflict did not escape the poet. He concluded:

“There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”

In lives full of work, keeping bills paid, writing papers or memorizing multiplication tables for school, it would seem impossible to redeem everyday time from insignificance. Yet, that is just what scripture tells us is the Good News of Jesus’ birth. The Good News is that all time is redeemable. Nothing has to be insignificant.

The Gospel of John begins with a cosmic view of time. John tells of the Incarnation from a heavenly perspective, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

The prologue to this fourth gospel introduces Jesus as the preexistent Word of God, the second person of the Trinity. John does not begin his gospel with Jesus’ birth, but with the creation, telling that not one thing is, that Jesus did not create. This ties Jesus very closely to the everyday stuff of life. Before he was born to a poor couple in a lowly stable, Jesus had worked to create dirt, water, air and all life.

These words from the start of John’s gospel are most likely the words of an ancient hymn, perhaps written by the John the Apostle, perhaps known in the community where he led the church. The hymn itself is verses 1 through 5, 10, 11, 14 and 16. A closer look at those verses shows that each verse contains a keyword picked up in the next verse. To introduce us to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, John weaves together a tightly written hymn of praise of Jesus as the eternal word of God, with John the Baptist’s affirmation that this eternal word has come among us as the light of the world.

John wrote: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John carefully and beautifully shows us how the two great ages – our time-bound world and eternity – coexist in the person of Jesus. By weaving the story of the eternal Word with the story of that Word being made flesh, we see that those two ages are not mutually exclusive. In the person Jesus, we can meet eternity in the here and now.

Through Jesus’ life, his words, his actions, we see the will of God lived out in the flesh. John’s prologue tries to stand at the crossover point between this age and the next. For John that nexus is the manger, when the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God did not send Jesus to redeem merely a stable in Bethlehem, or even all of first-century Palestine, but to redeem all creation.

Let us lay these two visions of life alongside each other – Auden’s vision of a Christmas celebration now morphing into a mid-winter malaise, and John’s vision of the light of Christ spreading into the darkest corners of our lives.

Do you entertain Jesus as merely an agreeable diversion? Or are you ready for something more? John wanted us to let the Word of God that created all that is pitch his tent in our day-to-day existence. I’ll warn you: This is risky business. It will always be far easier to confine Jesus to holidays and perhaps Sunday mornings. It will always be far more difficult to invite the light of Christ into every area of your life.

Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine in your darkness? What about the parts of you that you hope no one notices? What about the parts you like to keep tucked under the bed or in the back of the closet, so to speak? Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine there, too?

The celebration is over. As Auden writes, “Now we must dismantle the tree, putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes.” But the light of Christ was not meant to be tucked back in the attic with the decorations. The love of God as it shines through Jesus was meant to take root in your soul. And it still can, if you make room in your everyday life for light to shine in your darkness.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

 

The perfect Christmas and the real Christmas, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2014

December 25, 2014

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Crossing the minds of almost everyone around this time of year is the fantasy of the perfect Christmas. This fantasy appears in many versions, but a standard one goes something like this:

An attractive old house sits securely on its wooded parcel of land. There’s plenty of snow on the ground, and more is falling – gently, silently – through the cold, crisp air.

Inside the house, members of a large extended family are caught up in their holiday celebration. Parents host their grown children and young grandchildren, various aunts, uncles and cousins, and the occasional in-law, fiancé or friend. The entire clan is attractive, respectable, well-mannered and well-spoken. Each member is either successful in school, advancing in a career or enjoying a comfortable retirement. No one is mentally unbalanced, seriously ill, chronically unemployed or even socially inept. All have broad smiles and straight teeth.

Most extraordinary about this gathered clan is that all the members get along with each other! Despite hours of proximity, rich food and potent drink, no simmering hostilities boil to the surface. No grudges are revived, no harsh words are spoken or even muttered. The animated conversation is mixed with frequent laughter, celebrated memories, and new stories.

Many hands in the kitchen make the preparation of Christmas dinner go quickly and peaceably, and soon the table is covered with a variety of fragrant, tasty dishes. Everyone sits down and the family enjoys a splendid meal. After the dessert, the air echoes with compliments for the cooks. The entire family helps clear the table and clean up, and it’s not long before the kitchen counters are empty, and the automatic dishwasher hums contentedly.

The presents stacked beneath the tree are opened one by one, and each gift delights its recipient. It’s always the right size, color and style. Children gleefully tear off the brightly colored paper and smile gratefully at their elders. No one lashes out in envy, bursts into tears or damages one of the remarkably complicated toys. A dreamy state of tranquility overcomes the revelers as the fire in the hearth burns low. Outside, the gentle snow continues to fall.

There’s a problem with this lovely fantasy. Christmas never happens this way. Christmas Day may feature drizzle rather than snow. Someone precious may be missing from the family circle, or someone hard to tolerate may be present – a ne’er-do-well, perhaps, or an obnoxious, screaming child, or a critical, controlling adult, or an insufferable boor. As for the rest, they are down-to-earth people with less-than-perfect profiles. A little overweight, perhaps, a little eccentric, a little shy. The fact is that most of us do not qualify as the best and the brightest. We do not live the lives of which fantasies are made.

Then there are the fights – arguments or heated discussions or vigorous fellowship, depending on your family’s particular euphemism. One brother-in-law remembers how much he resents another. A grown-up daughter again feels suffocated by her elderly mother. A nephew despises the uncle who sold him the car with the cracked engine block. An argument erupts in the kitchen over the way to make turkey dressing, and raised voices defend rival orthodoxies about the matter.

It’s not that all this happens every year, but any of it could! There’s testimony to the indomitable human spirit in the way families gather again and again despite the often painful consequences. Add to this the labor, so much of which falls on the women of the household, who are expected to make everything perfect – the cookies, the decorating, the tree, the gifts, the music, the food, the cleanup.

Our fantasy of Christmas – our pursuit of an elusive perfection – leads to frustration and disappointment. When the leftovers are stored away, the tree taken down, and the trash put out, we may find ourselves wondering whether Christmas is for us. Perhaps Christmas is for the perfect – those perfect people who live in an imaginary subdivision just over the horizon.

When the fantasy of the perfect Christmas fills our heads, we can do ourselves a favor by going back to the beginning. We can look at the original Christmas and recognize that this first Christmas was far from perfect.

Forced by government bureaucracy, Joseph brings his pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the sake of the census. Not a single relative with a bedroom to spare remains in the old hometown. And there’s not a hotel room to be had for love or money. The young couple find some space out back, inside a barn filled with farm animals. A couple of local women help with the birth and chuckle over the new-born boy.

Joseph, meanwhile, tries to get his wits about him. The months since he found out about this disturbing pregnancy and nearly brought his relationship with Mary to a sudden end have been hard. The dream, demanding that he accept the child, was followed by this awkward travel to Bethlehem, and now this sleepless night in the barn.

Nor is it a perfect Christmas for Mary. The unease of pregnancy and discomfort of travel give way to the pains of labor. Once her baby is delivered, Mary soon yields to her hunger for sleep. Yet this sleep is suddenly broken by the unexpected arrival of shepherds from the hills. These ruffians approach, caps in hand, their eyes wild as they proclaim a story of angels filling the night sky with song. Joseph wonders if there’s wine on their breath. Falling to their knees, they ask to see the baby. They delight in Mary’s little one, then, as quickly as they came, go off into the night, shouting songs of praise. They are drunk, but not with the wine of this world. Their hearts overflow with heaven’s joy.

Christmas in the barn is far from perfect. The circle around the manger is made up of people with problems. But Christmas in the barn is real. The baby is born, wet upon the blankets. Hard-living shepherds hurry to meet him. The small stable becomes a wide enough place to encompass the world, a world of imperfect people like you and me. The gospel makes clear that there’s room at the manger for imperfect people.

The perfect Christmas of our fantasies is something we try to accomplish on our own. If we just bake more cookies, give more presents, smile more broadly, then it is sure to happen – or so we imagine. Yet we become frustrated time and again. We try to live up to some fictional standard, and we end up sorely disappointed.

The gospel comes to us as an awkward surprise, a Christmas gift we did not foresee. God in Christ accepts us in our incompleteness, our imperfection. God in Christ comes to us in an eminently imperfect, unmanageable way, with all the disruptions of a baby born in a barn and put to bed in an animal trough. God in Christ relates to our little, imperfect selves by becoming smaller, less powerful, more dependent than any of us who are old enough to walk and talk. The good news is that God knows our imperfection, and God loves us as we are. God does not require us to be perfect. God asks only that we become real, as real as the events in that Bethlehem stable, as real as divine love.

What we need to do is remarkably simple: put down the burden of the perfect Christmas and accept the freedom of the real Christmas.

We can gather around the manger with people who have problems, like Joseph and Mary; with hard-living people like the Bethlehem shepherds. Here imperfect people like you and me find a surprising acceptance.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s, Baden, Maryland in the Diocese of Washington and is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

 

The time has come, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2014

December 24, 2014

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Mary’s time had come. After the long journey, the road to Bethlehem, and the days of worry before that – what would Joseph say when he found out she was pregnant? How did this happen anyway? But Joseph had stood by her, and now the time had finally come, in a strange city, with no family there to help, and the barn would have to do. There was no room in the inn, but how could they have afforded that anyway? Money was hard to come by. The baby at last was coming, and Mary was terrified.

And the shepherds, too, were terrified. Like Mary and Joseph, they weren’t sleeping inside that night: They were out in the fields, and it was cold. And suddenly this Angel of the Lord was confronting them, and this glory of the Lord was nearly blinding them, and this multitude from heaven was declaring peace on earth. There hadn’t been peace for a long time; how was this baby lying in a manger going to bring peace now? It didn’t make sense.

We have heard this story before, and we are probably not terrified tonight, as Mary and the shepherds were. But maybe we should be. Because if Christmas really comes, the way we say we want it to, things will have to change. The world will be reborn. The Kingdom of God will come on earth, as in heaven.

Still, like Mary, we have been waiting, and praying, and hoping for this night. When the Angel Gabriel told her she would bear God’s Son into the world, Mary’s response was, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary agreed to do this, despite the strange and unusual circumstances. She knew people would think the wrong thing and look down on her. She knew that Joseph might not understand. Even knowing how hard this would be, she said yes.

We also have a choice. We are not here merely to remember what happened so long ago on a cold night in Bethlehem. Like Mary, God is asking us: Will you bear Christ into the world? Will you carry Jesus in your heart?

Our road is different from Mary’s, but it is challenging in its own way. A new baby always changes things. Your life is no longer your own. If you agree to let Jesus be born again tonight, your life will change, maybe in ways you don’t expect. So be careful how you answer.

The Christmas story can so easily be lost under a sentimental blanket of snow, with cows gently lowing and stars brightly shining. This is true with the carols we sing, too. They are so familiar that we sometimes miss the real meaning.

For example: “It came upon the midnight clear.” The really interesting stuff in this carol happens in verse 3. This is true of most Christmas carols, actually: The real theology happens two or three verses in. Here’s the third verse of “It came upon a midnight clear”:

“Yet, with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”

And here’s the second verse of “In the bleak mid-winter”:

“Our God – heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.”

Christina Rosetti, who wrote this carol, is making a bold theological claim in this verse. When God comes – if God comes – heaven and earth will “flee away.” Heaven and earth as we know them now – everything we know, everything we see – will simply stop. Vanish. And then what? What comes next? Well, what comes next – what happens when God comes – is what Rossetti wants us to think about.

Perhaps the best example of Christmas carol theology is “O little town of Bethlehem.” The first couple of verses are sweet, almost cloying – all those “Christmas angels” and “silent stars.” But Phillips Brooks, the famous 19th-century preacher who wrote this carol, knew what he was doing. He has given us a perfect sermon in miniature. Here is the last line:

“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

The carol has gotten rather serious by this fifth verse. “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today” – not so sweet, is it? It may be what we need – it may even be what we want, what we are praying for – but it doesn’t sound easy.

“Cast out our sin” brings to mind some lines from the Magnificat, the Song that Mary sings after she hears from Gabriel that she is pregnant:

“[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”

There’s some resonance between God’s tearing our sin from us and casting it out, as in the carol, and God casting down the mighty from their thrones, sending the rich away, empty. Being sent away empty isn’t a punishment, you see – its a blessing. If we allow God to cast out our sin – if we allow God to empty us out – then we will be blessed indeed, just as Mary was.

And what is it, exactly, that we need to be rid of this year? What is the sin that needs casting out, the thing that’s getting in the way of God being born in us? Our desire to be important? To have all the right things? To have more than we need?

What is it that occupies your heart this Christmas? Maybe it’s sadness, frustration, anger? The feeling that you’re not good enough or smart enough or kind enough? Or maybe you’re lonely or afraid?

Whatever is in there, God wants to be in your heart, too. And if you let God in, even just a little bit: Watch out! Cast out our sin and enter in. He has sent the rich away, empty.

It is only after we have been emptied – of all the ridiculous things, all the needless stuff that gets in the way of God’s love – only when we are emptied of these worries, these desires, are we ready to be filled with the love of God. Only when we are empty can Christ be born in us. Only when we are empty will Christmas come. We can sing the carols and put out the crèche, but unless we are willing to be emptied out, there won’t be any place for God to live.

This is the inside work, the thing that must happen inside our hearts, in order for the outside work to move forward. And the outside work is the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Heaven and earth shall flee away, you see, when he comes to reign. We are being asked to bear God into the world, just as Mary did. And just like Mary, we know that this is not going to be easy, and it’s going to change everything. Are we brave enough to do this, knowing that if God’s kingdom really comes, our lives change forever? Are we willing to be cast down, emptied out, so that God may be raised up?

This labor, this bringing about the Kingdom of God, will not be easy. But this is Christmas; the time has come, and our call is to bear Jesus into the world, just as Mary bore him so long ago.

We are called to put flesh on the values of God’s kingdom, to put hands and feet and brains and shoulders to work for peace and justice and love.

Come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel. Be born in us today.

Merry Christmas.

Amen.

 

— The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

God comes to us in our gritty reality, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2012

December 24, 2012

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Christmas Eve: Is there a more magical time? In the larger culture, this is often one of the few times when family and home regularly take precedence over other concerns. People light fires in their fireplaces, fill their households with candlelight and the smell of cinnamon; families eat special meals together with the glow of memory surrounding them.

There’s some irony to the coziness of Christmas Eve in our culture, since what we celebrate is the birth of a child to a couple in challenging circumstances far from home. The outbuilding in which Jesus was born did not smell of cinnamon brooms or roasting turkey. It wasn’t decorated in lights and bows. It smelled quite frankly of animals and hay. It’s hard to imagine Mary feeling completely at ease in these circumstances, much less glowing with that supernatural light that appears on Christmas cards. The first Christmas Eve was a struggle for Mary and Joseph; they had been traveling  – and we’re not talking planes, trains or automobiles; Mary was doubtless in pain; Joseph had to be worried and frustrated that there was no place for them to be secure.

The shepherds, who have graced their share of beatific Christmas cards themselves, did not bring tiny white lambs to the crèche. Shepherds were pretty far down the ladder in status and economic standing. They were almost certainly dirty, and perhaps staved off the cold with something to drink.

Our lovely Christmas-card illusions of the first Christmas Eve detract us for the gritty reality of the story, where the extraordinary nature of this story actually lies.

God came to us in Jesus. God came among us, not in the first-century equivalent of a Lear jet or a black limousine, but to a humble couple of travelers far from home and family. Jesus’ first attendants were from the edges of polite society, not from the center. This appears to be a clear signal from the writer of the Gospel of Luke that God’s story in the life of Jesus is going to unfold in unexpected ways, far from the trappings of royalty, distant from the centers of religious authority, among the poorest and the least. And that is by God’s choice.

What are we to understand about God through this story?

The writer of the Gospel of Luke goes on to tell the story of Jesus’ life with a particular emphasis that’s consistent with this birth story; Jesus continues to deal kindly with people on the margins, and tell stories with unexpected heroes, such as the Good Samaritan. The God we see through the portrayal of Jesus in Luke is a God who reaches past the boundaries of race, class, gender and religion to touch people who are on the outside, and it starts with the story of this night.

The earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas. This observance came later, when Christians began to talk about Jesus as more than a prophet; they began to see him as divine, and therefore to think about his whole life as a message to humankind from God. They began to talk about a concept called “the Incarnation,” by which they meant that God entered human history in a human life. This made the birth of Jesus a signal event in history, an event that changed the world forever.

In Luke’s account, the conception and birth of Jesus follow the pattern of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, in which God is always acting in unexpected ways to make relationship with God’s people. Just as Sarah conceived when she was old; just as Hannah conceived when she had been barren; just as Moses was called to lead, though he felt inadequate to the task – so Mary, another person who was nobody special, became the mother of Jesus. The place and time were not ideal: they were far from home and Mary went into labor. The historical timing was difficult, too; Mary and Joseph were of the Twelve Tribes, but they lived in an occupied nation and had to answer the call of the Roman governor to be counted.

In the midst of ordinary human history, with one more oppressor occupying one more province; in the midst of ordinary human experience – a pregnant woman and her betrothed, traveling uncomfortably and surprised by a birth far from home – God’s presence is known. God comes to us in the everyday; God is not excluded from a hard day at the office, a challenging commute, a hospital room, a government office. The birth of Jesus says to us that God’s desire is to be with us in all times and places, not only when the house is clean and the children are asleep. Those who visit him in Luke’s account suggest further that this good news is for everyone, and perhaps especially for those whose lives on the margins make them most open and receptive to good news.

One of the names for Jesus in scripture is Emmanuel, “God with us.” This familiar story of a man, a woman, a baby and the unlikely companionship of angels and shepherds, claims for all time that God is indeed with us, wherever we find ourselves, however difficult the path may be. As Martin Luther points out, the angels declare that he is born “unto us,” not merely born. Ultimately, we are called by this story to understand the birth of Jesus as a gift, something precious that blesses us and binds us to the Giver in love.

Like all the best gifts, this one can change our lives, if we let it. We always have the option of merely visiting this story once a year and allowing the Christmas-card images to wash over us, enjoying the sweet story without really entering its power. But this story’s true value comes in its gritty reality, its affirmation of human experience, its narrative of God’s great love for us, known in Jesus of Nazareth.

God intends for love to grow us, change us, heal us, remake us – not merely to delight and comfort us. This story takes its true power, not from birth, but from resurrection, the continual rebirth of all that is good and true and beautiful, the conquering of the powers of darkness and death that are seen most visibly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Tonight we remember just the beginning of that story, and its sweetness can sustain us through the coming year.

Let every heart prepare him room. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment. 

Bow at the name of Jesus, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2012

January 1, 2012

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

We know very little about Jesus’ childhood. There is nothing in Mark or John. From Matthew, we learn that an angel told Joseph to name Mary’s child “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This, he reports, they did, and then he relates the account of the Wisemen’s visitation, followed by the flight of the family to Egypt and their moving to Nazareth.

Luke provides the most detail, beginning with the birth in Bethlehem that we hear during the Christmas liturgy. Then he gives us the brief story from today’s gospel, followed by an account of Jesus being presented in the temple a few weeks later. Finally, Luke tells us about the 12-year-old Jesus, again at the temple, confounding religious teachers with wisdom beyond his years. He ends with a summary: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

That’s it, until he emerges fully grown, prepared for the Baptism of John and the beginning of his ministry. So, our little snippet of information today is quite important within such a limited body of knowledge of Jesus’ first three decades of life. One sentence: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Our prayer book deems it so valuable that whenever the eighth day of Christmas, January 1, occurs on a Sunday, Holy Name takes precedent over the regular liturgical day. We commemorate the occasion when Jesus was circumcised and when he was named.

His circumcision reminds us that he was reared as a Jew, a peculiarly religious people in a remote area of the great Roman Empire. We recall that the very formation of Christianity grew out of Jewish roots, and our “old” Testament is the Hebrew Bible. This was the Scripture that Jesus learned in his formative years and which he used so effectively by reference and fresh interpretation in his ministry. One thought about the divinity of Jesus is that his was a fully, completely faithful Jew in every way, carrying out the will of God in perfection, becoming the human presence of God. So, the gospel focus and the liturgical importance of this day emphasize our intentional connection with our ancestors of ancient Judaism.

Still, we are Christians transformed by the Holy Spirit from such roots and empowered within our own unique understanding of God’s relationship with his people. Like the Jews of old who found in circumcision less a form of surgery and more a way to distinguish themselves as a special people, we characterize ourselves by other actions. Early on in our development, we decided that a gentile convert did not have to be circumcised. For Christians, we have our own mark of identity; our equivalent of circumcision is baptism. We, too, are named within this formative sacrament, and we declare ourselves united with others of the Body of Christ through sacred vows and the recitation of the Baptismal Covenant.

The name given to our Savior at his formational service was divinely ordained, as witnessed by the angel who told Joseph to take Mary as a wife and name the child she would bear “Jesus,” as a promise that he would save his people – save them from their own sinfulness. And so, the name became a holy one for all time and for all humanity. Jesus – as the one who connects our humanness to all that is God – saves us from the selfish, sinful nature that is so easy for us, alone, to give in to. The name of Jesus is so important that Saint Paul instructs us in today’s epistle that it is “above every name.” It is so sacred that “at the name of Jesus, ever knee should bend … and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The name of Jesus has been used for centuries, especially by members of the Eastern Church, as a form of meditation of the highest order. The “Jesus Prayer,” coming “from the heart,” allows meditating Christians to delve into the depth of faith in a mystical way. Repeating over and over again the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” enables the one who prays to focus on the essentials of faith and live life in the keeping of our Lord. The nearly subconscious repetitive focus on Jesus, the one with the Holy name, enlightens and enlivens the believer to connect with the Savior in deepening one’s spirituality and finding motivation to provide for the needs of God’s children.

Obviously, “Jesus” is a name unlike yours or mine – or anyone else’s. It is reserved for the Savior. This would logically lead all who are aware of the epistle to the Philippians to refrain from naming a child “Jesus.” But if it is so unique, why are there so many boys and men in Christian-oriented Hispanic communities with this as a given name? Anglos are often surprised to encounter them, though such individuals are called by the Spanish pronunciation – “Hay-SOOS.” This confusion is explained by understanding that such cultures use “Jesus” differently from other Christians, because it is for them just another common name for males. When they refer to the Savior in the gospels, the one circumcised and named on the eighth day, they do not use “Jesús” but “JesúCristo.” Therefore, with such a practice in place, this leaves everyone in virtual agreement that “Jesus” of the Christian faith remains a name not only above all others but also prohibited from use as a given name among contemporary people.

When pregnant parents contemplate the future of their child, they often spend a great deal of time deciding on the newborn’s name, a permanent imprint. Some name them after a favorite ancestor; others select something because they like the sound. A few choose the name of a famous person whose memory and value they want to perpetuate in the new life, hoping the child will live up to the values of the namesake.

Maybe, just maybe, we have it wrong in making “Jesus” out of bounds for such a task. Maybe we should give everyone the middle name “Jesus.” In this way, each of us would carry the Holy Name on our birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports. Jesus would become more solidly a part of our identity. This might help us remember the invisible cross placed by a priest on our foreheads at baptism, marking us forever as a possession of JesúCristo. With a name like Jesus to live up to, wouldn’t our Christian lives become much more enriched?

Today’s gospel reveals to us an infant Jesus, an 8-day-old with nothing to show for himself other than a circumcision and a name. But we know that the truth is much more than that: the child had within him all the promise and possibility that God holds for all creation. Most of the time we, like the 8-day-old Jesus, live by hope and promise, because leading a Christian life is not an easy task. Like the infant, though, we have within us all the possibility that God gives to all his children, the possibility of being one with Jesus and literally living as Jesus did.

When Paul charged us to bow at the name of Jesus, he did not simply intend a proper gesture in church. To honor his Holy Name, we must act, we must emulate, we must follow our Savior in the walk he made on this earth, among people not unlike our neighbors. Today, the liturgical calendar gives us something significant to think about on the secular calendar’s New Year’s Day – something besides football games and overcoming the effect on last night’s partying. Maybe we can use the beginning of 2012 to vow to spend every day of it remembering not only that the Name of Jesus is like no other name and that it is Holy, but also to remember that it summarizes all that our Savior is and all that we can become – if we follow him.

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

Is it true?, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2011

December 25, 2011

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

And is it true? The choices of lessons for Christmas Day approach that question in two ways. St. Luke tells us the story, a story we’ve heard year by year. Because we are so familiar with the tale, its truth may not engage us anymore. Yes, it’s a beautiful story. A young girl gives birth to a baby in a cave used to house farm animals. The child is placed in a feeding trough. We don’t know whether Joseph was able to find a midwife to assist in the birth. We do know that they took shelter in the cave because there were “no vacancy” signs on the doors of all the inns, the motels of that day.

Bethlehem was full of visitors because a politician far away had decided on a census, a way to establish how many people there were in an area who could be taxed and what property and income they possessed. In this case, people were not counted where they lived; they were sent back to their ancestral hometowns. Beneath the story runs a tale of oppression, of people at the mercy of a tyrant, a people enslaved by conquerors. The story has a familiar ring to it even today. Dress it up with tinsel, with poinsettias, shining stars and angels if you will, but this is a story of oppression and vulnerability, of injustice with little mercy.

And is it true? It is certainly familiar. It rings true enough. Perhaps its telling again today may inspire us to show mercy and act kindly toward those in need. But the truth of this story lies deeper. It isn’t just a morality play, or a docudrama. So another choice for looking at the gospel today takes us deeper, much deeper. And that’s when things get complicated. We may, perhaps, accept the politics of the story, but can we get our heads around the theology of the story?

The word “theology” can be off-putting. We want a simple faith, even though we don’t like to be thought to be simple ourselves, and theology sounds complicated. Yet the first fourteen verses of St John’s Gospel, Chapter One, is anything but simple. It teaches that the baby born in a cave among farm animals is God the Word, the second Person of the Trinity.

And is it true? If we have much taste for a God, what we want and think we need is a powerful God. True, we want a god who is kind to us. God can be rough on those we don’t like, but must be compassionate to us. Yet Christmas Day reveals a vulnerable God, a helpless God, a baby God. It shows a God who needs parents and friends, who needs protection and care. What an extraordinary idea! This is a God who calls us to love him, even though he can’t do a thing for us except gurgle, smile, and even cry. Here’s a God who keeps us awake at night and yells for food.

Certainly any mother knows how wonderful it is to love and be loved by a baby. Even the hardest heart may be melted by the sight of a radiant mother and her baby. Christmas Day challenges us to see that sight, it calls us to allow our hearts to melt. We are called not to receive, but to give. We are called to give our hearts and love to God the Son, God the Baby, receiving nothing more, or less, than love’s reward. For love is a doing, a giving, a surrendering, a merging. It breaks down our walls of separation, our pride and bitterness, our self-assuredness and pretended autonomy. Christmas teaches us that before we receive from God we must first give ourselves to God unconditionally, come what may. And so God challenges us to see him as a baby, a dispossessed baby born in a cave and placed in a food trough.

John Betjeman, the English poet, wrote a poem called “Christmas.” Here is the last verse of that poem. Listen to it and take it to heart, and then give yourself to Jesus the Baby as he comes in Bread and Wine:

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

— Father Tony is rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, and an examining chaplain to the bishop of Northern Indiana.