Joined by Jesus, Christmas 2(C) – 2016

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

The Christmas season is a period in which the Church celebrates that God unites God’s self to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. At the very heart of Christmas is the birth of our divine Savior, Christ the Lord, who is the Word made flesh. As Christians, we believe that the Son of God took upon himself the fullness of our human nature and that at his conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary he received a human body of flesh and bone, a human heart to love, and a human mind to reason, think, and will. Indeed, following the teachings of the Holy Scriptures Christians affirm that Jesus is like us in all things except for sin.

Theologians call the belief that God became flesh “the Mystery of the Incarnation.” It is one of the key points of the Church’s faith as expressed by the Nicene Creed: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate and was made man.” It is not a mystery in the sense of being any sort of secret. Rather, it is a mystery because its reality goes beyond our limited ability to understand it.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, the story of the flight into Egypt, illustrates some of the ways in which the Lord Jesus, in his humanity, identified himself with the faithful people of God in moments of both hardship and rejoicing.

First, Jesus identifies himself with the people of Israel. The passage from the second chapter of Matthew is chock-full of evocative words and names that are meant to make the reader remember the story of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. Just as there is in the book of Genesis, here there is a Joseph who sees visions in his dreams and who leads the people to refuge in the land of Egypt. Like the story of the Exodus, here we find a Miriam, or Mary. There is even a Joshua, or Jesus, like we find in the book of Deuteronomy and in the story of the return to the Land of Promise as told in the book of Joshua. Even Herod’s wrath and seeking to kill the Holy Child echoes the pharaoh’s cruelty toward the Hebrew children. Such allusions to the story of the Old Testament are an intentional part of Matthew’s story about Jesus. By connecting Jesus to the story of the salvation of the covenant people, the Evangelist demonstrates how Jesus’ life and story are one with the life and the story of Israel. Matthew is telling us that Jesus is one with God’s covenant people because he has lived their history and their experience in his own flesh. Thus, one might say that Jesus is not simply Jewish; Jesus is the authentic embodiment of Israel.

Second, Jesus identifies himself with the promise to bring all nations, including the traditional enemies of Israel, into God’s Kingdom. The story of the flight in Egypt is a healthy reminder that God’s interest is not limited only to Israel. National borders do not limit God’s sovereign power. God looks upon the whole world and upon every nation and people. As the creator of the entire human race, the Christian God offers mercy and grace to Jews and Gentiles alike. Matthew seems to revel in the irony that the newborn Messiah was rejected by the King Herod of Judah but welcomed by Gentiles in Egypt. One might consider just how deep Jesus’ identification with the children of Egypt was. He spoke their language. He played their games and shared their friendship as children across the world do. Once again Egypt, too, has become holy ground. This was, perhaps, a first step toward the long promised reconciliation of the Gentiles to the creator. This was announced by the Hebrew prophets and was fulfilled in the eschatological vision of people from every race, language, and nation singing around the heavenly throne.

Third, with the Flight into Egypt Jesus, who later teaches, “blessed are the poor,” identifies himself with the poor and the marginalized of this world. It must never be forgotten that the Holy Family were on the run, that they were fleeing their homeland as victims of political persecution. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived as refugees in Egypt. They, like Abraham, Jacob, and his sons before them and like so many people in the world today, were exiles from their home and migrants in a foreign land. Christ, therefore, knows firsthand the experiences of the outcast, the foreigner, and the immigrant. He knows the trials of the refugee seeking safety and protection from the wrath and cruelty of evildoers and tyrants.

This experience of the flight into Egypt explains the force of Jesus’ teaching that whatever we do for the least of his brothers and sisters we do for him because he has made himself one with the marginalized. He has been the exile, the migrant, and the refugee. Therefore, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the exiled are things Christians rightly do to honor our Lord. Christians must identify with the poor and the exiled because Christ himself was counted among their number. We must serve the needy among us because in doing so we serve Jesus Christ who loves all people. As the Apostle James wrote in the first century, “true religion is to care for widows and orphans in their distress.”

During the Christmas season it is also important to recall that Jesus identified himself with the joys of our celebrations. In Matthew’s telling of the flight into Egypt, Jesus does not only suffer the hardship of exile. He also experiences the joy of coming home. The joy of returning to one’s homeland is a regular theme in the message of the Hebrew prophets that can be seen from today’s lesson from the prophet Jeremiah: “He who scattered Israel will gather him…for the Lord has ransomed Jacob from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion…and they shall never languish again.” This is a joyous celebration that God brings God’s children home. This experience of return further signals Jesus as the one who embodies the life of Israel. It suggests something of the great expectation that God will provide a definitive return to the life of justice and peace in his divine kingdom, as Matthew suggests by his citation of the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”

The return from exile in Egypt reminds us that Christ also understands the human need for celebration. We rejoice in God’s blessings. We rejoice in hopes fulfilled. The desires to sing and to dance, to laugh and to rejoice are not foreign to our Lord. After all, these expressions of joy and happiness are a powerful part of what it is to be human, to be fully human as Jesus Christ was and is. In the mystery of the incarnation, God shares this human joy in all its fullness.

The incarnation of Christ therefore provides the Church with a powerful reason to celebrate. Not only is it that, “the Word become flesh and dwelt among us,” but by becoming of a human being Christ has united himself to the human race and made us members of his own family. Christ Jesus has joined the human family by virtue of his birth from the Virgin Mary, and we have joined the household of God by believing in his one and eternal Son.

Today the Church rejoices, as we hear from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, that: “We have been adopted by God the Father as children through Jesus Christ to the praise of his glorious grace and that we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” We celebrate that we, too, have become sons and daughters of God, true brothers and sisters of Christ. We rejoice that God’s grace has been lavished upon on us and that the same love that fills Jesus’ heart has been poured into our own hearts to give us new life. We rejoice that our sins have been forgiven and that we have been redeemed by the blood of the Savior. Therefore, let every heart celebrate God’s mercy and the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas 2 C.

Written by The Reverend Dr. John J. Lynch
The Rev. Dr. John J. Lynch is the rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Yorktown, Virginia, having previously served in the Diocese of Honduras. He is also the Province III Chaplain to the Order of the Daughters of the King. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Father Lynch writes and publishes the Spanish-language blog “El Cura de Dos Mundos”.

Confusing The Sacred & The Profane, Christmas 1(C) – 2015

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

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14

When much of the world might think of this time as a great chance to get sales and deals or to catch up on sleep after relatives have left and to gear up for the New Year, this is a very different time for the Church. For the Church, this is the beginning of a short and nonetheless highly important season, the season of Christmas. This season gives us a sense of the expanse of time between Jesus’ birth and some of the other important events that happened around it. More importantly, this season also gets us in touch with the fact that the incarnation was not something that occurred just in the moment of conception or in the moments of delivery. Rather, the incarnation was something that unfolded over a great amount of time, since the beginning. It is this connection to the beginning that John, whose “account” of the incarnation we read today, was referring to. So let us return to John’s words. With God’s help, we will find ourselves more deeply immersed in the great mystery of Jesus Christ and his presence on Earth.

Most people who have grown up in the Episcopal or many other Christian churches will have heard the phrase: “and the Word became flesh and lived among us,” quite a few times. Compared to the pageant-worthy accounts in Matthew and Luke this seems quite unexciting. It is certainly lacking great imagery on the surface. Nonetheless, it becomes more interesting with a closer review of what these words mean and how significant they are. Another way to translate the phrase that gives us a closer experience to that of the original listeners is to say, “The Word became flesh and pitched a tent amidst us.” Taking into account how these words would have resonated with the present and past of the Jewish-Christian communities that gathered around these Gospel accounts will help us get a sense of how Jesus’ coming in turned ideas about what is sacred and what is mundane completely upside down.

So where does the ‘tent’ connection really come from? Linguistically and conceptually a ‘dwelling’ for the Jewish people was a tent. To dwell with was to pitch a tent. Long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem and long before the Jews built their Temple, they were a moving people who lived in tents. As they moved they carried the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments, with them and they believed God was present with the Ark. Some distance from where they pitched their own tents, they erected a super-tent, called the Tabernacle, for God. This tent had rooms, walls, incense, furniture, a garden and a clear barrier around the outside. When God’s cloud was on the tent no one was allowed in there. Otherwise, only certain men, the descendants of Aaron, were allowed in there at all. Even they could only enter after they offered a sacrifice for their own sins and took a special bath, or they could die. You see, by making God’s tent so different, so far away, and so exclusive they were making it pretty clear that their lives, their ordinary selves, where they lived and what they did were mundane, even profane. Only the exclusive people, places, and things were Holy and worthy of God.

With this in mind, we can see just how Christ turned this all upside down in his coming. While the Tabernacle was a super-tent with rooms and furniture, Christ “pitched his tent” in a stable or barn. The Tabernacle was apart from where others stayed, whereas Christ stayed in an overcrowded inn in the middle of town. One could easily argue that Christ incarnated a highly undesirable and unclean space, in the opposite space from the select area the tabernacle would have been. While only certain men, ritually cleaned, could enter God’s other tent, dirty shepherds and even animals got to share Jesus’ first intimate moments. The mundane and profane people and circumstances that were excluded from the Tabernacle were the exact people and circumstances included and recognized as Holy in the presence of Christ.

As we, as the Body of Christ, seek to follow in his example in this way it is important that we realize that it isn’t about making the Holy less Holy or less valued. Rather, it’s about recognizing the holiness in the everyday and drawing that forth. We are in a world where the lines between the ordinary and the special, the profane and the sacred are heavily drawn. If we as the church are to truly be people of the incarnation, we must at the very least challenge these distinctions and at best remove them altogether. We must do so out of our deep faith and understanding that all creation is suitable, inhabitable and thus somehow inhabited by God. How do we do this?

We can approach this work in a number of ways. The places we worship and other sacred spaces offer great opportunities for this. Through prayer we make these spaces Holy and bring forth their inherent spiritual beauty. By inviting and encouraging other kinds of meetings, fellowship gatherings, mutual support functions, and even parties with dancing, we can begin to unlock and reveal just how wonderful and sacred it is to be able to share these moments with others. By doing so in our places of worship we then change the way we regard these activities wherever they may occur.

We can also accomplish this through changing the ways that we approach and consider the routine things in our lives. From the time we spend brushing our teeth to our daily carpool and other regular appointments, we can bring forth the divine aspects of time by bringing more intentionality and paying attention to the ways that God’s presence manifests. So much of this comes down to being more intentional and practicing gratitude in all that we do. In doing so, we’ll find that in a sense of holiness will pervade our lives more deeply. We’ll find ourselves more able to recognize the ways that God is incarnating within our lives.

That leads to the most central part of this work, prayer. For it is in prayer and reflection that we enable ourselves to notice God birthing around us. And so let us all take the time, through this Christmas Season and beyond if possible, to consider all that we do notice as we remind ourselves of God’s Holy Presence everywhere. In doing so, we’ll help these Holy moments last well beyond the day or even the liturgical season of Christmas. In doing so, we’ll make them part of our entire lives and beyond. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1C.

Written by The Reverend Edwin Johnson

Wrecking Church, Christmas Eve (C) – 2015

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

The late bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, The Right Rev. Thomas Shaw, posted a series of videos on YouTube called “A Monk in the Midst.” He was a brother of the Society of St. John the Evangelist as well as being an Episcopal bishop. He spoke in one of these videos about an encounter he had with a man named Fred and his six-year-old son Sam about what they were going to do on Christmas. The father explained that they would get up and open their presents on Christmas morning and then go to church. The son replied, “Church?! On Christmas? We’re going to go to church on Christmas?” Fred patiently explained, “Of course, that’s what Christmas is all about. It’s about Jesus’ birth and God coming to us.” Sam said, “I know, I know, I know! But Christmas! Church wrecks everything!” The church wrecks everything. Yes, yes it does and tonight we come here to encounter not only the church that wrecks everything, but also the child who was born to wreck everything.

It may sound a bit odd in the face of our culture’s approach to Christmas and even disquieting in an age where terrorism dominates the news cycle. But we dare not forget the scandal of both the cradle and the cross and be lulled by the culture’s attempts to sentimentalize Christmas. We all do it and to be honest, it even happens in the church.

Think for a moment about how our own hymnody conspires to tame this feast day into something more palatable and … dare we even say … nice. Consider the opening of the beloved carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” Lovely words from Phillips Brooks but if we think about the tumultuous history of the Middle East, imaging Bethlehem as peaceful more expresses a longing than an historical reality. And what about Away In A Manger telling us, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?” No crying? Any nurse or doctor would call that a zero on the Apgar score and would start resuscitation attempts immediately. Seriously, these images may just be conspiring to sentimentalize the scandal of Christmas.

What about those emotional expectations of the holidays? You know, those happy family get-togethers that often don’t turn out so great or the longing for an estranged relationship to magically get better and be resolved in some kind of Christmas miracle. Of course, there’s the cultural pressure to over consume. Whether it’s going overboard with buying presents and dreading the credit card bill in January or over-eating and drinking and dreading what the scale will tell you in January. Between sentimentality, emotional burdens, and unrealistic cultural expectations, perhaps we need this child of God to wreck what we’ve made of Christmas.

The reality is we come together this night to pay honor to the one who came to wreck all of that, the one who came to wreck everything! This child’s birth was the plan of a subversive God who snuck into the back door of history on a mission to wreck everything. Coming as one of us – vulnerable, poor, and powerless – he came to upend the world as we have constructed it.

He came to wreck our selfishness and narcissism, so that we might be able to love God and others and to receive that love in return. He came to wreck our fear of death, so that we might be able to live more fully and freely in this life. He came to wreck the political systems which choose who is in and who is out, so that all of God’s children would be included in the kingdom. He came to break down our tendency of tribalism pitting one group against another. Oh yes, we still organize ourselves into tribes; we just call them political parties, ethnic groups, or faith traditions now. He came to break down our economy of values to build a different one based on valuing the eternal rather than things that pass away. He came to break down our ideas of family to embrace a wider vision of God’s family, which includes all people, not just the ones like us. Yes, he came to wreck every structure we try to build which puts us first at the expense of everyone else. As he would later tell his followers, he came not to be served but to serve. And he calls us to follow in his path.

This is no small thing. For 2000 plus years, people have come together to mark the birth of Christ as God’s subversive way of dwelling among us and wrecking everything for the sake of bringing about something greater than we could ask for or imagine. To mark a vision of the kingdom of God unfolding right here in our midst regardless of our fears or of the conflict we may be experiencing. May this holy child, this holy one man wrecking crew, disrupt your life this season so that he might plant the grace of God in your heart and you may come to know Christ’s love. 

Download the sermon for Christmas Eve C.

Written by The Reverend Anjel Scarborough
The Reverend Anjel Scarborough is the rector of Grace Church, Brunswick MD. She is wife, mother, iconographer, writer and retreat leader.

People of the Incarnation, Christmas Day (C) – 2015

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

 Light has sprung up for the righteous, and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted! Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, and give thanks to God’s holy name! (Psalm 97)

Christmas Day in our churches has a different kind of light than Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is all stars and brightness, angels and adoration and Glory to God in the Highest! Christmas Day is quieter. In the December morning light, we’re left with the holy family after the angels and shepherds have departed. We’re left with Mary, to treasure all that has occurred and ponder in our hearts. Everything has changed. Quite literally, the incarnation of Jesus Christ has changed everything.

In the encounter of the angels and the shepherds, we’ve witnessed a coming together of heaven and earth, joining Joseph and Mary to witness a miracle. This miracle is more than an encounter between human and divine, such as Mary experienced in the Annunciation or the shepherds experienced in the appearance of the angel. In the infant Jesus, the boundaries between heaven and earth have dissolved. By Christ’s incarnation – his life as a human being among other human beings – the divine crossed into the human realm.

Over and over again in the gospels, in the witness of the life and words of Jesus Christ, we encounter this intersection of human and divine, until his death and resurrection when the man Jesus crosses into the divine realm. Birth and death are threshold events for us as mortal beings, crossing between earthly and eternal life. But in Jesus, it’s not a question of crossing back and forth. It’s a question of being both at once, a unity of the human and the divine for all eternity. A very big idea: eternity. Yet made concrete in a newborn child. This is the miracle that we ponder with Mary on this Christmas Day.

We might ponder the reason for the miracle. Why? What is the purpose of this miracle of incarnation?

Prophets and theologians have pondered this for millennia. In today’s readings, both Isaiah and Paul speak of salvation. Isaiah proclaims, “See, your salvation comes.” Paul writes in the letter to Titus, “When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.”

What is salvation exactly? Salvation can be defined as deliverance from sin and sin’s consequences. For the ancient Hebrews, salvation was deliverance from exile in Egypt, and later from Babylon into the Promised Land. For Christians through the millennia, salvation has been embodied in Jesus Christ who brought the kingdom of God to earth and who will ultimately, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and God’s kingdom will have no end.”

Anglican theologians have pondered the incarnation too, of course. For William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, the incarnation was significant because God left heaven and entered the course of human history to be an example for human life. Temple’s social ethics and his entire worldview follow from this theological understanding of the incarnation. Temple believed and expected that because of the incarnation, social transformation is both needed and possible. That it is the church’s right and duty to call for social change and that the church must play a role in public life. The incarnation impacts our lives. Because of the incarnation we are called to build the kingdom of God on earth. We are called to love and serve those in need. Salvation here and now – salvation in history – is achieved by faith and our actions. The church has a role to play in attaining salvation. Temple wrote, “The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing social order at any time is in conflict with them. It must then pass on to Christian citizens acting in their civic capacity, the task of re-shaping the existing order in closer conformity to the principles.”

Twentieth-century Anglican laywoman and mystic Evelyn Underhill was also deeply committed to the theology of the incarnation. She writes about “continuing incarnation,” offering our lives as a means for achieving the kingdom, God’s work on earth, by weaving together our inner and outer lives through prayer and action.

So, what then are the implications of the incarnation for the mission of the church here and now? Let us ponder with Mary on the morning of Christ’s birth. The incarnate Christ was both God and human. As we human beings seek to become united with God through prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, let us also seek to become united with our fellow human beings through community and action in community. Salvation is achieved through faith and our actions. We are called to remember the poor and the oppressed, the weak, the weary, the prisoners, the homeless, and the displaced.

We can’t all do everything, but at least each one of us can do something about one particular agony in the world. We can take one step outside of the circle of the familiar towards knowledge and reconciliation with the unfamiliar. We can love God in Christ Jesus by loving our neighbors, crossing the street and meeting a stranger. Even better, you can take the hand of someone in your church community and cross the street together. And then join in community and offer openhearted hospitality to a stranger’s community.

As individuals and as the Church – the body of Christ – we are called to build the kingdom of Heaven on earth. The apostle Paul tells us that the kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The prophet Micah tells us that all God requires of us is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. We are called to pray, to faithfully reflect on our responsibility to God and our neighbor, and to act for justice and reconciliation. We are called to participate in Christ’s rescuing mission in the world. Let us commit to being people of the incarnation. Let us go forth into the world to love and serve with gladness and singleness of heart, looking for the opportunity to do the work of God on earth. As we leave church on this Christmas morning, let us accept the invitation to ponder a step toward bringing the kingdom of God to earth. What one particular agony in your world, community, neighborhood, or family can you do something about today?

Let us pray. Gracious God, grant that we may be travelers like Joseph and Mary, searching for a place for God to rest in love. Grant that we may be messengers like the angel of the Lord, bringing good news of great joy to all the people. Grant that we may be worshippers like the heavenly host, praising God and saying glory to God in the highest heaven. Grant that we may be believers like the shepherds, hastening to witness a miracle. Grant that we may be contemplative as Mary, pondering the meaning of the incarnation in our hearts. Grant that we may have the temerity to risk offering our lives as a means to do God’s work on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day C.

Written by Susan Butterworth
Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.  

An invitation to intimacy with God, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2013

January 1, 2013

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

When we think about January 1st, usually, what comes to mind isn’t the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus – also know as the Feast of the Circumcision. Nonetheless, today was the Feast of the Holy Name long before it became New Year’s Day. In fact, January 1 has only been called “New Year’s Day” since 1752. Before then, for more than a thousand years, we observed March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, as the beginning of the year.

At the same time, finding some significance in the ceremony by which every Jewish male was formally given his name eight days after he was born is a bit trickier than putting up the new calendar. It’s tempting to see the whole thing as just odd; and to ask, with Romeo, “What’s in a name?” The answer, as Romeo himself found out none too happily, is that there’s a great deal in a name, and that names are pretty special things.

This may be easier to get at when we start with ourselves and our own names, and the names of people around us. After all, we not only have a name, we have quite a few of them: We have first names, and middle names, and last names and titles; many of us have married names, maiden names, nicknames, pet names, and those other names we would rather forget. And which of those names we use and the way they are used says a lot.

For example, one male priest described his family’s reaction when he was first ordained; his brothers and sisters had a ball talking about “my brother, the father,” or one sister who still sometimes calls him “Father brother.” Which is all good fun, but imagine what it would mean if he actually insisted that his brothers and sisters address him only as “father.” It would not only be weird, but also hurtful, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, he’d be saying something harsh about his relationship to them, since the names we use acknowledge and express our relationships. And second, since his name is a sort of key to who he is, insisting on a title instead of a name would be a way of hiding the real him, his personal self, from his family.

The opposite thing is going on when some 16-year-old smart aleck working in a fast-food restaurant insists on calling customers by their first names. And we all know plenty of other examples of that sort of thing.

What’s happening in all of these cases is a sort of dishonesty. These are times when names – which do turn out to matter quite a bit – get used in ways that don’t properly acknowledge and express the relationships that in fact exist; and so, an important insight into who we are and what we are about is being misused – and something false is implied.

Now, with all of this in mind, we can look at another name, the name of God the Father. Remember, God the Father has a specific name – a name he revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Depending on what translation we’re using, both the reading from Numbers and the psalm make this point more or less clearly. Both readings include God’s name, Yahweh, which is sometimes translated as “THE LORD” in capital letters. Yahweh is probably the way that the proper name of God was pronounced when it was spoken in Hebrew, but there’s some debate about that.

About 600 years before Jesus was born, and well after today’s readings from Numbers and the psalm were written, the divine name, the name God gave Moses, was not spoken in Israel, so attempts to re-create how it sounded have led to a variety of conclusions.

The name of God was not spoken, in part to keep it from being profaned – you couldn’t take the name of God in vain if you didn’t say it – but on an even deeper level, not speaking God’s name says something very important about how Israel had come to understand God, and Israel’s relationship to God.

The name of God was not spoken – and at the same time Israel came more and more to understand God as distant, as apart from his people.

In other words, Israel was no longer on a first-name basis with God; and this lack of the use of God’s name was both a way of expressing and of constituting this new, and more distant, relationship, and of removing from Israel an important key to God’s immediate presence.

This is why the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is truly important; and why it belongs right next to Christmas.

The point here is not that we’re celebrating the fact that Jesus was named “Jesus” instead of, say, “Floyd” or “George.” Instead, today we celebrate the fact that God has again spoken his name to his people – and not just as a word, but as the Word made flesh.

God has spoken his name to us as a person. Eight days after Christmas, God again gave us his name, this time with a force, a potency and a significance that overshadows Sinai, and for us, supersedes whatever Moses was told on the mountain.

For in speaking his name as “Jesus,” God has changed forever his relationship to us – from the studied formality of a name too holy to speak to the special intimacy that is implied by being on a first-name basis at its best – and more.

It’s not that in the name “Jesus” we have some kind of magic word, a sort of verbal talisman we can wave around and make things happen. That’s not it all. That’s superstitious magic. Instead, God has given us the fullness of what is only hinted at in our own names. We have been given the gift of a new relationship with God, a first-name relationship that is more intimate than casual, more immediate than informal.

And with that comes an invitation; an invitation to intimacy with God – to intimacy with all of the power, the love and the inherent connection to all of creation that are parts of who God is. Remember, the name of Jesus is the name of God the Son, and it is in the person, the whole person, of Jesus Christ that we see and know most clearly and most completely who God is, and what God is about as far as we are concerned.

So we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus for the same reason we celebrate Christmas: the promises to Mary and Joseph and Israel have been fulfilled, a virgin did conceive and bear a son, and his name most certainly means that God is with us. It is the name that is above every other name, and – in joy and thanksgiving – at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

The Word, the logos, the Christ, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2012

December 30, 2012

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

Love Christmas. Love this Gospel. For this is John’s Christmas story. Or perhaps it makes more sense to say that this is John’s version of the Incarnation. No shepherds, no star, no kings, no Bethlehem, no manger, no Joseph and no Mary. Had John been Rogers and Hammerstein, he would have started his version of the good news of Jesus with the words, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

And so we are transported way back to the beginning of time. To before the beginning of time. Before anything at all was created, before the world began, the Word, the logos, the Christ, was with God and was God.

Was God. In the beginning, the Word was God. Astonishing! We are meant to be astonished. We are meant to be hushed. All our fumbling theologizing about Christmas and the Incarnation is silenced by this pushing back of the story to the very beginning of all things.

For the very next thing we are told is that “all things were made through him.” That would be as in all things, everything and every one. Simply breathtaking.

Which would explain everything about who we are. We are those people who have promised, and continually promise over and over again, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Not some people, not most people, but all persons.

Most unfortunate, this good news John is proclaiming at the outset of the fourth gospel. Unfortunate because very often we do not want to recognize the Word, the logos, the Christ, in all persons. There are some persons we might not want to be of Christ so as not to have to serve them!

So we might not wish John had started at the very beginning. The beginning is not a very good place to start at all. It is hugely inconvenient to start there because it leads to all this seeking and serving of persons, quite frankly, we just would rather not seek and serve.

Christmas is so much easier if you just stick to the nativity scene and think about cuddly sheep, and a cow in the background, and hay in the manger, and shepherds falling all over themselves with excitement like so many children under the Christmas tree, which, just as inconveniently, does not seem to be a part of the story.

Until you get to the part about light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Martin Luther is said to have lit the first Christmas tree with candles so as to make it look like the stars in the sky!

Now when you light a candle, you tap into an ancient and nearly never-ending cycle of life-giving energy. The chemical energy of photosynthesis in plants is passed up the food chain, for instance, to grazing cattle and then on to tallow in a candle. As Roger Highfield, in his book “The Physics of Christmas,” explains,  when the candle is lit in the gloomiest of nights, it releases “cryptic sunlight” and returns the complex fat or wax molecules to the form in which the plants found it in the first place – water and carbon dioxide that can be incorporated into living things all over again.

And here’s the kicker: the Word, the logos, the Christ is in all of that. The logos is in the photosynthesis and the cryptic sunlight. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Oh, my. That no doubt includes fruitcakes, that awful necktie from Uncle Joseph and every one of the Pittsburgh Steelers in town for one day only to make or break the Ravens’ season.

This is more complicated than Christmas ought to be. But here it is, in black and white, Christmas as seen through the eyes of the fourth gospel, John. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … and from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.”

“Dwelt” means something like “pitched his tent” among us. This means that when we pick up our tent stakes and move on, the Word can pull up and travel with us. And the fullness of this Word from which all life, all things, all light doth proceed, is shared with us all. As in “all.” Not some, not a lot, but like creation itself, all persons and all things receive this grace. Have received this grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”

So here in this corner is the Word, and all that he has done since before time, in time and beyond time. And in the other corner is John, the man who was a lampstand. “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”

So now, maybe we could do that, too. We could bear witness to the light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. Maybe we could be like John and be a lampstand from which this light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning can shine forth. Think here of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Think Bilbo Baggins, Frodo and Sam, think Gandalf and Aragorn, think Pippin and Merry, think, yes, even Boromir and Gollum.

We might ask, which character in “The Lord of the Rings” is most Christ-like? But then, that would be the wrong question. Each character of Middle Earth fighting the forces of darkness carries something of the light, the logos and the Christ within them. All together they are the body of Christ. Alone, none of them can get the job done, move history and the world forward. Together the world is saved. Changed, but saved.

This is what we are called to be and do: bear witness to the light and do all in our power to help others do so as well. This is best done by seeking and serving Christ, the Word, the logos, in all persons, everywhere, at all times.

None of us can be Christ-like unto ourselves. Yet, we each carry some particular Christ-like characteristic. We each carry a piece of the light. All together we can make up a Christ-like community. That is why, when we baptize new members of the Body of Christ, the whole body is changed and made new. That is why it is so important to take the promises we make seriously. Especially the promise to do all in our power to support one another in our lives in Christ. Because the piece of Christ that I need is the piece you have, and the piece you need is the piece I have. Together we can strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are the body of Christ.

Together we make up the mosaic that is the Word, the logos, the Christ, for the world. Merry Christmas! God bless us every one. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland, where he teaches World Religions and IB English. His sermons are archived atwww.perechief.blogspot.com.

Finding our way in the dark, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2012

Finding our way in the dark

December 25, 2012

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

Have you ever stumbled in the dark? Better yet, have you ever had to do something without the benefit of adequate light? Not only is it difficult, we have a higher chance of messing up or injuring ourselves. (Remember the last time you stubbed your toe moving going to the bathroom or kitchen in the middle of the night?) Most often we feel comfortable enough making the attempt to move through the darkness in familiar surroundings, because we are accustomed to where things are and we feel safe while in our homes and offices.

Most of us aren’t so adventurous or courageous when we are in a place with which we are unfamiliar; yet doesn’t it seem that life is a lot like that? We are often asked to move into the inky darkness of life, in ways that are not so much different than our stumbling through our houses late at night. But even as we think about how difficult it is to navigate without adequate light, we are rarely, if ever, in complete darkness. Whether we live in urban or rural areas, even without our personal lights on, we are never in complete darkness. Even when we are far away from so-called civilization, away from man-made light, even without the moon, under a cloudy sky, there is still some ambient light that allows us to see something.

In many ways, that is what the Nativity of Christ is all about – finding our way in the twilight to that place where and that time when God’s glory breaks forth and floods our lives, and the world. God’s light, shining through the infant ruler, Jesus, is the light that, even in its brilliance, helps us to see more clearly. The shepherds, Mary and Joseph and maybe even the angels, did not know what to expect. The shepherds were treated to a heavenly concert that they hadn’t even bought tickets for. Mary and Joseph just wanted to do their civic duty – be counted and pay their taxes – and to have their child born safely and healthy. The angels were bringing the message that they were given, but no one really knew what was going to happen or even what the outcome would be. They were all stumbling through the dark, trying their best to do what they needed to do, but with just enough light, just enough information to give them some measure of courage to continue to move forward.

They all continued with the hope that the end of this leg of their journey would make a difference. They trusted that, even without all of the details, they were going to experience something wonderful.

Friends, we have seen the savior in many ways and through many people. Some have even heard the angel’s message and their song:

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

We know the end of the story, we know the baby, where he was born and what he was born to do. We don’t have to fear the times when we have to stumble through the darkness – Christ’s light is so bright that even when we are traveling through deep valleys and languishing in the darkness of a closed building or room, if we can get continue to move toward a place where we can get out and look forward, we will see the light increasing and our way brighter and more sure.

Remember, on this day and throughout the days of this Christmas and Epiphany season, that we need not stumble for long in the darkness, because the Light has come.

Remember the words of Hymn 91:

“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning. Ye shepherds shrink not with afright, but heed the angels warning. This child now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be. The power of Satan, breaking. Our peace eternal, making.”

 

— The Rev. Lawrence Womack is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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.