Welcome to the 6th day of Christmas!
In my opinion one of the great blessings of the Episcopal Church is to celebrate all 12 days of this wonderful season. This gives us a chance to settle into the significance of the holiday. The pomp and circumstance is mostly over and with that the anxiety that is often partner to the pageantry. We have experienced beautiful poetry, beautiful music, beautiful flowers and beautiful colors. It has been a feast to delight all our senses. And now, we have these days of more relative peace and quiet to reflect on what meaning Jesus’ birth celebration has for us this year. A part of our reflection includes experiencing the familiar carols and biblical stories that tell of Jesus’ birth. And a part of our reflection includes remembering past Christmases and the joys and challenges they held. We each have our favorite ways to keep the season and so, our Christmas 2018 is blended with those memories of the past.
One of my best memories of Christmas is reading this morning’s gospel. It is probably my all-time favorite passage from the Bible and I am always grateful to be able to read it on this first Sunday of Christmas each year. On Christmas Eve, we heard Luke’s account with the animals and angels and today we hear from John. These verses, the prologue of John’s gospel, are poetry that is meant to be voiced aloud. What this poetry tells us is the essence of the story of Christmas. And in fact, I believe that this short passage contains the message of the entire New Testament. So, bear with me for a few minutes as I talk about it. If you prefer on this sixth day of Christmas to let your mind wander to your favorite memories of this season, go right ahead!
This passage begins by talking about the word of God. Words are a major way of communication. We are surrounded by words, both the written and spoken. There are books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, texts, tweets and all other sorts of electronic communication. Words are important and seem to be everywhere, at least in my world. In fact we all are surrounded by words in this day and time. We spend much of our time each day speaking and listening, reading and writing words. Words entertain us, teach us, and most importantly connect us to others in our world. We seek to make these connections and to develop our relationships with others primarily through communicating in words.
As a young girl my love of words and more specifically, reading them, was fostered most especially by my paternal grandmother, my granny. Granny read to me continually as a young child and for each gift occasion I would receive a book from her in addition to whatever else she might give. I learned from an early age the joy of words.
However, from my granny I also learned another way of communicating, without words. As a young child this was through hugs and special hand squeezes. When I was 12, my granny had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak for the rest of her life—for 18 more years. She had one spoken word and that word was No. Now that one word could mean a variety of things. If she said it loudly it meant no. However if she said it softly it meant yes. Her one word was “no” but her ability to communicate was much more. She spoke with her eyes, her hands, with her smiles and tears. Our connection was strong and remained so. Most often our communication was at a deep level without using any words.
I tell you this as a background to one of my own personal Christmas memories. For our oldest child’s first Christmas I took him to visit his great granny. He was almost one year old at the time.
She loved to see him and would play peek-a-boo while I held him. This time though she wanted to hold him herself and kept indicating to me to leave him to her. And so I did. I handed him over and began to do something else nearby. When I looked back at the two of them they were laughing together. The first letter of her one word “no” had transformed on that occasion to an “h” and she was saying Ho Ho HO as she hugged him tightly to wish him love and a merry first Christmas.
There is a communication of love that comes through with or without words and this communication of love is what this morning’s powerful gospel is about.
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.
Before the existence of anything but God, God is already love. God is relationship. God’s very nature is giving and receiving, love that flows out and love that returns. God has been trying to communicate this truth with humans ever since we were created. God’s word came to us first through his prophets and his law. Yet we did not understand the message he was sending us. We either ignored or did not comprehend the words he gave to us through his messengers. And so God chose to send his message of love to us in a different way. He gets our attention by sending his Son. He sent his son not to bring the message but as the message himself. The message of God’s love comes to us as a living and breathing human being. A human who could smile and cry, who could touch and comfort, who could be physically present.
God wants to share himself with us. God wants us to experience and live the love that he is. So the birth of Jesus, the incarnation, is the climax of God’s continuous communication of love.
“The word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Those nine words summarize the gospel.
If you were here on Christmas Eve you heard this gospel read by the celebrant and at this sentence the altar party genuflected. We went down on one knee to acknowledge the depth of meaning in this one sentence. Our Lord took on flesh and blood and came to us bringing in his being the love of God. The word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This is the essence of the good news, the entire gospel. And it is that God came among us, not only to be one of us but also to be one with us.
Through this ultimate expression of God’s word in human flesh, we are drawn into dialogue with God both receiving and responding to his love. God’s very being is relational love. And the love that he pours out into the world is to bring us into that relationship of love. This is the core of the incarnation.
Now admittedly this mystery of God coming to us might be more than a bit frightening or overwhelming or difficult to comprehend. So let’s think for a moment about how God came to us. Was it with a lot of fanfare and flashing lightening or loud thunder?
No, it was not. God entered into the world in the same way as all human beings. God came as a baby, a vulnerable baby who, as all babies do, needed care and tending. Jesus needed to be fed and changed and washed and nurtured as do all babies. God’s most important message of love came to us as a tiny child. Each of us has some understanding of holding and smiling and making sounds and keeping a young one comfortable to allow the love and the child to grow. And this is how God chose to send us his word. Think of my Granny and her wat if communicating with her great grandson. We can do this. We can recognize the life God offers to each one of us. We can approach God’s love in a gentle way and allow it to grow in us. We are invited into relationship with God through the incarnation.
John also tells us in the passage this morning that God does not force a response from us to his gift of ultimate Love. We have to choose. We can turn away from this great gift, from this light. We can choose darkness, darkness that represents evil and hopelessness and ultimately spiritual death. We can choose that or we can accept the gift that God sends us and live in His love as one of his children. It is given to us and it is for each of us to decide to accept or not.
God’s unchanging nature is love. God desires us, you and me and all of his creation to be part of His love. He beckons us; he invites us to enter into conversation with him, to enter into his love. My prayer for each of us in the year ahead is that we continue to accept and nurture God’s gift of loving relationship with him.
“In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
What for you is the message of Christmas? We certainly hear a lot of messages this time of year. I was on YouTube a few days ago looking at some recent Christmas commercials, and many of them have messages and slogans designed for the season. Some are pretty much what you’d expect: The auto manufacturer Honda targets the Generation X market with an ad suggesting that if as a child, unwrapping a plastic Six Million Dollar Man action figure on Christmas morning made you feel good, you’ll feel way better now if you buy yourself a $30,000 car. In a spot set aboard the International Space Station, Macy’s tells us to Believe in the Wonder of Giving. Apple hits a similar tone with a Pixar-inspired story that urges us: Share Your Gifts.
Amazon shows us an ever-growing army of sentient Prime packages spreading all over the world, singing over and over “Can you feel it? Can you feel it?” The main thing I feel there is a little threatened by the reach of the Amazon Industrial Complex. If you saw the satirical version of the ad that replaced the holiday soundtrack with the ominous theme to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, maybe you do too. Can you feel it?
“It was a real wake-up call.” In my years as a priest, countless people have spoken that sentence to me. Sometimes it was in reference to a personal health scare, or the unexpected death of a loved one. In 2008 it was people watching their retirement accounts tumble during the financial crisis; in 2001 it was the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Whatever it was, it made people see things differently – they started to read the Bible, or began exercising regularly, or started learning how to pray, or called their friends more frequently – and they all referred to it the same way: a real wake-up call.
The prophet Malachi, whose words from the very end of the Old Testament we read this morning, is an example of a person who is living after a real wake-up call. Broadly speaking, the whole spiritual history of the people Israel falls into two parts, before everything fell apart and after everything fell apart. The crisis came in 587 BC, when the country they had thought God gave them forever was conquered and plundered by an army from Babylon. The Temple they had seen as a permanent guarantee of God’s approval was razed to the ground, the routines and values they had taken as God’s eternal instructions were robbed from them, and they were carted away as prisoners, leaving the ruins of their beloved holy city to be re-colonized by foreigners.