Today is the fifth day of Christmas and the frenzy of Christmas has settled. No more pageant, no more incense, no more thinking ahead to the big dinner, or last minute presents to wrap. The stimulation, of all the people and paper and stuff being everywhere, has paused. For many of us, we have been so busy “doing” Christmas that we may not have had the time to experience it or to reflect on what it means. And then in the liturgical year we are given the space of these twelve days to actually do that. And that is one of our opportunities this morning.
The Christmas season is one filled with memories, mostly good memories though occasionally sad ones too. We remember favorite carols and favorite holiday foods. Perhaps we remember favorite gifts through the years and certainly favorite people with whom we have shared Christmases past. This reflection is a way to experience and re-experience the love that Christmas brings. And human love and human kindness is a reflection of God’s love. We hold these experiences in our hearts year after year as a part of our understanding of God’s all-encompassing love. The season is filled with remembrances of love, how we are loved and how we have loved.
Let’s take a few moments this morning to reflect on the origin of that love and how we can grow in our understanding of the depth of God’s love for us.
In the past few days in the church we have heard the story of Jesus’ birth from St. Luke with the baby lying in the manger and animals all around. We have heard the story of Jesus’ approaching birth from Joseph’s perspective courtesy of St. Matthew.
Then in the gospel today, which in my opinion is one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, St. John tells the story of Jesus’ coming into the world. John’s story is told the without physical details of what happened. In fact, if this were only version of the incarnation, we would not have the familiar stories of angels and shepherds and an inn and all the rest. Instead John focuses on the meaning of the event, the meaning of God coming to be with all humanity. “The word became flesh and lived among us, bringing us grace upon grace.”
What always was, even before creation, has now become flesh and lived with us. Hearing these poetic words is a delight that does not fade and remembering the depth of the love God has for us is the true joy of not only this season but in all seasons and all times of our lives. Today is a day to reflect on the ultimate truth the incarnation of God’s son brings. Human beings throughout time are loved; we are loved by God. We are loved so much that the mystery of God has taken on a human face. We have been given the gift of God with us in the person of Jesus.
Throughout time the events and meaning of Christmas has been expressed through the arts: glorious music, beautiful paintings, poetry and more. Twelve days are too short to reflect on them all and yet the underlying message in all of them is the love of God coming to us through his son.
I want to talk about one particular painting this morning that I ask you to visualize. If you go on-line you can actually see it but for now I will describe it. It is a Rembrandt painting titled “Holy Family”. In it Rembrandt has brought Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus into the 17th century. The painting is a room in a typical Dutch house of Rembrandt’s time. The clothing that Mary and Joseph wear is also of that time and place. This is a family scene with a young woman, an older man, and an infant. In the center, the woman is seated next to the cradle with the infant in it, while the man planes a piece of wood at his tool bench in the background.
Perhaps a clue that this is a nativity scene is Joseph doing his craft of woodworking. But to make it totally clear there are cherubim with wings outstretched in the upper corner of the painting. And the infant, the young woman’s face and the cherubim are brighter than the rest of the picture. They are full of light. This is definitely a nativity scene. The light has come into the world! And with only a bit of thought we can see that this Rembrandt painting tells us the story as presented by John in the morning’s gospel.
In one hand Mary has a book. The book appears well used and worn along the edges and it is open. The book is a Bible, Holy Scripture. Mary’s left hand is holding her place. She has been reading the word of God but has stopped to turn her attention to the baby, checking to see if he is still sleeping. Her right hand rests on the top of the cradle and her face is turned to look at the baby. Her attention has gone from the Bible, the word of God on the page, to the word of God in flesh, her infant son, Jesus.
The painting draws one in as does an icon. The viewer enters into the scene to contemplate the Word of God in scripture and the word of God in person.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
Mary pondered these things, we are told. She reflected on what was going on with her very special infant as she read God’s Holy Scripture. Her attention went from one to the other. Mary’s understanding of scripture deepened from being present with this baby, this holy baby and her understanding of the incarnate word deepened from her reading scripture.
From the painting we understand the word of God learned in two ways, the Word on the page and the word enfleshed, God who has come among us.
And as we encounter this painting of the mystery of God made flesh we can perhaps see ourselves in places in it. We are Mary reading scripture to learn more of God’s presence in our lives. We are Mary tending to the child who is God with us. We are also Joseph, making a living for the child, providing a home and space for him to grow and be nourished. We tend that child too by making space for him in our lives. We grow deeper in our relationship with him by doing the things that Mary and Joseph did. We read the Holy Word; we encounter the living Christ, as we make space for him in our lives, our hand on his cradle, metaphorically speaking. There are different ways to gain understanding of the word of God. Just like Mary in this picture, we go deeper in our knowledge by spending time with the word of God on the page and the word of God in human form.
We encounter Christ in ways that are not represented in the painting but as we contemplate the infant, the “word made flesh”, we can see these places of meeting him. We find Jesus at times in the natural created world, in the sacraments, in prayer, in our families and church community. We may also see him in our friends and colleagues, and especially it seems, in the stranger, and in places we might not expect. God has interesting ways to find us when we take the time to be open to his presence.
Our Christmas reflection will remind us of those times we have encountered the living Jesus Christ, when we have known without a doubt the light of God come into the world.
“The word was made flesh and lived among us” is not just a line of poetry. It is the truth, the all -encompassing truth. God came to us as one of us.
This is incredible enough but there is more. To those who believe, there is more.
Hidden in the gospel today is this verse, not to be overlooked. “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
He gave power to become children of God! You and I are brothers and sisters of that infant Jesus.
So not only can we be in Rembrandt’s painting as Joseph, providing for the infant to have a place to grow, or Mary reading scripture and, tending to her baby, we also are in that cradle next to Jesus as God’s child, God’s beloved child. We are God’s beloved, the very reason that Jesus came to be with us.
There are many images we can use to help us enter the story of the incarnation. I offer you one today but choose your favorite way to consider the meaning of this feast of Christmas. May our different reflections lead us to this common truth; we are God’s beloved children.
Merry 5th day of Christmas, my friends, we still have more days to encounter this wonderful mystery!