Welcome to the 7th day of Christmas! Personally I am so glad we have these twelve days to celebrate our Lord’s birth! Now in the church, as in the season of Advent, we are out of sync with the popular culture. For us, the season of waiting and spiritually preparing has ended and the glorious festivity that began on Dec. 25 continues. While in the culture outside of the church the celebration culminates on Christmas day, for us it does not. I hope that you have had, and are continuing to have, a nice Christmas season spent with friends, family or in quiet moments by yourself. For a brief time this morning, I ask you to reflect on what this celebration is all about. What do we remember and for what do we give thanks in these 12 days of Christmastide? What is the origin and foundation of our joy?
Now I do realize that for some of us, probably more than we might realize, the month of December also brings its moments of sadness; not everything is jovial. Life circumstances may be such that this is not a happy time and our sadness may be deepened by realizing how out of step we are with others around us. So, perhaps today some of us may be in the place to reflect on that sadness and think about the question of what is the root and origin of those feelings too? This particular holiday time holds some bittersweet memories for us all.
Perhaps a place to begin our reflections might be to think about your favorite Christian symbol of the season or perhaps your favorite moment in the Christmastide church services. As you do, I want to look at the various New Testament scriptures about the Incarnation. There are different perspectives on Christ’s birth, depending on the author. Luke’s version is the one heard on Christmas Eve. In it we have the animals, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the shepherds, the angels and a tiny baby. We know this version of the story well, having heard it multiple times and seen it enacted in pageants or in crèche scenes throughout the world. Maybe Luke’s account contains your favorite symbol or moment in the worship.
Luke was an historian of sorts. He wanted to place Jesus’ birth into the world’s events of the time, so he began his account by connecting when the story occurred to other historic people. Luke “name drops” to accomplish this, using phrases like, in the realm of King Herod, a decree from Emperor Augustus, a priest Zechariah, a holy man, Simeon, a prophetess Anna. Luke sets the birth story in a particular time and place.
As he wrote for a gentile audience and was not in the original inner circle of believers, Luke wanted to highlight those characters who were considered outsiders of the time. His version includes the shepherds who were certainly low on the social scale, the animals and the cave or barn where they lived, certainly not a usual maternity ward. Luke told the story from Mary’s point of view, a young, poor female, again someone on the edge of that society. These details, which we know so well, were to emphasize the coming of our Lord to earth on behalf of everyone, especially those who were poor, outcasts or unnoticed in the world.
Matthew’s version includes other details. Matthew himself was a Jew and he wrote for a Jewish audience. His telling of the incarnation gives many details to show how Jesus fulfilled the prophets of the Old Testament. He lists all of Jesus earthly ancestors to place him in the Biblical line. And as a traditional Jewish man, he tells the story from the perspective of Joseph. The story as told by Matthew includes the royal wise men coming from the east to point to Jesus’ kingship.
Put together, these two accounts of Luke and Matthew contain most of the symbols we know from crèche scenes, lawn decorations, and children’s pageants. Perhaps your favorite involves one of these.
Parenthetically, Mark does not have an incarnation story, preferring to begin his Gospel with Jesus as an adult when he began his active ministry.
At the beginning of Advent this year, a local pastor, spiritual advisor and writer, Don Follis, included another Nativity story in his Sunday column. He wrote about the account in the book of Revelations, which describes a cosmic war that started in heaven but ended with a decisive victory won on earth. The three main characters found in Revelations, chapter 12, are a woman, a dragon, and a child. The woman is clothed with the sun and she is standing on the moon. On her head is a crown of twelve stars. The dragon is breathing fire and the child is born and quickly taken to heaven. In this column Pastor Follis says, “I bet you never saw the characters from this story as a part of any lawn décor!”
Well, actually I have! It might come as no surprise to you that in Urbana, yes, in Urbana on one of the state named streets that I go by most often on my way home from Emmanuel there is a large blow up dragon as a part of the holiday array! No kidding. I have seen this dragon several years on this particular lawn. When I would drive by in previous years, I always thought, well that’s a bit odd, perhaps their child really likes dragons, or perhaps they found a good deal on that blow up and just decided to put it out. (By the way, I do not know who owns the house; just that it is not Don Follis!) Well, anyway, for me this dragon has become one of my favorite symbols of Christmas this year. Primarily because it has given me fresh eyes to look at and think about the incarnation! If you want to read Don’s column in which he explains his reasoning on the symbolism of this chapter of Revelations, it is still on-line at the News Gazette under his by-line.
There is one more account of the incarnation in the New Testament and it is the one we heard this morning in the beautiful poetry of John. This is not the first time we have heard this gospel in the season.
It is the text of the final Gospel traditionally read by the celebrant at the end of the Christmas Eve masses. For me it contains my favorite moment in those services with the phrase, “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us”, and the accompanying action of genuflection. My heart skips a beat at this, and so it should! The translation I read this morning said, “The word became flesh and lived among us”, or as our Bishop is fond of quoting Eugene Peterson’s version, “God moved into the neighborhood.”
God took on flesh and blood and came to live with us. And we are in AWE. Absolute awe! Instead of going to one knee if we really comprehend what is said, we should fall on our faces in response! Because in this Christ Child, the sacred is not an abstract concept or some theological idea; rather, the love of God becomes real to us in his birth.
In the incarnation our God, in the person of his son Jesus, comes to know human life from the inside out. Jesus knew first-hand that sometimes our lives are filled with pain and discouragement, despair, and darkness. Jesus lived these same kinds of crises and shows us, gives us, hope in living in His world, His kingdom.
Christ is the Word of God with a face and body of flesh and blood. His life is the very love of God among us. He shows compassion and forgiveness, and calls us to demonstrate the same in a hurting world. He brings us himself, the light that triumphs over our darkness. Life with him is the gift he offers.
In this beautiful gospel passage we know that the Christ, who was from the beginning of creation, becomes flesh and blood to bring God’s love to the world. Is there anything more wonderful?
This is the root, the foundation, the essence of our joy and celebration, throughout the year of course, but most especially during these twelve days. Through Jesus’ birth we see God’s glory! Let our rejoicing continue!