Homily for Christmas Day, December 25, 2014
It’s Christmas! After all the various expressions of Christmas we experience from “Boxing Week” sales in November to the Grinch to Black Christmas to Bad Santa, it’s nice to finally be able to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the context of Christian faith, hope and love. These next 12 days – this time between Christmas Day and Epiphany – have always been a time to rejoice in the beautiful presence of God in Christ, in the particularly endearing form of the baby Jesus.
“In the beginning was the Word . . .”
This is not history – this is not what might be called a strictly factual account (if there ever is such a thing!). John certainly wasn’t there 14 or 16 billion years ago to observe any of this. It is more of an expression of mystical theology. Enlightened by the Spirit, John has provided us with a deep spiritual insight into the inner nature of God.
Christmas proclaims the virtually unbelievable concept of the divine becoming human. It seems to be human nature to look instead for the gap between ourselves and what is good or ideal, but at Christmas time Christianity sends the message that the Divine has come to be in the human: God with us; the kingdom in us. Because of the Incarnation, there is no gap between ourselves and God unless we choose to put it there.
As in the beginning, God looks at the world and declares that with the advent of a new humanity, the world is not just good, but “very good.” The Word that is spoken is one of blessing and affirmation and approval – words that we need to hear from God, and also from those who have important places in our lives.
In Jesus, the Beloved, something divine was embodied, walked around among us, breathed air, had feelings, saw human life from the inside and was fully human. I like to assume he lived 100% into his human life, which may explain the miracles, the cosmic vision, the amazing compassion, the incredible courage and the willingness to sacrifice a life so perfect and beautiful for the sake of those whose lives are anything but.
“In the beginning was the Word . . .” The Word, or Logos, is a Greek word John chose to use in order to communicate something about this phenomenon, to say that through Jesus, God was speaking, communicating, connecting — that what God is, the Word is. The Word brings the life and the reality of God into the midst of human life.
What we saw in Jesus was an element in the being of God right from the beginning. The Christ is not some kind of invention by God, or some other entity that acts separately from God, but rather an expression or aspect of God’s one being, experienced and becoming known in a new and distinct way.
“You’re not using the right words!” Religious people get so caught up in trying to define the ineffable! It’s what happens when we try to make spiritual things political or merely institutional. There has been an unfortunate tendency by people of many religions not only to name, but to claim, realities which cannot possibly belong to anyone – to somehow believe that we can own or control not only the rights to the story but the essence of the story itself – the reality that the story describes – which to me is worse than those people already trying to establish ownership of Mars.
The point being that, if he is the One whom people like John and the apostles believed him to be, there are no right words, there is no adequate language, to describe what he is – as there are no adequate words to describe and define God. We do our best, but in the admission and recognition that it’s all provisional, an approximation at best.
It’s amazing, given that Jesus is described as being the Word, that is, a means of communication, how much semantics and language and personal prejudice have gotten in the way and actually prevented a deeper understanding of God, which is what John is trying to convey when he says: “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our* joy may be complete” (from I John 1). So many of the efforts of religious people seem designed (or destined) to thwart such fellowship.
What we see in Jesus is the love of God. The Christ, as we call this aspect of God, is the compassionate, forgiving, redeeming, tender side of God, given its highest human expression in the person of Jesus, but also present in many others – certainly the great saints who have opened themselves fully to this overwhelming love, but also to ordinary people willing to open their minds and hearts to the Spirit. As it is said, he was only the firstborn of many brothers and sisters (Romans 8: 29) – our prototype, as it were.
The essence of that is expressed in the famous line from John 3: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
It can take a while for something of this magnitude to sink in. Many people burst into tears, well into adulthood, at the awareness of the love someone has for them. How much more so, how much more moving and momentous, when we realize the love of God for us!
In the first reading today from Isaiah, we see the scriptures speaking of this realization of God’s blessing and presence by using an analogy of a victorious army exulting in the plunder left on the field after a battle. Relieved after the stress of battle, after not knowing they would even survive the ordeal, there is intense jubilation in having prevailed and then having this treasure trove of free stuff to choose from as a reward. We might think of children ripping eagerly through Christmas presents on Christmas morning, overjoyed to discover what’s under the tree for them. Through analogies, we can attempt to approximate the ecstasy, the jubilation, of these moments of God’s blessing and presence, but there really is no joy like this – there really are no adequate analogies for being in the presence of God.
It took me three trips to Disneyworld before I finally “got it” the third time there. In much the same way, it can be hard to get these messages through to people in our time, because living in a secular culture makes us skeptical and closed to many of life’s mysteries and joys. And certainly today, in the face of this profound Gospel, we are dealing with a mystery that exceeds our capacity to comprehend on any conventional level.
We pray today for openness to receive the Word: the openness that allowed Mary to accept a strange pregnancy as a divine gift and as her mission in life; the openness that allowed Joseph to stand beside a woman who would have been shamed and subject to death by stoning, and for the openness that allowed Joseph to hear God’s Word being communicated by a dream; as well as the openness of people like Simeon, Anna, and John the Baptist, who waited and witnessed.
All kinds of people testified to the life of Jesus, and the fact that so many deeply spiritual, respectable, intelligent, articulate people were at a loss for words to describe the extent of his greatness, is in itself a sign of authenticity about the unique nature of Jesus. We do not in any ordinary circumstances start calling people Messiah, Lord, or Son of God. The kind of people who want those terms applied to them are typically mentally ill, megalomaniacs, televangelists, etc. Jesus was none of these.
We celebrate today the entry into human life of a completely new dimension, believing that the birth of Jesus has not only revealed something essential and formerly hidden about the nature of God, but has profoundly changed human nature and destiny.
Thanks be to God for revealing the Way, the Truth and the Life in the person of Jesus. This is the Good News of Christmas, and without it, nothing else we are celebrating really matters.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 9: 2—7 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
John 1: 1—14 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. 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. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 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. 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.