Today is the first Sunday of Christmas. You know that there are 12 days of Christmas, and that those twelve days begin, not end, on Christmas Day. Christmas continues right up to the Feast of the Epiphany—although in many places, Christmas decorations remain in the church until February 2, which is Candlemas, or also the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple. Continue reading
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”
I love the contrast between our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. The early service on Christmas Eve is full of noise and excitement. Last night the church was almost full, with families, and children who were full of anticipation of the presents under the trees back home. They could hardly contain their excitement. Each year, I invite them to come forward and join me at our lovely creche, and I engage them in conversation about the story represented by the creche, and its meaning for our lives and our faith.
Then, at 10:00 pm, there’s a very different mood. Excitement still, but the mood is shaped by the beautiful music provided by the choir, organ, and instrumentalists as people gather in the nave. Both services end in darkness as we sing “Silent Night” with candles lit in a darkened nave. Finally, the bells peal the joyous sounds of celebration and we go out into the darkness, our hearts filled with joy.
Christmas Day is very different. In some years, though not now, we might come to church in the glorious, dazzling light, of sun shining on snow. The brightness of the sun corresponds to the glory of the gospel reading we hear each year, the first verses from John’s gospel.
This gospel reading offers a vivid contrast to the story we read each year on Christmas Eve, Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus. While Luke moves us in panoramic style from the powerful center of the Roman Empire to one of its obscure and distant corners, the village of Bethlehem, as the characters mentioned change from emperors and governors to a pregnant woman and a band of shepherds. The story ends in stillness and quiet, with Mary pondering all that happened and the shepherds returning to their sheep.
John’s gospel begins with an even wider view than Luke’s. Instead of setting the context in the Roman Empire, John expands out even further, to the beginning of time and the origins of the universe. He draws our attention not to how or where Jesus was born, but to the God who created all that is, and the Word through whom everything was created.
John begins with a panoramic view of the universe: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. But from that vast eternal scope, he focuses in on us:
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The incarnation is a great mystery of our faith, something that we should ponder and treasure in our hearts, something we should puzzle over, ponder. More than that. The Word connects us with God because our words, our thoughts are attempts to approach and understand the Word. By thinking, reflecting, struggling to understand the meaning of the Word become flesh, there’s a way in which our thinking itself makes Christ present in our minds and in our lives.
You may find all this very abstract. It is, but John doesn’t stop there. He goes on. The word became flesh and lived among us.
With this verse, John brings us back to Bethlehem, to the reality of the incarnation. Literally the Greek reads, “and the word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” While John likely wants us to think of the tabernacle that was the symbol of God’s presence to the Israelites in the wilderness, it’s also the case that we are to think of Christ being among us, “living among us” in a temporary, make-shift way, like a tent. That is to say, the word took on frail human flesh to be like us.
This paradox, this mystery is quite beyond comprehension. The Word taking human flesh. St. Augustine captures the paradox in one of his sermons on this text for Christmas:
“He so loved us that for our sake He was made man in time, through Whom all times were made; was in the world less in years than His servants, though older than the world itself in His eternity; was made man, Who made man; was created of a mother, whom He created; was carried by hands which He formed; nursed at the breasts which He had filled; cried in the manger in wordless infancy, He the Word without Whom all human eloquence is mute.” — St. Augustine, Sermon 188
John goes a step further. For John, this infant, this tiny human creature, incapable of speech, vulnerable, utterly dependent on others for life itself, this infant reveals God’s glory to us.
So we are back in Bethlehem, back in the confusing paradox that God became incarnate in a very ordinary way, in the poorest of circumstances, in the weakest of all human forms, a baby. And it is in that paradox, that we see God’s glory. For John, it is the same paradox as the cross, which he almost always refers to as the glorification of Christ. What he is telling us is that in these moments of weakness, we see God’s majesty and power.
To see and know Christ, the Word, in the babe in a manger, is to see and know God’s glory. To see and know Christ in the cross, is to see and know God’s glory. To see and know Christ, to taste Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast, is to see and know God’s glory.
May we experience, may we see and know the glory of God today, in our lives, and in the world around us, in the Christ made flesh in a manger and as we kneel at the altar. May we know and believe the mystery of our faith, the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s love for us, today at Christmas, and throughout our lives. Amen.
Familiar carols, a beautifully-decorated church, our excitement and joy at the celebration of Christmas. It’s almost enough to take us away from the troubles in our lives and the troubles in our world—climate catastrophe, impeachment, refugees, endless wars and other conflicts.
Almost, but not quite enough. I was reminded of how very different the Bethlehem of 2019 is from that portrayed in the familiar carol by the nativity scene the artist provocateur Banksy produced this year. He calls it the “Scar of Bethlehem.” It shows Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus huddled in the shadow of the concrete wall that separates the Palestinian from the Israeli sides of the town; the light above the manger provided not by a star but by a hole in the wall made by a mortar shell. Today Bethlehem is hardly a town of peace; it suffers from the violence and terror of occupation and intractable conflict.
Our world, today, a creation groaning from the pains of evil inflicted on it by human greed, carelessness, and neglect; a world suffering from endless conflict; Our nation is deeply divided politically; with the gap between the few haves and the many have-nots widening daily; , the crushing burdens of medical and student debt affecting individuals across the generations; racism, America’s orginal sin continuing; The Church, the Body of Christ is torn apart by political and theological conflict.
In this world, in this place, we gather to celebrate again the coming of God to us, in human form, weak, tiny, vulnerable.
We have heard the familiar story, sung familiar carols and with them are brought out of the present day to our memories of Christmases past, but also, all the way back to that first Christmas. We sing in imitation and echo of the angels’ “Gloria in excelsis!” We come, kneel, and worship as the shepherds did, and if we pause for a moment, empty our minds of everything else that worries us or occupies our thoughts, we may, like Mary ponder all these things and treasure them in our hearts.
But if we ponder too long, we may be reminded of the deep wounds in our lives, in our nation, and in our world. We may grow weary, our hearts may grow cold; our despair deepen. If we ponder too long, we may want to avert our eyes, walk away, overcome by the weight of the world. Our pondering may have us contemplating the abyss, the fear, the helplessness, the hopelessness.
There are other ways to ponder. Luke says that when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and greeted with the words, “Hail, favored one!” Mary was perplexed and pondered. After she learned that she would give birth to the Savior of the world; after she said her “yes” to God, as she reflected on the meaning of these events for her life and for the world, she eventually gave voice to her thoughts in the Magnificat, that great song of praise:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
This powerful, prophetic hymn declares to us the work that God is doing here, tonight, in this place, in our world. It is work that God has been doing for a very long time and will continue to do until the final consummation of all things.
We Christians have domesticated and caricatured this great event. We have turned it first into an occasion of saccharine piety and sweetness that comforts and consoles us but never challenges or unsettles us. And our culture has cooperated with us to create and sustain a consumeristic spree of holiday spending and celebration that has nothing to do with the story we heard, the gospel that was proclaimed, the Word that has become flesh and lives among us.
We see a mother and baby, a loving family caring for its own. Onto that image we project our own images of loving families and see modeled ideals that we may or may not be able to achieve, or even want to achieve. The holy family is surrounded by all manner of figures, lost in wonder and worship. We hear the story, recreate and reimagine them but when we do they lose their power. We think of sweet, docile Mary, accepting her role, modeling her faithful and quiet devotion, ignoring the fierceness of her hymn:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
As I reflected this week, as I read Mary’s hymn against the backdrop of the news, and the great events that occurring in our world, I was drawn to a sermon preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that great German theologian and martyr. In Advent of 1933, as it was becoming clear the direction that Germany would take under Hitler, Bonhoeffer had this to say about the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn:
For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. …
The manger, like the cross, is the place where we see Christ at his weakest, most vulnerable, most human. The manger is the place where we see Christ profoundly, wholly like us.
Yet the manger is where we also see God working out God’s marvelous purposes. We see God, in human flesh, coming to us, meeting us in our weakness and vulnerability. We see God, in human flesh, coming to encounter the poor, powerless, oppressed. We see God meeting refugees and strangers, prisoners, the homeless and hungry. In the manger, at the manger, we see God turning the world upside down, casting down the mighty from their thrones, turning away the rich, scattering the proud. In the manger, we see God bringing about a new world, a new order.
Into our world full of despair, fear, hatred, and evil, God has come. God has come among us as one of us, as the weakest, least powerful. It is mystery and paradox, that the Creator of the world, the Word, through whom all things came to be is now among us, with us, a wordless infant. His presence fills us with hope, and gives us words to speak.
Into our world, into our lives, God comes. Mary sang of God’s coming and of God’s mighty acts; casting down the powerful, sending away the rich, scattering the proud. Her faith proclaimed and sang those mighty acts, although there was little to show for them. Herod ruled, Rome ruled; the poor and the oppressed suffered.
So too, today. Let us proclaim and sing God’s mighty acts, let us declare to the world that Christ’s coming into it means a new world, a new creation. Let us rejoice and sing to the world that Christ’s coming brings hope to the hopeless, freedom to the prisoner, justice to the oppressed. May our hope burn brightly as our voices carry the tune: ”Gloria in Excelsis Deo” Thanks be to God!
The throne of God in the world is set not on the thrones of humankind but in humanity’s deepest abyss, in the manger. There are no flattering courtiers standing around his throne, just some rather dark, unknown, dubious-looking figures, who cannot get enough of looking at this miracle and are quite prepared to live entirely on the mercy of God.
For those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depths of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No one who holds power dares to come near the manger; King Herod also did not dare. For here thrones begin to sway; the powerful fall down, and those who are high are brought low, because God is here with the lowly. Here the rich come to naught, because God is here with the poor and those who hunger. God gives there the hungry plenty to eat, but sends the rich and well-satisfied away empty. Before the maidservant Mary, before Christ’s manger, before God among the lowly, the strong find themselves falling; here they have no rights, no hope, but instead find judgment.
From a sermon preached in London, the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 1933
As I grow older, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to make keep up with all the changes in popular culture.
That sentence could be the lede for an almost infinite number of examples..
In this case though, I’m thinking of the Hallmark Channel, of which I was only vaguely aware. I learned this fall that from approximately Halloween to New Year’s Day, there’s an endless stream of Christmas movies; and that on Friday nights throughout the year, Hallmark shows holiday-themed movies. Apparently other channels have followed suit. With good reason. Apparently Hallmark’s programming is so successful that for the fourth quarter last year, it was the most popular channel among women aged 19-54.
other channels have followed suit. Apparently, this programming is so successful that Hallmark wins the ratings war for the final quarter of the year with the key demographic of women 19-54. Continue reading
Last week we saw John the Baptizer at the height of his power and career. Crowds were coming to see him and to be baptized by him. Even the movers and shakers were coming—the Pharisees and the Sadducees. How do think he was feeling as he saw the response to his preaching, the adoring crowds and the changed lives. As evidence of his power, we hear him attacking the religious insiders with language of great drama and violence.
Now, some weeks or months have passed and John is in a very different position. Herod had arrested him because John had criticized him for marrying Herodias, his brother Phillip’s wife. Another important point to note is that in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry only after John is arrested. In other words, John doesn’t actually see Jesus’ preaching and healing ministry in action. He only hears about it second hand.
John is in prison, waiting. In the Roman world, prison was a place of waiting, not of punishment. Prisoners were waiting to find out what the judgment would be, whether they would be found innocent or guilty, and what their punishment would be. Execution, sentenced to the galleys or the mines? John was waiting.
John had been waiting for a long time, not to find out his fate. He, like Israel, had been waiting for the one who was to come; he was waiting for deliverance. And so, from prison, he asks that question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
This probably seems like a very strange question for casual readers or hearers of the gospel. The story we know, if we know it, is a story in which John the Baptist knows who Jesus is. As Luke tells it in his gospel, John and Jesus were cousins, and John recognized the Messiah when both were still in their mothers’ wombs. Luke says John leapt in the Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to visit her. The Gospel of John is even clearer. When John sees Jesus walking, he says to his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
So why would John want to know, “Are you the one who is to come?”
I think it’s simple, really. As we saw in last week’s gospel, John was looking forward to a great reckoning; the day when God’s justice would come down to vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. John had prophesied, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John was now in prison, hardly evidence that God was making things right. And Jesus, the one whom John had baptized, the one in whom he had placed his hopes, had continued John’s preaching. He, like John, was proclaiming the coming of God’s reign. But there seemed to be no signs of its arrival.
So, John, lying in prison, wonders. He wondered whether everything he had been about had meant anything; whether his preaching had been worth it. So he sent two of his followers to ask the question. It’s an obvious question, but still it’s a very interesting and important one. And it is a profoundly “Advent” question. Advent is a time of already but not yet; it is a time when we recognize Christ’s presence among us, Christ’s having come among us as a human. But at the same time, we are looking ahead to that final reckoning. Like John, we are looking ahead for that time when God makes all things new; when God’s justice rolls down like water, and God’s righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
John’s disciples asked Jesus the question, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ reply is not a simple and unambiguous affirmative. Instead, he instructs John’s disciples to tell him what they have seen, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
As readers of the gospel, as people who know the story, this answer seems obvious and to the point. Jesus is alluding back to prophetic scripture, to the Book of Isaiah. It is language that is echoed in the gospel of Luke, in which Jesus’ public ministry begins with his reading from Isaiah: “He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.”
As readers of the gospel, we know about Jesus’ healing ministry. Jesus had restored sight to the blind, healed a paralytic, and performed many other healings.
We hear this passage and we think it’s all so obvious and we may even wonder how John the Baptist could have had any question about who Jesus was.
But think about it a moment. Think about all of the suffering in the area where Jesus was preaching and healing. He may have performed some healings, but there were many other people who continued to suffer and the oppressive yoke of Roman occupation was as harsh as ever. Did Jesus’ answer convince John’s disciples? Did it convince John?
Like John, we are living in a time of already but not yet. We believe and proclaim that Christ has come into the world; that Christ has ushered in something quite new; that his death and resurrection have changed everything.
At the same time, we continue to see the suffering and injustice around us. Many of us experience great suffering and pain in our own lives. It may so overwhelm us that we despair.
Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples is his answer to us. In the midst of the world’s suffering, in the midst of our own pain, he challenges us to see signs of his coming; to look for signs of God’s coming reign; signs of his healing power. Those signs may be faint; they may be overwhelmed by the bright lights and glare of the world.
Like John, we want to see clear evidence; we want to see God coming in glory, destroying evil, beating down the devil. We want to see the carnage and a complete and total victory.
Instead, we are pointed toward this. A few people are healed; a few hear the good news and are transformed. God’s reign breaks in, tentatively, quietly, almost unnoticeably. So we have to pay attention.
There are signs, but we need eyes that will see them; ears that will hear them. I invite you to look for those signs, to imagine what such signs might be in our world today. In the midst of the suffering in the world, in the midst of all of our troubles, where do we see Christ’s healing power? Where do we see God’s justice rolling down? Where do we see God’s reign breaking in and transforming lives and the world?
In food offered from our pantry? Or the meal and music provided at our First Monday meal? In the shelter offered to a homeless man or to a family? In the compassionate service that moves a homeless person from the street to permanent housing? In the reconciling witness of MOSES and other organizations that help formerly incarcerate people rebuild their lives and relationships?
Look for those signs, in the world, in the lives around you. Become those signs, to the world, to the lives you encounter. God is here among us, healing us and the world. Christ will come again to make all things new. May we rejoice to see his coming; and may we see the signs of his coming in our faith and in our actions.
Wilderness. It’s a word that conjures up images of danger, untamed nature; precarious human life facing the challenges of uncharted territory and unknown threats. For Americans, we almost immediately think of our national myth of pioneers setting out against great odds into a distant and forbidding land, in an attempt to make lives and livelihoods in uninhabited territory. That myth, as attractive as it may be, is a far cry from the reality that the places to which white settlers came usually already had human populations and were home to highly developed human communities. Continue reading
Today is the commemoration of the sixteenth-century Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross. He is best known in the contemporary world for the phrase “the dark night of the soul” although he never used it, and he doesn’t mean by “dark night” depression or atheism, which is often assumed. There’s a great essay on him by Lawrence Cunningham in America (2006).
Here is the beginning poem of the work that bears the title Dark Night of the Soul:
1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
– ah, the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
– ah, the sheer grace! –
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.
3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.
4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
– him I knew so well –
there in a place where no one appeared.
5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.
7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.
8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
From: THE COLLECTED WORKS OF ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, revised edition (1991).
Copyright 1991 ICS Publications. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, if this copyright notice is included.
These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year,
And still their flame is strong.
“Watchman, what of the night?” we cry,
Heart-sick with hope deferred:
“No speaking signs are in the sky,”
Is still the watchman’s word.
The Porter watches at the gate,
The servants watch within;
The watch is long betimes and late,
The prize is slow to win.
“Watchman, what of the night?” but still
His answer sounds the same:
“No daybreak tops the utmost hill,
Nor pale our lamps of flame.”
One to another hear them speak,
The patient virgins wise:
“Surely He is not far to seek,”–
“All night we watch and rise.”
“The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.”
One with another, soul with soul,
They kindle fire from fire:
“Friends watch us who have touched the goal.”
“They urge us, come up higher.”
“With them shall rest our waysore feet,
With them is built our home,
With Christ.” “They sweet, but He most sweet,
Sweeter than honeycomb.”
There no more parting, no more pain,
The distant ones brought near,
The lost so long are found again,
Long lost but longer dear:
Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard,
Nor heart conceived that rest,
With them our good things long deferred,
With Jesus Christ our Best.
We weep because the night is long,
We laugh, for day shall rise,
We sing a slow contented song
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping we hold Him fast Who wept
For us,–we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go except
He bless us first or last.
Weeping we hold Him fast to-night;
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight,
And summer smite the snow:
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day;
Then He shall say, “Arise, My love,
My fair one, come away.”
Could the news get any worse? We are faced with a relentless cycle of stories that break our hearts and that bear witness to the brokenness of humanity and the brokenness of our world. What’s more, in the face of these crises—the global climate crisis, the crisis of political legitimacy that so many nations and peoples are confronting, beginning with our own, instead of coming together to work on solutions, we are growing more divided. Our differences seem to be widening even as things seem to be getting worse.
Among those divisions, one of the most interesting to me is the generational conflict that seems to be growing. Younger generations are becoming more resentful, more angry at their elders. And the target of much of that anger is my generation—the baby boomers. Well, we sure have messed things up, haven’t we? On our watch, warnings about global warming have become climate catastrophe; economic inequality has increased to levels not seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century; our political system, not just in this country, but worldwide, seems to be nearing total collapse with authoritarianism, nationalism, and racism on the rise. Continue reading