The Word became Chord: A homily for Christmas Day, 2022

Those of you who have attended Christmas Day services during my tenure as rector of Grace know that it is one of my favorite services. It’s more intimate yet somehow more glorious than Christmas Eve. All the stress associated with orchestrating a major festival Eucharist is gone. Moreover, I can look forward to the peace and quiet of Christmas Day afternoon—a great meal, a bottle of good wine, and, hopefully, a restorative nap.

But there are other reasons I love Christmas Day services. One of them is that occasionally there’s a day like today—bright, sunny, with the sun reflecting off of the snow and blinding us with its brilliance—a perfect match to one of my favorite hymns, one we sing every year on Christmas Day, “Break forth O beauteous, heavenly light”

But, the biggest reason I love Christmas Day is because it gives me the opportunity to proclaim today’s Gospel, the so-called prologue of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word…”

 If Christmas Eve, with its candlelight and Silent Night, and the story of Christ’s birth from the Gospel of Luke, explores the mystery and miracle of an omnipotent God becoming human in a vulnerable, utterly dependent baby, then Christmas Day with its poetic and profound meditation of the Word made flesh, explores the mystery at the heart of the universe, of an omnipotent God whose love and creative power is reflected in all that is, in this wonderful, expanding, beautiful universe, and yet also comes to us as one of us—lived among us, tented, or tabernacled among us, as the Greek suggests. It’s an evocative word that witnesses to the impermanence of human flesh. It also alludes to God’s presence among the Hebrews in the wilderness, in the tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them in their sojourn in the desert.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Word, words, not just the language that we speak, the words we search for when we try to communicate our deepest feelings, the words that elude us. Think of all those who use words to deceive, to manipulate, to obfuscate. Think of those who deny the truth of words, who rely on lies, whose deceptions tear at the fabric of our lives, the fabric of our nation. Our words, our language, ultimately can, or should, connect us with the Divine, connect us with God, with the Word.

Ponder the word, ponder the word made flesh. 

I’m not sure why, but I have struggled this year to enter into this season of mystery and miracle. I felt like I was going through the motions in Advent, not really exploring or experiencing the time of waiting, preparation, and anticipation. Perhaps it was the burden of the world weighing on my spirit, numbing my soul. Scenes of war in Ukraine, the relentless toll on all of us of COVID, even if we want to deny it and declare it over. Maybe it is the political theatre and disruption in Washington and here at home in Wisconsin. 

Whatever the case, I felt like I was going through the motions. To be honest, maybe it wasn’t all that different from other years. My Christmas Eve morning started like every other Christmas Eve, as I tuned in to Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. While I’ve listened to that service for many years, over the last decade or so, my experience of it has been shared with Anglicans and musicians across the world via Twitter, sharing our feelings, talking about the carol choices, commenting on the readers.

The sound of the treble singing the first notes of “Once in Royal David’s City” broke through my malaise. Later came “In the Bleak Midwinter” which transported me across the years and across the country to the Christmas Eve when I sang that carol in the choir at St. Paul’s, Newburyport. And then, finally, “O Come, all ye faithful.”

 There was an article this week in the New York Times about “the chord.” In the arrangement of the carol usually used at the Lessons and Carols, there’s a moment, in the 6th verse, as the choir and congregation sing “Word of the Father…). I won’t go into technical detail about it but simply quote the article: it is “a moment of total release, embracing the unknown.”

Embracing the unknown, yet being known in that embrace. It transports and connects us—to each other, and to God. St. Augustine of Hippo is famously alleged to have said, or written, “Whoever sings, prays twice.” It is a moment of sheer rapture, made the more powerful and meaningful by being shared by Christians and listeners throughout the world. The music of the universe, the music of the spheres, brought to us. The Word made chord. And yes, Christmas came to me in that moment, in that chord.

That has given an added dimension to my reflections on the word made flesh. As I continue to probe the pluriform and incomprehensible meanings of the word—the logos—in Greek—and I suppose I will continue to do so as long as my mind is capable, the mystery of the word made flesh will continue to elude and entice me. Even as I do so, I pray that God’s grace and truth will continue to open up new possibilities, new wonders, new mystery. In music, in art, in the words of theologians and mystics, the word made flesh is mystery, and possibility, and grace. May we all experience that mystery and that grace today and always.

Ghosts of Christmases Past: A Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2022

One of the most beloved Christmas stories is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s often said that Charles Dickens invented modern Christmas. It has been made into films and plays. It has been rewritten and adapted—This past week Corrie and I watched Spirited starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. We’ll probably watch Scrooged starring Bill Murray before the holidays are over. We probably won’t watch A Muppet Christmas Carol, even though my social media feeds insist that not only is it the best adaptation of Dickens’ story, it’s the bese Christmas movie of all. 

As I was watching Spirited it occurred to me that I am haunted by Christmases past this year. I’m probably haunted by past Christmases every year, but this year the ghosts of past Christmases seem especially potent.

 Tonight is the first time we gather here on Christmas Eve since 2019; our traditional customs and rituals, our lives and world, disrupted by pandemic. I was asked more than once in the past few days, “We will have services?” “Are there contingency plans?” The concerns were real, of course but driven, not by the continued pandemic, but by the speculation and worry about the weather. We hardly remember that years ago, we wouldn’t have had a second thought about coming out to Christmas Eve services in sub-zero temperatures.

As we gather this evening in this beloved, beautiful space, lovingly decorated by our Altar Guild, surrounded by the sights and sounds of Christmas, we embrace the familiar even as we are mindful of the time that has past, of all that has happened. There are ghosts among us: loved ones who are no longer among us; there is all that we’ve suffered, individually, communally, globally over the last nearly three years. 

There are those who are suffering now: the people of Ukraine, subjected to missiles and drones destroying their homes and culture, leaving them cold and dark. There are refugees and asylum seekers on our borders; people staying in homeless shelters or seeking what shelter they can find, as Mary and Joseph did so long ago in Bethlehem. And tonight, especially, we think all of those still suffering from the impact of the storm and the frigid temperatures in our nation.

Ghosts of Christmases past.  Among them, for me especially, I’m haunted by the images that haunted me every Christmas at Grace up to 2020. For thirty-five years, from 1984 until March 2020, we worshiped in this beautiful space on Christmas Eve while on the opposite side of the courtyard, men huddled on cots, trying to sleep and rest in a crowded basement. The irony of it all was never far from my mind. We, hearing again the story of a pregnant mother and her fiancé seeking shelter in a distant town. We, celebrating the coming of the Christ child, the incarnation, God made man, coming from warm, inviting spaces, returning to celebrations with family and friends; while a few hundred feet away, men were spending the night as they had spent so many nights before and would again and again. And of course, they are not here now, but they are in this city and throughout the world, homeless men and women, homeless families without shelter tonight.

The starkness of that reality is also only a memory, a ghost, let’s say; but even so, for some of us, perhaps many of us, the reality of our lives and our world, the suffering and trauma, may only be masked by the celebration of this evening. Some of us will return to dark and empty homes. Some of us will be mourning lost loved ones; some of us will be facing the realities and pain of broken relationships. Ghosts of Christmases past. Ghosts of Christmases longed for but not experienced. Ghosts of Christmas suffering.

Yet we are here, and in spite of our worries and troubles, we sing familiar carols, we hear the familiar story. In spite of the cold outside, we are here, surrounded by warmth—not just of the heating system. We are embraced in the warmth of community, of joy, of excitement, of wonder. We celebrate Christ’s coming into the world. 

To enter into the story, to hear it read once again, to sing the familiar carols, to be surrounded by the beautiful decorations, connects us with our own stories, and helps us once again to experience the light and love of Christmas. 

The story connects with us because of its familiarity. We have heard it so many times—in the language of the King James Version—swaddling clothes, sore afraid; in modern translations, in countless reinterpretations and retellings, on tv, in artistic depictions, Christmas pageants like the one we saw this past Sunday at Grace. 

It is a familiar story in other ways, some we may not acknowledge. A couple forced to travel by occupying powers; a young girl giving birth in uncomfortable, perhaps even inhumane conditions. A story told about people in a small town far removed from the centers of power, and money, and culture.

Tonight we feel the vast chasm between the world we want and the world we have; the world we had and the world in which we live. But that is nothing new.

The vast chasm between what is and it is meant to be, what will be, is at the very heart of Christmas. It reveals itself in so many ways—in God coming to us in the person of an infant, the power of God becoming the powerlessness, the weakness and vulnerability of Jesus. God coming to us, not in majesty and power but in the silence and darkness of a night; God coming to us not in the center of the world, in Rome, or New York, or Hollywood, but in a little town on the edge of empire. 

In that act, in the manger in Bethlehem, God comes to us, revealing who God is, and revealing also who we are meant to be, what the world is meant to be. 

Jesus comes to us, a frail, vulnerable, weak baby, meeting us in our own weakness, vulnerability, and suffering. God comes down to us, in the darkness and silence of our lives, in the world’s suffering. And as God comes to us, in the silence, we see the world God is bringing into being, the world transformed by the coming of Christ. We see ourselves, transformed by God’s grace and love.

Love came down to us at Christmas, God emptied Godself, taking on human form, becoming one of us, so that we might see and know what love is; so that we might see and know love, so that we might be love in the world. As we go out into the world on this cold night, may our hearts be warmed by God’s love, and may we share that love with the world.