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.

Lessons and Carols

For a very long time, perhaps since 1995, I’ve had a visceral reaction to “Lessons and Carols.” I can attribute that to having been at Sewanee for five years. When we arrived; no, perhaps it was already during our interview, we heard about the Lessons and Carols extravaganza at Sewanee. When we came to Sewanee, Lessons and Carols provided us with several of our quintessential moments. One was the year we received tickets to the “special performance.” It wasn’t called that, but it was the Saturday performance at which prominent donors, and busloads of Episcopal Church groups came from far and wide. It was a warm day in December, perhaps in the 70s.  As Corrie and I walked to the reception in Convocation Hall, we passed a frat house on the heart of campus, where the guys were enjoying the weather, and their alcohol. Then we saw a group of folk, assembled behind a seminarian clad in cassock and surplice, and carrying a crucifix. We attended the reception, then made our way to the service. The music was beautiful of course, but what made the greatest impression on me was the myriad of Southern Anglican matrons in attendance, wearing their minks, in unseasonably warm weather.

I’ve always thought that any Lessons and Carols service, apart from that at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, was manipulative  and contrived, designed more to attract donations than to create a worshipful experience. Still worse, I’ve thought, was the Festival of Advent Lessons and Carols. At least that was liturgically correct, unlike Sewanee’s or Furman’s, which are clearly Christmas services, taking place during the Season of Advent.

Today was the second Lessons and Carols over which I’ve presided at Grace (I succeeded in doing away with it at my previous parish, but I note its return since my departure). I rarely expect, when presiding, to experience God’s presence outside of the celebration of the Eucharist, or to worship. But that happened today. The music was profound; our soloists were perfect; the musical selections transported us out of the mundane into the heavenly presence.

Thanks to all who participated. Berkley Guse and Greg Upward, music director and organist, Will Raymer, whose composition “Come/We wait” captured the Advent experience; and especially the performance of Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, in memory of Jerry Shannon.

Our processional hymn at the conclusion of the service was Lo! he comes, with clouds descending, text by Charles Wesley. The words are transporting, taking us from first Advent to Second:

Those dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
gaze we on those glorious scars!