Year C, Christmas I December 27, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
Merry Christmas everyone! I hope you have had a lovely and peaceful Christmas season thus far. Or a season of great giving. Many blessings to the people of Eugene… on Christmas Day, and again last night, Egan opened and we, the whole system was turning away volunteers… so much generosity; fitting for the Christmas season. And it is a season. That is one of the things that I really love about the Anglican way of church, the catholic way… Christmas is not just a late night followed by a lazy day around the tree with family. Well we allow for that, encourage it, even, but that is not the whole story. Christmas is a season, that glorious, silent night is just the beginning.
What is this season about? What is Christmas about? On one hand, we have a beautiful story, the dramas that Sts. Matthew and Luke give to us. From a miraculous conception, to angelic hosts proclaiming “Glory to God in the Highest,” to lowly migrant worker shepherds, mangers and emperors and a baby, tender and mild. It is the very story of God coming into the world, sneaking into the world, really, in what would have been another of the countless imperial backwaters forgotten by history had this extraordinary thing not happened, and as importantly, been noticed.
And oh, the web of that story, the depth of it! It is one of the defining narratives of our civilization. Think of the art, music, architecture and literature that the nativity of Our Lord has inspired. Our calendar is defined by this holiday, almost everyone has the day off, school semesters break around it, it is the only annual, national vacation period we all share. And our economy is defined by this day. Hundreds of billions of dollars change hands. Seven percent of all movie tickets are sold this season, 10% of all turkeys. One third of all liquor store business is at this time of year, and I don’t even think it is legal to sell fruitcake outside of Advent. No judgment in that, just an observation. There is a time for feasting, for celebrating, and this is certainly one of them.
We have a tradition in my family of making Beef Wellington for Christmas dinner. Do you know Beef Wellington? It is as British as British can get. You start with a center cut beef tenderloin, like three of four pounds of it. Then you slather it with foie gras (foie gras is a bit too sinful for Christmas, so we make a concession and use another kind of pate), then add a second coat, this one duxellex, a mushroom pate, then wrap it all in a fluffy pastry, coat it with an egg wash and bake for like 45 minutes. To die for (and probably from). It is an amazing, celebratory, anchor-of-a-feast food that we look forward to all year long. But there I am at Market of Choice on Christmas Eve, taking a break before the evening festivities, and the butcher hands me a piece of meat that costs more than many folks I work with at Opportunity Village get in food stamps each month. I was looking at it there in the cart, drooling from one side of my mouth, lips pursed and frowning on the other. I felt this total rift inside of me, a real embarrassment of riches, dressed like this (not with a superhero cape) but spending that much on a piece of meat while 1400 neighbors couldn’t even sleep inside on a 32 degree, rainy Christmas Eve? To savor or to save, right? That is a question for this season, and we are called to celebrate, to feast, to enact in our very lives the good tidings of great joy that the memory of the birth of the Christ child brings to the fore.
So we have the story of the Nativity of Our Lord, the culture that narrative forms, feasting and giving, gathering and singing all of that gorgeousness AND, just as importantly, we have “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” These versus, the prologue to St. John’s gospel, wheh… these words are a glimpse of the cosmic Christ that people like Matthew Fox or Thomas Berry tell us about. These words are like the pin prick you put in a piece of paper to observe an eclipse; through that tiny aperture, through a minute ray of light, the universe is revealed to us. “In the beginning…” it is the whole story from when it all began, before all of this began, all that exists, and it brings it all to right now, this very moment, the always and everywhere blossoming right here, right now. They are not totally abstract thoughts, these verses are tied to the temporal world, to time and place. St. John the Baptist is an historical figure, a specific person alive is a specific time and in a specific place, but, or maybe the point is that it is and, through him, through this gorgeous language written for us 2000 years ago, we are given insight into the fabric of reality. “And the Word was made 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.”
If we only had one of these, a written narrative or this prose poem, if we had just one of these ways to understand, to experience, to frame God, it wouldn’t cut it. If we cling too tightly to the narrative, to what came upon a midnight clear, our vision would narrow, and we’d be too close to what happened in Life of Brian, the Monty Python telling of the Jesus story. It is actually incredibly astute, written by folks who read literature and history at Cambridge and Oxford. One of the more famous theologians of the 20th century, Harvey Cox, teaches this film at Harvard; watch it. If you have seen it, you’ll remember the crowds chasing “Brian” through the streets, idolatrously picking up the bits he discarded along the way… “The gourd! We are followers of the gourd!” “No, follow the sandal!” When it is too right here, to concrete, we latch on and loose perspective.
Conversely, if we latch our religious imagination solely to the shooting star of John’s prologue, we could very well evaporate in the esoteric vapors of abstraction. That is where the mystics take us. I’ve been poking around with Julian of Norwich recently, and the contemporary mystic John O’Donohue. They bring us, like St. John the Evangelist, to the outer layers of the spiritual atmosphere, the nousphere as I’ve heard it called. The perspective from such great heights is crucial, but the air is very thin. No, as it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be. That is where we need to reside, religiously. Always and everywhere revealed in the here and now and everywhere in between. It is not binary, zeros and ones, it is not duality, either/or or light/dark, and it is not even shades of grey. God is revealed in the infinite spectrum of the rainbow, a splendid color fan from the unseen infrared into the seen and back again into the invisible mystery ultraviolet; and each shade, each hue has its attendant tone and scent and taste and feeling and personality. To know God, we need the stories, we need the images, and we need the experience, the actual experience of God right here. And so often, that experience, that encounter with God occurs in your experience of , your encounter with the person right in front of you. It could be your wife or child, some random Jane or Joe walking down the street or some kid in the bread line at Egan, we need to encounter them, truly see them, and know that in the landscape of that human face, the very personal face of God is looking right back at you. Created, yes, by a mother and father, and created yes, by God, from before time, “…born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.” That is the true nature of Christ, and that true nature of Christ resides in all of our hearts.
It seems fitting to end in verse. This is “Fishing in the Keep of Silence” from Linda Gregg’s 2008 book, All of it Singing.
There is a hush now while the hills rise up and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world. He knows the owls will guard the sweetness of the soul in their massive keep of silence, looking out with eyes open or closed over the length of Tomales Bay that the egrets conform to, whitely broad in flight, white and slim in standing. God, who thinks about poetry all the time, breathes happily as He repeats to Himself: there are fish in the net, lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.
Merry Christmas. AMEN