December 30, 2012, 1st Sunday after Christmas

December 30, 2012
Year C, 1st Christmas
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
          “No one has ever seen God.”
          Happy fifth day of Christmas!  I hope you have had good holidays. 
          There is a group here in Eugene called the Progressive Clergy Association.  We gather monthly for collegial support, to share information, to get speakers in to learn from and strengthen our collective and independent ministries.  It is good group and I have made friends there.  We met here the Thursday before Christmas and one of my friends, a very protestant fellow, was amazed that our greenery was still not up. “So, you are one of those churches, who hide the Christmas stuff until it is Christmas.  We have our tree up in the sanctuary December 1st, and it is out of there the 26th.” 
          I grew up in such a protestant parish.  We talked about Advent I guess, but we sang Christmas hymns.  I really never was taught about the Twelve Days of Christmas, the Holy Innocents, or certainly Epiphany. It was not even that it was Romish, it just wasn’t important.  The Christmas season began after Thanksgiving and everything went away by New Years.  And goodness, we never had church on Christmas morning, unless, woe unto us, Christmas fell on a Sunday, and then, my family never went.  But most emblematic were the Christmas decorations:  they went up when they went up and were stowed away when they were stowed away without much theological meaning making.  It was just how things were done.
          It reminds me of the story of the Christmas roast.  Some of you may have heard it before; I can’t remember the source.  In any case, there was woman, whom every Christmas made a big, beautiful roast for Christmas dinner as her mother before her had, and her mother before her had.  It was a lovely tradition. Well, one Christmas Eve as the woman and her teenage daughter were preparing the roast, she cut the end of the roast off, as her mom had taught her and her mom had taught her, and the daughter asked, “Why do you cut off the end of the roast?”  (I like to think that she added “It isn’t in the Joy of Cooking.”)  The woman answered, “I don’t know, my mom did it that way.  That’s just how we do it.”  
          Well, Christmas arrives, they had a lovely morning and sat down to a big family Christmas dinner.  Grandma was there, and once grace was said and the roast was sliced and was being passed, the grand daughter asked Grandma, “Why did you slice off the end of the roast?”
          “Oh, deary that’s simple, that’s the only way it would fit.”  You see, her mother, Great-grandmother, had a small oven and a small roasting pan that fit in the oven but wouldn’t hold a whole roast unless the end was trimmed off.  So three generations of fine homemakers continue to slice the end off the Christmas roast because 75 years ago the pan used to be too small and now it is just how things are done.  Heavens to Betsy, we churchy people have a lot to learn from this story.
          Right there in the prologue to the most definitive of the Gospels, The Gospel according to St. John, right after unequivocal pronouncements like “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, the Word was God;” and “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people;” and “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ;” we then receive a very graceful and truthful statement:  “No on has ever seen God.” Even Moses only saw a burning bush.  Jacob wrestled with someone, but their countenance was not very clear.  The great mystics, Dame Julian amongst them, saw broken images of Jesus dancing on the wall, but never images of God in God’s self, yet, yet, we don’t put the greenery up here until it is actually Christmas.  In Advent we dress our altars and priests in Marian blue, not Lenten  purple thank you very much, and then no matter how late at night it is, we switch it all over to white when needed.  We institute the Lord’s Supper ONLY with six very specific sets of words contained in one single book, why?  Because that is just how we do it.
          One of the things that affected my conversion into catholic Christianity is the Prelude to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H. 1833.”  He writes:
Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
         Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
         By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove…
Our little systems have their day;
         They have their day and cease to be:
         They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they…
          “They are but broken lights of thee…”  We have not seen God.  Obviously we are immersed in the handwork of God, creatures of the creation living this life as sentient witnesses of the Glory God Almighty, our Creator.  We are witnesses to the creative abundance of God, as we are witnesses of the movement of the Holy Spirit in acts of kindness and grace, empathy, compassion, occasions of beauty and power; of connection of relationship, of Love.  All of these are signs, sure signs of something larger, something greater, something almighty, truly divine, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, but “they are but broken lights of thee, and thou, O Lord, art more than they.”
          Are you familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic?  The allegory goes something like this:  we are like prisoners lined up against a wall in a cave.  The fire flickers and sends shadows up against the wall, and in our smallness, our ignorance, we take those shadows, the flickering, distorted, downright shadowy forms to be the real thing, to be the true image of reality. 
          It is like the Buddhist icon where the Buddha stands pointing to the moon, reminding us that the finger pointing upward is just indicating the path; but enlightenment, the true nature of things is found in the light (which as some have observed, moonlight itself is still just a reflection of the true source of light). 
          But when we are freed, which, according to Plato is by philosophy alone, we can begin to discern that the shadows are just that, broken lights flickering on a wall, not the true forms.  But when we step back, when we are freed from our shackles, when our minds are as open as our eyes we might how the light actually shines and see things as they truly are
Our little systems have their day;
         They have their day and cease to be:
         They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they…
          So what do Tennyson, Plato and the Buddha have to do with your life on the 30th of December 2012, Christmas I, perched as we are on the edge of the fiscal cliff and looking forward to an early Lenten cycle?  Just about everything, I think.
          Just like that mother who dutifully fulfilled her traditional obligation in cutting the end off the roast for years for the simple reason that that is how it is done we, as Anglicans, are immersed in a whole cultural universe, a ritual life contained in a multi-year cycle partly connected to the rotation of the Earth around the Sun, partly connected to the rotation of the Moon around the Earth, partly connected to the Earth’s 23.4 degree tilt, partly connected to words and traditions that stretch back from the 1979 Prayer Book to pre-history with words like “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”
          Why do we constantly seek to see through the shadows to the true light when usually we are staring intently at the sign post and not the path before us?  And why do we always settle for “Broken lights of thee” and not the real deal? Because, as St. John reveals to us in his great revelation, “No one has ever seen God.”
          Why, then, do we do the things we do? Why do we worship as we worship?  Why do we conduct ourselves as we do, organize ourselves as we do, ordain ourselves to do all that we do knowing as little as we know?  It is simple AND proper: That is just how we do it.
          This is not ignorance, or vainglory.  It is not cynicism or futile grasping for some knowledge of a promised reality.  It is just how we do:  this is the essence of catholic religious life.  And yes, this religious life is in the face of overwhelming mystery, it is in the face of faint shadows cast upon the wall of a cave, and of feeble minds trying to comprehend the grace and truth of a father’s only son.  That is just how we do it; this is one of the keys to living together in unity, constancy and peace.  These are handrails that we erect, handrails to face us together (hopefully) in the direction of God.  And why?  Because long ago, Jesus told our spiritual ancestors what was in store.  “No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the fathers hear, who has made him known.”
Let knowledge grow from more to more,
         But more of reverence in us dwell;
         That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before,
But vaster. We are fools and slight;
         We mock thee when we do not fear:
         But help thy foolish ones to bear;
Help thy vain worlds to bear thy light…
Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
         Confusions of a wasted youth;
         Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.
          The true gift of the religious life is to be able with a clear and enlightened heart, to say “That’s just how we do it,” and that being a perfectly good answer.  Because I’d bet even money that the next year, knowing all that she knows, that woman will still cut off the end of her roast, because that is just how you do it. AMEN