Delivered December 27, 2020 on Zoom Morning Prayer, Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Poplar Bluff, MO
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18; Psalm 147
Well, it’s over. We’ve sung Christmas carols. We’ve opened all the presents. We’ve eaten ourselves into a stupor, basically repeating what we did on Thanksgiving Day, although possibly with a different menu. Many of us have taken down the tree and all of our decorations by now. We’re back to normal.
But wait just a minute. If we were in the church this morning, all the decorations would still be up. We wouldn’t notice anything had changed. We’d still be singing Christmas carols. We’re still saying “Yo us a child is born” in the liturgy. What’s the deal? Isn’t Christmas over with?
It’s true that Christmas Day is over with, but in the Anglican Communion and among our brothers and sisters in other liturgical churches, Christmas lasts until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. That’s 12 whole days of celebrating Christmas. Remember the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” Christmas Day is only the FIRST day of Christmas.
Why would we do this? We spent all that time in building up to Christmas Day, putting up with the stress. Shopping, cooking, wrapping presents. We’re exhausted. We’re ready for it to be over with. Why do we need to celebrate for almost two whole weeks?
Could it be, perhaps, that there’s something more to Christmas than we’ve thought about so far? On Christmas Eve we celebrated the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, we sat with Joseph and Mary, sang to the child in the manger, and with the shepherds we gazed in wonder at the angels singing in the sky. What else is there?
Let’s take a look at today’s Gospel reading, the one we always read on the first Sunday after Christmas. This year it’s even more appropriate, because today, December 27, happens to be the feast of St. John the Evangelist. In the first chapter of his Gospel, he wrote: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
Where Luke, whose gospel we read on Thursday night and Friday morning, focuses on a baby born in a stable, John goes back just a little bit further than Bethlehem to begin his story. He goes back to the beginning of time. He goes back and begins with the same words as the Old Testament book of Genesis, the very first book in the Bible: “In the beginning.” I’m positive he did this on purpose; it wasn’t an accident. By echoing the very first verse of the Torah, John is making a point. “Go back to the beginning,” he says, “Back before anything was created. You know who was there? Yes, Jesus the Christ was there.”
He continued: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
Jesus was not only there, but he was a principal actor in creation. So, where Luke’s story is earth-bound, John’s viewpoint is cosmic.
“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” This cosmic being, this Son of God, took on humanity and lived as one of us.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God had told the people of Israel that he was going to do “a new thing.” A new thing. Something exciting, something wonderful, something nobody would expect. Our Old Testament reading today says, speaking of Israel, “The nations shall see your vindication…”. Isaiah may not have been able to see what that meant, but for Paul and other New Testament writers, the coming of Jesus was no less than the vindication of Israel, the culmination of the long story of redemption that began with the Creation.
And here it is. The new thing: God’s son, who was present before the beginning of time and who made everything, confined himself to a human body and came to live with us. Not just to pay us a visit. To live with us. The Greek that is usually translated “lived among us” literally means “pitched his tent among us.” He came to set up housekeeping. To be born. To grow up as a child. To go through puberty. To become a man. To laugh. To weep. To die. To share everything about what it means to be human.
Many mythological figures had been said to mix with humans before. The Greek gods apparently did it all the time, but they never left anything behind to do it. They always kept all their godly powers even when they appeared as human. They never sacrificed anything. They never “pitched their tent” among us.
Christ, on the other hand, came to us as a tiny baby who would have died if humans had not taken care of him. Ponder that for a second.
This is important. Christ’s birth to a young girl in a tiny little village in Palestine changed everything. Christ came down at Christmas, and nothing would ever be the same again. God was no longer a powerful being that held himself at a distance. Now he was with us. He was one of us.
And this is the best reason I know to continue to celebrate Christmas even though Christmas Day is past. There’s just too much. The Incarnation of the Son of God is too immense an event to fit into a single day. We need more time to take in both sides of the story, the earth-bound and the heavenly. Not just the humble birth, but also the cosmic significance of that birth.
“The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” Christ became one of us. God did a new thing, and everything changed.
So what do we do? How do we respond to a love that would give up so much, give up everything to show us that he understands our lives?
What have we given up?
Have we given up our prejudices, our most precious preconceived notions? Have we given up our tendency to decide who is worthy of love? Have we given up our complacency? Our cynicism? Our bigotry? Have we given up our time? Our treasure?
Have we given up anything?
Have we changed…anything?
To respond to God’s love, we have to admit that for God to change everything by becoming a man means that each of us is changed. God doing a “new thing” means that WE are changed into something new, something we may not be entirely comfortable with, at least to start. But that change is necessary if we are to carry God’s immense love into the world. We simply can’t do that if we’re carrying a bunch of baggage.
In his birth, Christ put aside his divinity to change everything. As St. Paul tells us in an exquisite bit of poetry, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” We don’t have to put aside anything nearly as big. We don’t have to put aside anything even close to godhood. Just our fears, our hates, our prejudices, our idolatries, our selfishness.
But that would still change everything.