24 December 2015

And Was Made Flesh

John 1:1-5, 14-16

Christmas Eve 2015

In a few minutes, with the sanctuary full of dark and shadow, we will hear the majestic prologue to John’s Gospel, read from the light cast by the Christ Candle. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Toward the end of the reading we will hear these words, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” 

This is how John tells the story of Jesus’ birth.  No annunciation. No shepherds.  No manger. No magi.  Instead, John, echoing the opening verses of Genesis, says, “In the beginning….”   ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος (en arche en ho logos).  Drawing on Greek Logos philosophy John makes an amazing theological claim: in the birth of Jesus the Divine Word that created all things has become creature and taken on the weight of the created order. The source, the ground, the origin, the divine creativity that creates and recreates the universe and holds it all in being (see Colossians 1:15-20), the very pulse and rhythm of life itself is enfleshed in this person Jesus.[1]

God is with us…in the flesh.  What’s so new about this?  There are plenty of places in the Bible where we are told that God is with us, that God’s presence goes before us, leads the way, is known in the still small voice.  The religions of the Greco-Roman pantheon also claimed a kind of presence in one’s life.  What we find in the Christian claim, however, is something different.  In his poem, “The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” the eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart (1722-1771), captured its significance:

God all-bounteous, all creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world he made.

Smart alludes here to the mystery of the Incarnation.  This is what tonight is about. Incarnation.  As the Nicene Creed put it: Et incarnatus est, “and was made flesh.”  If there’s one thing you leave here with tonight with, I hope it is this:  the birth of Jesus decisively affirms that God desires to be with us and desires to be enfleshed in the world, it was true then and it’s true now.

The incarnation stands at the heart of the Christian experience and yet, unfortunately, the Church has done a good job disincarnating Jesus; that is, thinking of Jesus as if he didn’t have a body. There is a very deep and destructive anti-body heritage in Christianity, which privileges spirit over body, which values spirit over matter. These ideas make it difficult for Christians to be, well, wholly human – real, embodied, with feelings and emotions, and bodies that freely know desire and pleasure and respond to beauty – and to do all of this without guilt or shame.  I’m told the hanging of Christmas stockings originated in Germany, where each stocking contained five gifts, one for each of the senses in celebration of the Incarnation.[2]  Still, the shame runs very deep. 

True story.  Several years ago I was in the Holy Land and went to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.  It’s an enormous Roman Catholic Church built, as tradition has it, on the site of the home where Mary first heard that she was going to bear a son. Deep underneath the church is a cave, where there’s been an altar since around 384 AD.  Carved in the floor in front of the altar are these words:  ET INCARNATUS EST HIC.  And was made flesh here.  Right there!  Now, earlier that day the group I was there with went on an archeological dig. We were dusty, dirty, sweaty, but cleaned up best we could before heading off to Nazareth.  The women were told to make sure they brought something to cover up their shoulders, otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed into the church.  They were prepared.  What the guys didn’t know is that we couldn’t wear shorts—and we were wearing shorts.  As we approached the high wall around the church we found the guard at the gate was checking for skin.  The women went in first.  Some of the guys got through because their shorts covered their knees.  Not mine.  I was barred from entry.   I was mad.  I had come all that way and I was determined to get in.  So I pushed my shorts down as far as I could and still walk and then stretched my t-shirt down to cover the difference.  It was quite a sight.  I was allowed in and had a very funny walk through the church.  In Nazareth there are two churches of the annunciation.  One is Roman Catholic, the other one is Greek Orthodox and they’re just as strict about skin, if not worse.  I tried my trick again, but they wouldn’t let me in.  

How ironic that there in a town that claims the actual site of the Incarnation itself, the church still has a problem with bodies, skin, flesh.  Obviously, God thinks flesh is good.  How can exposed shoulders be an affront to the gospel?  And—for God’s sake—what’s so scandalous about my knees?

Tonight we celebrate God’s embodiment in the world.  The incarnation tells us something about God’s style, what God values and honors; that the world is saved through a body.  God seeks embodiment in the world in Christ because of love, God’s love for us as bodies, and God’s love for creation as heavenly body.  The way of Christ is the way of God and the way of God hasn’t changed.  God continues to seek embodiment. God desires to dwell in you and me, to dwell with us, together, around us, through us, for us, God wants to take up home with us, hang out with us, and, most of all, grow in us, come to live through us.

God wants to be born in humanity.  The German mystic Meister Eckhart (c.1260-c.1327) once said, in his commentary on the prologue in John, “It would be of little value for me that ‘the Word was made flesh’ for man in Christ as a person distinct from me, unless he was also made flesh for me personally so that I too might be God’s son.”[3]  That I too might be God’s son…  That I too might be God’s daughter…  That I might come to see myself, personally, existentially as one in whom God dwells, “full of grace and truth.”  Know that God is among us, within us, with us.  This is your birthright.  

This is what we claim tonight, that we, the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, that we may know ourselves as daughters and sons of God, can know who we truly and authentically are—we are objects of God’s immeasurable, fathomless love that moves through the cold, dark expanses of the universe in order to be born and born again and again in us. This is what the fallen, fearful, friendless places in the world need to hear this night.  This is the reason for our joy![4]

[1] Basil of Caesarea (330-379) refers to Jesus as the Cosmic Christ, “the Word of God who pervades the creation” from the beginning to the present day.  Gregory of Nazianus (c. 329-389/390) said, “This name [Logos] was given to him because he exists in all things that are.”  Humanity participates in this presence of the Cosmic Christ by “mirroring forth the presence of the creating Logos,” as Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335- after 394) put it.  See also Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Comic Christ: The Healing of the Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (HarperOne, 1988), 108ff.
[2] I’m grateful to Fritzi Scott, former member of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, for this story.
[3] Expositio sancti Evangelii secundum Iohannem (LW 3), n. 117, cited in Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thoughts of Meister Eckhart: The Man From Whom God Hid Nothing (New York: Herder & Herder, 2001), 117.
[4] The last two sentences allude to Dan Forrest’s composition “Carol of Joy,” with text by Eileen Berry, which was sung by the choir right after the sermon.   http://www.danforrest.com/satb-accompanied/carol-of-joy/

22 December 2015

In Terra Pax

Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913.  It's not often read this time of year. Yet, for me, it's this text written by the English poet Robert Bridges (1844-1930), which evokes the mystery, meaning, and wonder of the season.
The poem recalls a numinous, mystical experience Bridges had one Christmas Eve more than a century ago. Marking the moment in time, “1913,” makes its setting all the more poignant, knowing that by Christmas Eve 1914 the so-called “Christian” nations of Europe will have unleashed total war against each other, hurling the world into a cataclysm of death and destruction, an unspeakable horror that we have yet to come to terms with fully.  Did Bridges have a premonition of what was coming?  
A frosty Christmas Eve
        when the stars were shining.
Fared I forth alone
        where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village
        in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me
        peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds
        ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above
        with stars was spangled o’er.

Then sped my thoughts to keep
        that first Christmas of all
When shepherds watching
        by their fold ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields
        and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels
        or the bright stars singing.

I first came across this poem more than twenty years ago and it continues to speak deeply to me.  There’s a nice setting of the poem, slightly paraphrased, on the album “John Denver & The Muppets – A Christmas Together” from 1979, although it’s a little too sentimental and nostalgic for me. 
Gerald Finzi
The English composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) set the complete Bridges text to music in his affecting choral work In Terra Pax (On Earth Peace), written in 1954, which is how I first became familiar with the poem  (I’m a huge Finzi fan!)
Finzi’s arrangement is haunting, ethereal, inexplicably beautiful in the way he envisions Bridges on that hillside. Finzi places us out there, alone, on a frosty hill on Christmas Eve, a year before the Great War, humbled and in awe under the vaulted darkness and the stars of the firmament.  From atop the hills of the English countryside, church bells, down in the valley, can be heard ringing out their lusty peals calling people to worship, anticipating Christmas morning, announcing the birth of the Christ child.  Lost in revelry, Bridges’ thoughts speed across the centuries from his particular moment and place in time to another when poor shepherds huddled under a vaulted darkness, gazed at a similar set of stars whose firmament shined with unspeakable glory, shepherds keeping their flock on another hillside; shepherds who heard not bells, as Luke’s Gospel tells us, but angels proclaiming news of great joy, “To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

Finzi imaginatively connects us back to that “first Christmas” by creatively placing into the composition, after “bright stars singing,” a portion of Luke’s birth narrative:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them, and they were sore afraid. 

And the angel said unto them:
‘Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’” (Luke 2: 8-14, King James Version)

Robert Bridges

For Bridges, standing on that hillside on Christmas Eve in 1913, reflecting upon that first Christmas evening, time now and time then, present and past cannot be distinguished.  They merge.  Seamless. Ambiguous. Mysterious. Bridges says he “could not tell whether it were angels or the bright stars shining.”  Not either-or; both-and. And so he stopped and listened and reflected upon the meaning of it all. And as he did, Bridges answered:

But to me heard afar
        it was starry music
Angel’s songs, comforting
        as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly
        to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me
        by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured
        as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect
        of th’ eternal silence.
For Christians, this is the deep message of time, the music of the spheres, the truth of eternity given a face, enfleshed in the birth of Jesus.  The “old words” of that first Christmas still speak out across the vast, broad space of time, so that, as T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) knew, “here and now cease to matter.” The message still has the power to gracefully alter our perceptions of the world. We can be taken back to that Bethlehem hillside with the shepherds and that hillside can be transformed into the places where we live and work, worship and pray.  Whether there or here, the message is still the same, old, yet always new.  For Christians, the power of this message—God with us—continues to define us, shape us, mellow and transfigure us.  
So, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of this season, perhaps we can take time to stop and be still, listen to the eternal silence, quietly—listen.  
Listen afar. 
The angels are still singing—“Glory to God in the highest!”  
And they're still proclaiming a message we have yet to fully hear and fathom, one we desperately need as 2015 draws to a close: 
“…on earth peace.” 

May it be so.

A recording of In Terra Pax (Parts I & II) may be heard here:

20 December 2015


A Song of Bethlehem: An Advent Series[1]

IV. Light

John 1:1-5, 10-14

Fourth Sunday in Advent/ 20th December 2015

Monday night, December 21, at 11:49 PM, will mark the winter solstice for our time zone in the Northern Hemisphere.  It’s the shortest day of the year, the day with the longest night. 

It’s here, during the darkest time of the year, that the early Church—very intentionally—situated the festival of Christ’s birth.  No one knows when Jesus was born.  I would wager—but I’m a Presbyterian and don’t play games of chance, but if I did, I would wager—that it wasn't December 25.  If, according to Luke’s gospel, there were shepherds abiding in the fields when the heavenly host showed up and scared life into them, it probably didn’t happen in December, sheep and shepherds wouldn’t have been out in the fields (so I’m told).  Scholars suspect that Jesus was born in either late March or early April.

So, no, it’s not historically accurate to say that December 25 marks the birth of Jesus.  The first Christmas was not in December and there probably wasn’t a lot of “snow on snow/ Snow on snow,” as the carol goes.  And, yet, for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, we associate Christmas with winter and snow and the earth “hard as iron.”  My good friend, Ian Bradley, who teaches theology at the University of St. Andrews, author of many books, including The Penguin Book of Carols, says that the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” based on a poem by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) has for generations done most to suggest that snow covered the Bethlehem hillside when Christ was born.[2]  We connect snow and cold and Christmas.  (It will feel odd for us this week as it’s supposed to be 72F on Christmas Eve.)

So, while it’s not historically true to say Jesus was born on December 25, it’s symbolically true. That is, the first Christians were brilliant to place the birth of Jesus around this time of year, near the winter solstice, when, as the ancients believed, a new sun was born.  The Church, around 350, formally placed Jesus’ birth near the longest night of the year (north of the Equator), among days associated with two Roman solar festivals. 

There was Saturnalia, which started around December 17 and ended on December 23.  The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, the god of agriculture, in the Roman Forum, followed by a public banquet, then private gift-giving, and continual partying.  The poet Catullus (d. 54 BC) called it "the best of days.”  We might say, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”  Saturnalia continued well into the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era.

Saturnalia was a festival of light leading to another festival, the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. The renewal of light, that is, the coming of a new solar year with longer days was celebrated in the late Roman Empire as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun," on December 25.  The festival of Sol invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, took place three days after the shortest day of the year.  This festival was probably related to the ancient religious practices of Mithraism, a very popular religion in the Roman Empire (especially among the Roman legions), which the Empire adopted from traditions in Persia.  Mithra’s birthday was December 25. 

For the earliest Christians, Jesus’ birth was actually celebrated closest to Epiphany, on January 6 (or possibly the 8th January).  “It was only in later days, when the Mithraic cult was being overcome, that the Christians took the 25th of December, the day celebrated by the followers of Mithras as the day of Sol invictus, for their Christmas.”[3]  “To the early Christians, Christmas was the resurrection of the sun, and as late as Augustine [354-430], Christ was identified with the sun.”[4]  Augustine said the mystery of the new-born sun is Christ, “Natalis dies quo natus est dies—Christ is the true day of the sun.”[5]

The church historian Hugo Rahner (1900-1968) observed that, “The Church opposes, the Church dethrones, the Church consecrates and in the Church brings home.”[6]  Opposes, dethrones, consecrates, brings home.  After opposing and dethroning the Roman solar festivals the Church consecrated—or baptized—them and incorporated them into the symbolic world of Christianity.  And in the chronographer’s record for the year 354 we find an important notation for the celebration of two holidays on December 25:  Natalis Invicti (the birth of the sun) and this one: Natus Christus in Bethlehem Iudea (the birth of Christ in Bethlehem Judea).[7]

For Christians, the Unconquerable Sun was Christ “the light of the world” (John 8:12) whose birth is the resurrection of the sun, bringing new life into the world.  “Christ is truly Sol invictus, and his sunrise is a new birth.”[8]  Clement of Alexandria (150-215) referred to Christ as the “Sun of righteousness, begotten before the morning star, giving life with thy rays.”[9] Luke describes Jesus as “the dayspring from on high” (Luke 1:78), a “light to the revelation of the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32).

In a remarkable Christmas sermon, preached in Bethlehem, Jerome (c.347-420), said, “Even creation justifies our preaching and the cosmos testifies to the truth of our words.  Up till this day the days have continued to wane, but from this day onward the darkness grows less.  The light grows, the nights diminish. The day grows greater, and error grows less; up rises truth.  For today there is born unto us the Sun of Righteousness.”[10]

On Friday, we will celebrate the birth of Christ our light.  We read in the sublime prologue to John’s gospel—which I will read here on Christmas Eve, in the dark, relying on the light coming from the Christ Candle—these words, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). 

Light.  Light as source of life.  Christ’s life as light.  Light that allows us to see and be seen.  Life and light, surrounding us and filling us.  If you think of it, right now, we are being bathed in light. We are in the light.  The light from the sun allows us to see, but as we see, right now, we are also in light.  As the psalmist said, “In your light,” O God, “we see light” (Psalm 36:9).  We are in the light of God.

And this light, this life, this presence of God – for God is described as light (1 John 1:5)—shines! Remarkably, the light shines in the darkness!  Did you catch that?  We’re so prone to think dualistically in terms of light vs. dark, of light casting away darkness.  But that’s not John’s understanding here.  That wasn’t his experience of the Risen Christ.  Christ shows us that the light shines in the darkness—which means darkness is never completely dark.  There’s something of God’s light and life present even in the darkest places.  And the good news is that the light of Christ shines in the darkest times and the darkness hasn't power to overcome it.  Christ is Solus invictus. Light unconquerable.

So, while it might not be historically true to say that Jesus was born on December 25, it’s definitely true at a deeper level, it’s true symbolically, theologically, psychologically, it’s true experientially that the light of Christ shines even in the darkest days and the darkness, in the end, has no power over the light, for the light of Christ cannot be defeated.  And, we could say, with Christina Rossetti, that in the bleak midwinter his light shines all the brighter.

Rossetti’s midwinter should not be taken literally.  It, too, is a symbol, a metaphor for an interior midwinter, a life filled with short days, longing for light, longing for life.  It’s a life waiting for something new to be born in her, the birth of new life in the frozen places of her heart.  Rossetti once wrote, “What would I give for a heart of flesh to warm me through, instead of this heart of stone, ice-cold whatever I do!...What would I give for tears! Not smiles but scalding tears, to wash the black mark clean, and to thaw the frost of years…”[11]

She’s waiting for a thaw, for the warmth of fire, the warmth of life.  She’s waiting for  Light to be born again in her, to bring her into a new day, a new life, a new world.

She hopes, like we all do, to be able to give the warmth of our hearts—hearts of flesh, pumping with blood and life and passion—to Christ, the Christ whose light was born in Bethlehem and still shines brightly in the world, maybe all the more brightly in the dark places of our lives and our world. 

This is the good new of Christmas! 

Absolutely brilliant!

[1] This sermon series is designed to complement our adult education series, written by Mary Louise Bringle & Beverly Howard, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: Reflections on Four Seasonal Hymns, Resource for Advent IV. (The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation: The Thoughtful Christian, 2015). This morning we focus on “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
[2] Ian Bradley, ed. The Penguin Book of Carols (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 154-155.
[3] C. G. Jung, Introduction to Jungian Psychology: Notes of the Seminar on Analytical Psychology Given in 1925, Sonu Shamdasani, ed. (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2012), 113
[4]Jung, 113.
[5] Augustine, Sermo 196, cited in Rahner, 151.
[6] Hugo Rahner, S. J. Greek Myths and Christian Mystery (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 146.
[7] Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, I, cited in Rahner, 147.
[8] Rahner, 131.
[9] Cited in Rahner, 132
[10] “Homily on the Birth of the Lord,” cited in Rahner, 149.
[11] Quoted by Jan Marsh, Christina Rosetti: a Literary Biography (New York:  Faber and Faber, 2012), 24.