Christmas Day 2017 – Proper III
Hebrews: 1:1-4 (5-12)
I’m not sure if any of you saw the video that went viral recently of some very young kids in a Christmas pageant. The scene was set with Mary, Joseph, an angel and some sheep, all sitting around the baby Jesus in a cardboard box manger. In the background, a choir of older children sang “Away in the Manger.” Not long into the video one of the sheep decided she wanted to hold the baby, so she got up and took him out of the manger, and started to dance with him. Seeing this, Mary, a three year old, rescued the baby and returned him to his place. But that sheep was persistent — out came the baby again, and more dancing ensued. And up popped Mary again, though this time a real tussle developed over the baby. It was only then that an adult finally intervened to stop the scuffle. The video was really funny — and you can hear the audience in the room laughing as the mayhem unfolds. A bright antidote to all of the harsh news we have heard lately.
As I was watching it, it made me think about the adult tussles we too often see and hear right now — the fighting over Jesus and over Christmas, not only in our public spaces, but also between different types of Christians. I’ve met Young Earth folks who insist without irony that this planet was created only 6000 years ago — and that Christ’s birth happened exactly 2017 years ago on this very date, December 25th. Then there are others who tell us with equal vehemence that such proclamations are utter nonsense, and if a story isn’t factually provable and historically accurate in every detail, then it has no truth in it whatsoever. My question is: does it have to be an either/or? Do we have to take one or the other extreme? Don’t get me wrong, I am all in for substantive, healthy dialogue between different points of view — but too many folks seem to have forgotten the fundamental truth that there is no ONE singular way to talk about or to define God. If God is infinite — we can’t box God in.
And thinking about that — about dialogue and exchanging ideas, got me pondering the role and value of stories in our lives. When are they told? Where are they told? By whom? To whom? What purpose do they serve? This may sound odd, but the first thing I thought to do was to look on the web to find how out many hours of darkness there are on the day of the winter solstice in Jerusalem. And it turns out there are 11 hours of darkness at this time of year. That’s 4 less than we have here in New York City — but still, 11 hours is a long time. And if one thinks about how it was 2000 years ago with no artificial light— it was a lot of hours — many more than a person would need for sleep. So what better way to spend some of that time than telling stories?
It’s not a coincidence that one of the themes we explore and celebrate in our stories at this turn of each year is light and darkness. So I would just like to take a moment here to insert an aside that we all need to be mindful when we engage in discussions of darkness and light — that we take some time to push back on how that theme has too often been used to politicize and marginalize people with skin that is not light. Even though DNA science has shown us that race is a social construct, not a biological category. And even though we know that the color of a person’s skin says absolutely nothing about the quality of a person’s character. When we use the imagery of darkness and light in our stories, we should mention that darkness is not, in and of itself, inherently evil or bad, and that light is not inherently good. A lot of wonderful things happen in darkness, and, boy oh boy, there are a lot of profoundly evil things that happen in the light of day. So light and dark imagery is simply that — imagery. When God establishes order in Genesis 1 and separates light from darkness, earth from land, day from night, plants from animals — God calls ALL of creation VERY GOOD. Including the darkness.
One of the things humans do in the dark — one of the most wonderful gifts of darkness — is the chance to share ideas and tell stories. Because stories are how we communicate the deepest truths of the human condition. Stories don’t have to be literally true in order to be truthful. Let’s be clear: I’m not touting “alternative facts” here. Instead, I’m pointing at the value and wonder of stories as a way to speak of things which are so infinite that they cannot be quantified only by measurable facts.
Our gospel text today — the prologue of John’s gospel — John’s version of the story of creation — is one such story to tell in the dark. Its language is poetic and layered and nuanced and multi-valent — so rich that we can’t possibly take it all in during a single telling, or even in a lifetime of tellings. John seeks to help us understand the significance of the coming of Christ into the world — both as the creator of the world and also as its salvation. John’s gospel was the last to be written, and it is the gospel that asserts both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus with the most clarity, stating that Christ was present with God before creation, was fully participating with God in creation, and that Christ pitched his tent among us as a fully living, breathing human.
One of my favorite things about this story is that John describes Christ as the Word. A seminary friend used to say, “maybe it would be more helpful in English to translate it as “In the beginning was the VERB”. Using “verb” points to the idea that speech is performative. The God we are describing is active, moving, restless, ongoing, transcending time and space, and not graspable. We can’t hold onto God. God is beyond our control, beyond our ability to tame or fully comprehend. As is speech. We can’t hold it or grasp it. It is here, spoken, just now, and then it is gone. And yet it is still here, in our memory and our hearts.
Speech is also a process of revelation, just as God’s unfolding of God’s self in Christ is a process of revelation. John’s gospel intentionally echoes another of our creation stories, this one from the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 1. In Genesis, God uses speech to initiate the ever present, ongoing, and ultimately unfathomable process of creation. And God blesses creation – using speech to affirm that God’s creation is very good.
In this prologue, John also echoes Isaiah 55:10 -11 —
10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
My friends, we could spend many winter nights in the fecund darkness speaking about how the Word does not return to God empty.
The one thought I will leave you with is that Christmas is the story of an unsolicited gift — the gift of life and truth. This gift, like the slow but steady development of a child in the womb, comes to us in darkness. This gift does not include a requirement for us to subscribe to a checklist of beliefs that tick off all the proper boxes. Instead this gift is the gift of the Word — the performative, ongoing action of God among us that yearns to be in communication and communion with us. This gift is the story of God’s creation of the world and God’s unending love for that creation — it is a gift of becoming — of recognition that we are all part of a process of co-creation with God — a process that we can never fully know or understand. This gift is the gift of God’s love for us as we are now, and as we grow and change: from the extraordinary vulnerability of our childhood — to the perplexity and challenges of adulthood — and at last to the reflections and reassessments of our later years. It is the gift of God’s continuous reaching out to us in love and asking us to respond — to ourselves, to others, and to God’s own self — with love in return. Love calls us home — home in the here and now, among each other. It calls us to be present to each moment. It calls us to be aware of the love that imbues every atom of creation. It invites us to share that love — to tell the story of that love — this day and forevermore. Merry Christmas.
The Rev. Posey Krakowsky