St. James’s Episcopal Church
Christmas Day, 2015
In the name of our one God, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning and Merry Christmas. Thank you for joining us on this strangely warm Christmas morning. Today we reflect back on the birth of Jesus, we gather to remember the circumstances of Mary and Joseph and the birth story of their son Jesus. In our Gospel reading this morning we don’t get that old story, straight from Bethlehem, to our living rooms. Instead we get the cosmic story of the incarnation from the beginning of the Gospel of John, with talk of Word and flesh, darkness and light, and grace and truth. Serious theological language, it’s gripping if not at least a bit confusing. It’s the type of bible text that makes one clamor for a narrative, a story with a plot, rising and falling action and characters that we can relate too. The nativity story has long been an important part of the Advent and Christmas season, Church traditions the world over have been recognizing this sacred dramatic ritual in sacramental observance of and participation in, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Now, this wasn’t always the case. The centrality of nativity pageants and nativity figures and nativity scenes has ebbed and flowed over the course of church history. The first recorded instance of a dramatic re-enactment of the nativity story was in Greccio, Italy in 1223, under the direction and desire of St. Francis of Assisi. In his biography of St. Francis and retelling of this nativity event, St. Bonaventure quoted Francis as having said: “I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born in Bethlehem, and how he was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how he was bedded in the manger on hay, between a donkey and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes.” St. Francis wanted to experience the drama, he wanted to see the story manifest with his own eyes. It is a remarkable way to participate in this story. In general, common folk of that time were not literate, and almost certainly did not understand Latin, the authorized language used in church. This was likely the first time the people present had been presented with this story in an understandable form. The first time they may have felt that connection, or empathy with Mary, as she desperately sought a safe place to have her child. Sadly, during the reformation northern and central European Protestants abandoned the nativity imagery carte blanche. It was thought that depictions of the infant Jesus were considered to be graven and a violation of the 2nd commandment. Protestants dropped the nativity and picked up the Germanic Christmas symbol of the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree is a fine symbol, but it’s more of a theological sign than a narrative device. The tree is a sign of creation, and a sign of the cross. The Christmas tree does not engage imaginations in the same way that the nativity story can draw listeners in both young and old. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the nativity imagery and the dramatic use of nativity scenes became a more ubiquitous symbol of Christmastime in the United States. One of the powerful elements of the nativity story is that it is eminently contextual. The story of the birth of a child deeply penetrates the human experience it touches, in part, on the story of all people. Whether it’s part of our own self-understanding, our own autobiographies all start with a birth narrative. Our first existential struggle was to survive as babies. We may have re-experienced this with the birth of siblings, children, nieces, nephews or friends. This is the perspective that the Gospel of John re-enforces, this was not a story with only local or cultural significance. This was a story about humility and love, not just for one family, or one town, or one people group but for the whole world, and from the beginning of time until for evermore. God was so intimately one with creation, that God came to dwell among us as one of us. This sacramental reality, the incarnation of God as a human, gives our own birth stories, our own incarnation on earth an important meaning. God did not send Jesus to earth to merely contextualize the human experience, to provide a touch point between the divine and the profane but to send us a manifestation of God’s loving, peaceful existence. Jesus was the human incarnation of God’s being, John’s Gospel records that ”the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of God’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Jesus came to be the incarnation of grace and truth.
We cannot have the nativity story without John’s Gospel; we can’t just have the human story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, the story of desperate parents and a vulnerable baby, the story of dispersion, poverty and dislocation, all critical themes to keep present in our hearts and souls. But, we also need that other incarnation story, the mystical story from the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 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.”
Without the Gospel of John the story of the nativity remains a compelling historical story, about specific people, in a specific context, trying to do the best they can, in horrible circumstances, to provide for their young family. But, without John, the nativity can quickly become only about the crèche figures on the mantles of our homes, or the players in our parish pageants. The story of the nativity can be taken captive, and used to give shape and meaning to our own small eco systems, at worst our very small eco systems. This is certainly not all bad, family tradition is crucial, and finding meaning in our local community is extremely important. But, John’s gospel asks us to read the nativity story with a very different perspective. With a cosmic perspective, a timeless perspective, a global perspective that asks us to take the story of this vulnerable baby, and allow it to inform how we respond to the needs of people throughout the world. Allow this story to change our hearts, and our actions.
I’ve been thinking about how we might perform a theatrical interpretation of the prologue to John’s Gospel. How we might turn word becoming flesh into a pageant. I’m not sure that I have the necessary dramatic imagination to tackle something that esoteric but we can certainly read the nativity story mindful of word and flesh, of light shining in the darkness, and of grace and truth. When words become flesh, we can literally observe what they mean; we can see how these words become incarnate and exist in the world. What grace and truth look like in action? How grace becomes food for the hungry, or how truth becomes fighting to give someone else a fair chance to succeed in life.
Today, let’s remember that Jesus, the son of God came into this world as a vulnerable child, a child that brought the light of heaven to earth, a child that brought flesh to the word and a child that brought God’s presence, God’s grace and truth to dwell among us. Amen.