The Gospel for Christmas morning this year comes from the first part of the Gospel according to John. And I don’t remember if we have used this passage on Christmas morning in the past. I’m sure at some point we have. But in any event this is not the story of Mary and Josph and the Inn and the shepherds and the angels. We heard all about that last night. For those of you who come on Christmas day, we have something even better.
And just a note – I love the fact that you are here with me on Christmas day. Some of my best Christmas moments have been in church on the morning of the 25th, including one year, years ago, when it was just one other family and my parents and me. And I got my sister to be an acolyte. We were like we were kids playing church.
This morning I call your attention to the theology at the beginning of the Gospel according to John. Because John, unlike the other Gospels, gives us this sense of the big, big picture so we can see the story of the birth of the Messiah and Mary and Joseph and the shepherds – we ca see all that from the perspective of God.
Now God is complicated and you haves to be careful trying to speak on behalf of God, after all God created the universe and knit together the fabric of life. And so even the best theology is only an attempt to understand the impossible mind of God. But in all theology the one thing about God we can know for sure is that God is love. And we start with that premise.
As theologian and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says: if it’s not about love, it’s not about God – and the reverse is true as well: if it’s not about God, it’s not about love. And so the birth of the Messiah, the birth of Jesus Christ, whatever else you want to say about it, and however else you want to understand it, is best explained as God’s love made real, or, as we sing: Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine; love was born at Christmas: star and angels gave the sign.
God begins the Gospel as a being and a word, there is this being and there is this word. And it’s kind of trinitarian – you’re missing the Holy Spirit but it’s clear that there’s God and then alongside God and part of God is the word.
And what’s interesting about a word? A word is meant to be spoken or read. A word is not meant to be kept, but a word is meant to be shared. The bearer of the word offers that word and the receiver takes the word. This is communication.
And so the beginning of John points us to God and says: God has this word and there’s just one word – God is not a chatty person –God is a one note being. Imagine going to this organ and you can only play one note. These pipes just come out with one note. It better be a good note. It better be the note of your life. And that’s what God offers us, the one note, the note of God’s life, who is Jesus.
I don’t think that God necessarily directed everything about Jesus’s life. I like to think, in my theology, that as a being who is both human and divine, that God left the human side of Jesus free to just do some things – that God did not control every detail of Jesus’s very human life. But that certainly God made Jesus to be the incarnation of God’s love. And the word incarnation is the theological term describing God coming in the carne – in the flesh.
God’s problem or God’s challenge, was that after the creation, God found that God could create things and bring them into being, and God could give the people life, but all of God’s attempts to give the people love failed. So God could make life but God could not make the people love that life or love each other or love God. And so there was this gulf. And we know all about that, for that’s the world we live in.
People’s attempts to share love are quickly and often met by equally strong attempts to sow hate. You look around and you see that’s what life is. And you only need to look at social media to see it. Recently I read something about the constant negativity on Facebook, where they talked about a woman who posted something on her Facebook page about the fact that she and her husband get up every morning and drink coffee together in the garden, and how grateful she is for that.
And they talked about all the comments from people who said – what are you bragging? Are you so rich that you don’t have to get up and work? What’s the matter – you don’t care about all of us people who are lonely and not in a relationship? All of these comments that people actually posted tearing down this woman’s attempt to share love. Social media and the world we live in are we filled with that.
And so we understand why God did this. It makes sense. God tried to share love, God couldn’t share love, and so the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us in God’s attempt to reach us.
Those words, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, are written on one of the walls of the Trinity Church in Copley Square in Boston. And if you’ve ever been there in that magnificent sanctuary, you see these words high above the altar written in Gold letters that are probably 2 feet high up thirty feet above the ground. Like much of Trinity Church in Copley Square, they are something to behold. The word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Many years ago when I was a missionary in Honduras, I visited one other church where those words were written on the wall. It was the Church of the Incarnation, La Iglesia de la Encarnacion, which was in the Diocese of Honduras in the most out of the way place you could imagine. To get to this church you had to either take a horse or walk for about an hour over these hills and these little paths. And after a while of walking or riding you got to a clearing and there in the clearing was the church, the only building you could see.
It was a small building which had probably been someone’s barn at some point. And it was made thick, adobe walls. And all of us who leaned against the walls in our black clergy shirts found that our shirts were stained white by the adobe. I went one day around Christmas. It may have their patronal feast, which would have been today. And there were probably 30 people in attendance, people who lived in the campo, most of whom were farmers, dirt poor, without electricity. The church didn’t have electricity.
And there on the walls of this little church of the incarnation, someone had stenciled in black text, just like at Trinity Church in Copley Square, those words: And the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Or I should say Trinity Church in Copley Square has these words written just like the Church of the Incarnation in Honduras.
Which points to something important to know about incarnation, which is that it exists from place to place. Even though we’re talking about the presence of Jesus Christ born this morning at Christmas, the incarnation is not just a one-time historical event. It is a one-time historical event, but the beauty of the way we understand the incarnation is that it is also more.
Because God didn’t just send a note of love and then forget about it. God didn’t just speak this word one time and then shut up about love forever. Incarnation happens all the time. God is made flesh and dwells among us regularly and in diverse and multiple ways, in places as different as the Church of the Incarnation in Honduras and the Trinity Church in Boston. And in people as different as you and I.
Jesus himself took pains to tell us that he is not the only manifestation of God’s love, but that he exists wherever two or three are gathered together in his name. Jesus himself wanted us to know that this word is within us. That God’s love exists within us. That the incarnation exists here, right now, wherever we are. And that the sign of it is love.
Incarnate in here in the Eucharist. Incarnation is here in the peace. Incarnation is here in the acts of collecting and giving away winter coats. Incarnation is here in calling up your family members with whom you’ve been feuding and asking for their forgiveness. Christmas is not just a one time event that happened to some people a long time ago in a land that is far away. Christmas, by our theology, comes regularly to us as the lived presence of God’s love, spoken between us and among us and within us. And that’s beautiful.
As far as theology goes, this may be all you need to know. I spent three years getting a Master of Divinity degree and several years before that studying religion as an undergrad. And I could have just saved myself all that time realizing that the prime theology of God is that God is love and that that love became flesh and dwelt among us in the form of Jesus Christ, who asked that that love keep going. That’s Christianity.
If we struggle to understand the theology of the incarnation I have one other piece of theology that can help. You know the Anglican church, and the Episcopal Church, came out of the time of the reformation, a time when the reformers like Martin Luther were arguing with the Catholics about this very question of incarnation- of how God becomes present in the world in the form of the sacraments.
On the one side you had the Catholic church which said that when the priest is offering the prayers at the altar and blesses the host, that the host there becomes the actual body of Jesus Christ- the incarnation happens here and Christ becomes present, literally, at this altar. And at the other side, during the reformation, you had the reform church that had broken from the Catholic church, which said that what happens at that altar is not that the bread literally becomes Jesus but that it symbolically becomes Jesus.
And this was a real theological debate about Christmas – abut the incarnation, about what happens, is the bread really changed into Jesus or is it just a symbol and the bread isn’t really changed into anything. And there in this debate our people, the Anglicans, were kind of in the middle. Anglican theologian Richard Hooker came into this debate about changing bread and he said: you know we’re not really here to change bread – we’re here to change hearts.
And whatever else happens to the bread, he said, the most important thing is what happens to our heart. Because God came to dwell among us not in bread, not just in bread, not just in mangers in far away places, not just in the righteous and pious few, not just in the saints, and not just in Jesus. But to dwell in us all. In hearts.
So as we change bread into Jesus, as we sing about the birth of Jesus, as we gather here to lift up the word of Jesus, the question must be: has your heart been changed this morning? Has your heart found Jesus? Have you come to find God’s love dwelling in you? Two thousand years of Christian theology and perhaps a thousand years of Jewish writing before that point to nothing beyond the fact that God longs to dwell in you. Not just this morning but every morning and every day, all the time.
And this is the morning when we lift that up. This is the celebration of that act, God’s act of love, this feast of Christmas. This Mass for Christ. Yes, every Sunday is a Mass for Christ, but on this Christmas Mass, which is also on a Sunday, perhaps we find that our hearts are more ready to see God there. Perhaps we are more aware of love.
Whatever else we do today and wherever else we go, my prayer is that the one thing that overwhelms us and consumes us and the thing we notice today again and again is how great love is. And how grateful we are that Jesus was born, and how grateful we are that he will also be born tomorrow. And in all the days of our life. May we celebrate that and know him deeply within our lives today and always.
Merry Christmas. May God love you. May the Holy Spirit support you. May the Christ child be born within you.