25th Dec, 2005

Christmas Day

Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

In his Christmas sermon last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams proposed an interesting simile about the Christmas event. He said that the worst thing you could do when traveling on an ocean liner was visit the engine room. It’s the same reason that one would be discouraged from visiting the Vatican, or Lambeth Palace, or the Episcopal Church’s General Convention.

His Grace goes on to remark that the reason is:

getting too close to the center of things (or what people think is the center of things) can be alarming or disillusioning – you really don’t want to know how things work! And that is where Christmas becomes a little strange and potentially worrying. When we’re invited into the stable to see the baby, it’s really like being invited into the engine room – because this is how God works.

God has given Himself away so completely that we meet Him here in poverty and weakness. This is how He is: He acts by giving away all we might expect to find in Him of strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the cradle and of the cross. It ought to shock us, the Archbishop reminds us, that year after year the universe lives by the kind of love that we see in the helpless child and in the dying man on the cross. We have been shown the engine room of the universe and it ought to worry us – we who are so obsessed about being safe and successful, who worry endlessly about being in control, who cannot believe that power could show itself in any other way than the ways we are used to. And, so we have been given the freedom and the authority to become God’s children through our trust in Him and thus have a fuller and fuller share in God’s own joy.

Of course, the profound depth of what the Archbishop of Canterbury proposes ultimately finds meaning for us in our personal experience of this holy season. The giving of gifts is a fundamental aspect of the Christmas observation and we spend days and hours searching for the right thing for the special people on our list. I don’t know about you, but I get very excited when I have a serendipitous discovery of a wonderful thing that I just know someone will be thrilled to receive.

By our time-held tradition of giving presents, we remember how long ago a gift was wrapped in paper-thin skin and given to us to say it all. We wrap our gifts to heighten the expectation, but also to hide the inadequacy of our attempt to convey the depth of our emotions to those we love most. The ultimate Gift we celebrate today came wrapped in the form He came to embrace. God’s love for us is too much for words, and He keeps sending the same gift not just once a year; but every day we live ready to receive the Gift as it is being offered.

Along with gifts our northern Christian culture which in the mid winter experiences a bleak dormant natural world; brings evergreen trees right into the home. As a youth it was a family tradition to go into the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco and actually pick out a live tree at a Christmas tree farm and cut it down ourselves and haul it back home. The bringing of the tree into our homes is like a strange intruder in an alien land. Big trees do not belong in the midst of a properly furnished home and the human furniture usually needs to all be rearranged in order to accommodate this strange Christmas tradition. But if you think about it; here is another strong symbol of what the message of Christmas is all about. It’s like the very Word made flesh in Jesus Christ which makes a silent intrusion and then starts rearranging human furniture. What was heretofore outside has come inside and then becomes much beloved.

As we heard in today’s Gospel according to St. John, the beginning starts in eternity where of course there is no beginning: the Word of God always has been and will always be. All things were made through the eternal Word and through this Word all things came to be – look around you: your hand, the person next to you, this church, the city outside, and then imagine the vast reaches of the universe – all things are sustained in existence from one moment to the next. From our own experience we know well enough what is human flesh. This flesh is a wondrous creation, yet it is oh so very frail.

We are reminded of this frailty at the hospital, the funeral home, The New Year’s Eve party, and whenever we gaze in the mirror – not just to observe a person looking so different from what we remember, but reminded of our failures and successes; our shortcomings and our achievements. It seems redundant really to say that flesh is fail – what could be more obvious?!

Christianity makes a unique claim and that is found in today’s Gospel. Here we have the other Christmas story, the one without the shepherds and angels and the manger. But it’s the same story – the Word became flesh, entered the world and took on all our frailty and came to know our condition with its burden and embarrassment, from the inside out. The foundation of all existence became as dependent as a newborn and as helpless as a condemned criminal put to death.

Because Jesus came among us, the glory of God shines through human life and human death – and human resurrection. It is in the dependency, helplessness, utter frailty, and complete identification with our lowliness that enables the eternal Word to do something new, something otherwise impossible; something remarkable through us. It is when the Word becomes frail flesh and lives inside the reach of human touch that we finally encounter, face to face, the glory of which the angels sang that holy night in Bethlehem. Then the words of the prophet Isaiah stand before us through the eternal Word: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Amen.

 

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