Thursday, December 25, 2014

Et Verbum caro factum est

Merry Christmas! Before we begin, I want to give you the context for why we have this readings on Christmas Day. Our Church provides four different masses for Christmas: that is, four sets of readings and prayers, depending on when you go to mass. In other masses, yesterday on Christmas Eve and last night at midnight, we heard the stories of Jesus' birth from the different gospel authors. Here at this mass, we are invited to meditate on the meaning of Jesus' birth. We are invited to take all the elements we know and love: the angels, the wise men, the shepherds, the manger, and place them in a larger context. Because on one level, the story of Jesus' birth is so similar to the story of the birth of every other baby. There is human drama, there's a sense of mystery and wonder over the future and what this child represents, and overshadowing it all is a profound sense of gratitude for God's blessings. Any parent has experienced all this, this combination of mystery and wonder and blessing, and Mary and Joseph were no different. There's a certain familiarity with the Nativity story we know and love, that's why the story has nourished us for two thousand years.

But our readings today invite us to go further. These readings invite us to take the familiar story about the birth of a child, albeit a unique child, and see its place in the larger context of heaven and hell and sin and redemption. Because this child was born for a very specific purpose. His birth had been prepared for thousands of years, and the event of his birth made angels shout for joy and it made demons tremble. We want to see how it could be that this single birth is the event from which all time before and after is measured, and we still want to make it home for a Christmas feast, so let's get started.

Our first reading returns us to Isaiah, who has perhaps more to say about Jesus than anyone else in the Old Testament. The first line sets the mood for his message today: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings." Isaiah is addressing Israel here, and Israel has suffered a lot under bondage to foreign nations. In their physical suffering and bondage, they represent our spiritual position before Jesus came. Before Jesus, we were captive to sin and death, with no way out. There was no way we could save ourselves. We needed someone to come to us, to come bringing glad tidings, to come and say to us "Your God is King." And if God is King, king of the here and now and not just a god in a far off heaven, then he cares about my spiritual enslavement, and if he cares he's going to save me from it. God refused to let death have the last word, and so, as our reading tells us, he "bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations; all the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God." Isaiah announces of years before Jesus that not only does God care about your physical suffering, he cares about your spiritual predicament as well, just as real and just as important, and he's going to save you.

Now we turn to the letter to the Hebrews. What we now call a letter seems to have been something between a letter and a homily in its original form. It has a lot of thought and prayer behind it, and that comes through in the writing. This section right here is talking to us about how God speaks to us throughout history. To understand what God wants to speak to us, we have to understand what God is. That could be answered a lot of different ways, but the easiest and fullest answer is quite simply "God is Love." God is Love, and love communicates itself. Love, the person who loves, doesn't keep that love bottled up inside, love has to be shared with others. So if God is Love, what he has been saying all throughout history is "I love you." Through all the prophets, through the partial and various ways God has spoken to us, he has been communicating all along that he loves us. But now, "in these last days", as Hebrews phrases it, "he has spoken to us through the Son." Jesus is the Word of God, Jesus is the most perfect expression of "I love you" that God could have ever spoken. God is basically saying "I love you so much that I am sending my only beloved Son to live among you, to die for you, and to bring you back to me."

This idea that Jesus is the Word of God brings us to our Gospel reading. This reading is from the beginning of the Gospel of John. Now John's gospel is different from the other three. The other three gospels were written early, and they kind of say "Jesus did this, this, and this, and it was awesome." John's gospel was written later, so there had been a lot of prayer and reflection on who Jesus was and what he meant. John's gospel is like a fine wine of the gospels: it's matured, it's aged to perfection, and to read it, it's clear that the author knows what he's doing.

The first line, for example, when we studied it in my gospel of John class in seminary, this single line took almost three weeks. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." That's it, pack up your bags and go home, that everything you need to know! Words are spoken, words are meant to communicate something. So this Word spoken by God has been present from the beginning, always with God, and is in fact also God. That's your Jesus 101: He comes from the God the Father, he has always existed with the God the Father, and he himself is God the Son. But in case you had any doubts, the next line, "He was in the beginning with God," makes it clear that his Word is in fact a person.

As we follow this reading through, it continues to teach us about what this Word is like. It is a light shining in the darkness, the darkness cannot overcome it, John the Baptist testified to this light. This Word, this light, this person, has been in the world and the world, "the world came to be through him," and yet the world has not recognized this Word. Through the partial and various ways of the past, the world failed to recognize God's love message to us.

And so this Word, this message of love, became flesh. "And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."  Et Verbum caro factum est. This is the most perfect expression of love God could have given us. There is no better way for God to say "I love you" than for his only Son to be born as a man, and not just born, but to be born essentially in secret, in a small town outside of Jerusalem, far from the eyes of the kings and rulers of the world. To be born into such ordinary circumstances like so many babies, to be born into a family and community, to be affected by the winds of world politics and yet still be loved, like so many ordinary babies. This ordinariness of this extraordinary baby helps to remind us that no baby is really ordinary. Every baby, every person is extraordinary. God thought so, that's why he thought every person was worth saving through the incarnation of his Son.

Having reflected on the eternal implications of this birth, we realize that it really is all about God's love for us. Today we experience that love of God while surrounded by family and friends. We realize that distant concepts like light and darkness, prophecies and eternal Word, are made tangible and real in the love we experience each and every day. The love of our families, like the love of family that Jesus experienced, is where we experience the eternal God. Today we try to make some small return on that magnificent love that God has shown us by loving those around us. The birth of Jesus is the greatest communication ever of God's love to us. We respond by loving him back, present in our brothers and sisters. A blessed Christmas to you.

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