Text: John 1:1-14
I made some good friends the year I lived in Philadelphia. I was in Philly for my “Lutheran Year,” the year you’re required to complete if you attend a non-Lutheran seminary. I’d just finished my internship in New Jersey, and I would only be in Philadelphia for nine months but during that time I wrote my master’s thesis, served a small congregation, and made some good friends.
Ben was a colleague in the classroom, a fellow student, and his wife Beth was caring for their two very young boys. They moved to Philly from Holden Village, a Lutheran community and retreat center in Washington state, where Ben had been pastor for some years. It was at Holden that they’d picked up the habit of throwing “poetry and chocolate” nights.
On “poetry and chocolate” nights Ben and Beth would open their home to a group of students and sometimes faculty. They would pile the floor with books of poetry from their personal collection, tomes they’d checked out from the library, and then the rest of us would toss in anything we brought ourselves. Guests contributed bottles of wine and bars of gourmet chocolate – orange flavored chocolate, rosemary chocolate, chocolate with caramel filling, chocolate laced with tea. Everything you’d need for a decadent evening.
We would gather around these elements, words and wine and staple sweets, like they were a campfire. We warmed ourselves with each other’s company and the company of these literary saints.
Like this one, entitled “To Tanya at Christmas” by Wendell Berry,
Forgive me, my delight, / that grief and loneliness / have kept me. Though I come / to you in darkness, you are / companion of the light / that rises on all I know.
In the long night of the year / and of the spirit, God’s birth / is met with simple noise. / Deaf and blind in division, / I reach, and do not find. / You show the gentler way: / We come to good by love; / our words must be made flesh.
And flesh must be made word / at last, our lives rise / in speech to our children’s tongues. / They will tell how we once stood / together here, two trees / whose lives in annual sheddings / made their way into this ground, / whose bodies turned to earth / and song. This song will tell / how old love sweetens the fields.
The joy of poetry night was that you didn’t have to know anything about poetry to enjoy it. Thank God! I’d never really had a strong exposure to poetry, and it called to mind all sorts of awful stereotypes of undergraduates sipping black coffee and smoking cigarettes. I didn’t know how to properly analyze a poem, though it turns out a few semesters of biblical studies gives you a pretty good base to work from. Mostly we just sipped our wine and snuck extra pieces of chocolate while we chewed on turns of phrase that caught our attention. “We come to good by love; our words must be made flesh. And flesh must be made word at last, our lives rise in speech…”
I’m going to confess to you all that I far prefer Christmas morning to Christmas Eve. To be sure, Christmas Eve is a beautiful night. Families gather here in the sanctuary, though I don’t necessarily know them very well. Neighbors bring their visiting relatives to the church for the candlelight service, looking to be bathed in the warmth of nostalgia. We sing the carols and hear the lessons and in the end we leave by candlelight. Hush, a child has been born.
But Christmas morning has no such requirements. It is cold and bright. We gather here, a smaller (but, can we say it, a more dedicated) clan to observe Christmas away from the trees and ornaments and mad frenzy of unwrapping. We gather around these elements – words and wine and staple bread (oh, that it was bread and chocolate) to hear not the story of a child’s birth – but instead a poem about the birth of all creation.
“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.” (John 1:1-5)
Good poetry on John’s part. I like how he decides to begin his gospel with words that sound like the first words of Genesis, the first words of scripture:
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God” – was that a wind, or a word? – “swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis 1:1-4; my question added)
John ties this day, this nativity, to the creative power of God. So does the church. Although we think of this festival as being all about Jesus, the second person of the trinity, it is most truly a celebration of the first person of the trinity – God the creator, the source of all life and being, active and present in love. The church’s three major festivals – Christmas, Easter and Pentecost – correspond to the persons of the trinity: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Mother, Beloved, Spirit. Good theology teaches us that each person of the trinity is wrapped up in the other, like a family, so we hear that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, but also that Word was with God and the Word was God, and not one thing came into being without the Word, but also that a wind from God swept over the face of the water. Creator, Word, Wind.
Good poetry opens our minds to the play of ideas, the layers of meaning, present in any text – even texts as complicated and multifaceted as our own lives. Poetry helps us think theologically, which only means that it helps us to imagine unseen realities hidden under the form of our mundane lives. Poetry, because of its creative power, invites us to participate, to play, with the creative power of God. In the beginning was the word. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
There’s a beautiful turn of phrase. A word, a poem, a thing of art and beauty, come to life and clothed in flesh and living among us. That sounds like the beginning of a love sonnet, without the iambic pentameter. God coming to live inside our human experience, a word made flesh full of grace and truth. God redeeming our stories by joining us in the middle of them, unseen realities hidden under the form of our mundane lives.
But then also the reverse, as our poet Wendell Berry wrote, “And flesh must be made word / at last, our lives rise / in speech … This song will tell / how old love sweetens the fields.” Isn’t that also why we come to church this Christmas morning? We gather around these words and wine and bread not only to celebrate the miracle of the incarnation, the word made flesh – but also so that our flesh might be made word at last, our lives might rise in speech and song and prayer and be lifted up before God to be redeemed, to be restored, to be made holy even as the world keeps us feeling entrapped, aged, mundane. The mystery of the incarnation, a poem with layered meaning, God becomes human and holds our humanity – and we discover that our weak humanity has been stretched to hold God. Both meanings are true. A poem.
It is Christmas morning. No soft candlelight glow, no “Silent Night.” Just the company of friends and a campfire of poets – John and Wendell and you and me – pondering the meaning of a mystery. Not too seriously, no tortured coffee shop musings, just a communion of saints enjoying word and wine and bread and living together one more meaning of the incarn
ation – a church, a corporate body, words made flesh dwelling with each other full of grace and truth. It’s good to be with you this morning.
Merry Christmas. Amen.