Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10 • Psalm 98 • Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12) • John 1:1-14
Good morning! I am so glad to be here, in worship, with each of you this morning – which is not so unusual a thing, given that it is Sunday morning and this is what we normally do on Sunday mornings… gather for worship. And, of course, it’s not a normal Sunday morning. Many of our friends are away this morning, traveling to be with their families on this holiday, and many of our friends were here last night with extended family, and lots of children, to celebrate the nativity of our Lord with songs and stories and lots and lots of candles.
But this morning is different. The extended families have gone back to their own homes (or are sleeping in), and here we are. I wasn’t meaning to be cheeky when I selected as our gathering hymn, O Come, All Ye Faithful, but it’s kind of appropriate, isn’t it? Here you have come, ye faithful, this Christmas morning.
Christmas morning always has a different feel to it than Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is all about the stories. The story of Mary and Joseph giving birth to the infant Jesus in the back of the barn. The story of the angels appearing to the shepherds to announce the birth of a new kind of king, a messiah, the delivery of a deliverer. Then there were the other stories. I preached the story of Christmas Eve traditions in my household growing up, and there were other traditions happening right before our eyes. Grandchildren making the annual pilgrimage to church with grandparents.
Christmas morning we don’t really tell stories though. The feeling is different. Like those ancient parents, maybe we’re too tired from a long night and days of travel. We long for a different kind of rest this morning. So, instead, scripture gives us poetry in the form of John’s gospel. What else can we call it? It clearly isn’t a first-person account of the origins of being, this hymn, this statement of faith that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth.” It’s true, but it’s not history. It’s poetry. Mysterious words inviting us into the mystery of how God lives and moves and has God’s being with and among us.
“The Word became flesh and lived among us…” That’s an image to play with, words wrapped in flesh. Such a Christmas image, fit for a day full of gifts wrapped in paper and bows. The infant of Bethlehem is God, and is wrapped up in you. You are I are like the temporary papers that shroud the gift God has placed inside us all. And on this day, and on every day, we tear into one another – patiently, gently… energetically, passionately… enviously, fearfully… looking for the evidence of love that already lives inside us all.
Poetry. Playful serious words, inviting us to ponder again what it means that all the power and might of God can be contained in an infant. What kind of God were you hoping for this Christmas? One that would step powerfully into your life and right all the wrongs of the past year? One that would shield you from all future harms? Sorry. Like so many of God’s children, you may be disappointed to find that the gift under the tree isn’t what you asked for, but instead, what you needed. Something fragile, ephemeral, a Word wrapped up in flesh. Spoken and then gone, though always there, since the very beginning.
One of the joys of poetry is that it’s not science. You can’t nail it down. It is evocative. A particular poem may pull something very different out of me than it does out of you. It is relational. It does its work in the gap between the experience of the author and that of the reader. It asks you to search the treasures of your own experience to understand the message of the writer’s.
You see that dynamic at play in our hymn of the day, “Twas in the Moon of Wintertime. Written by the French Jesuit missionary to the indigenous people of Canada, Jean de Brébeuf, this carol takes the Word and wraps it up in the flesh of those people. So swaddling clothes become rabbit skins, shepherds become hunters, and the three kings become chiefs bearing gifts of animal pelts to shelter the baby from the cold. A sort of story poem playing with the familiar and the unfamiliar, as if to remind us that what it means for the Word to take on flesh and dwell among us is that God learns the idioms of our life and tells the old story in a new way, through us.
What will it mean for you that God is born again this day? How do you understand that the new life in the manger is a fragile thing, something that needs caring for every bit as much as you do? How will you carry the gift wrapped up in your flesh, and how will you unwrap it for the world to see?
Like a poem, the mystery of Christmas takes on meaning in the space between the story of then and the life of now. So, in the spirit of John, who used a poem about light and life and words to traverse the distance between himself and those who would follow, I want to offer you one more poem this morning – this time from the Irish poet John O’Donohue, from his collection, To Bless the Space Between Us. In his poem, “As a Child Enters the World” he writes,
As I enter my new family / may they be delighted / At how their kindness / Comes into blossom.
Unknown to me and them, / May I be exactly the one / To restore in their forlorn places / New vitality and promise.
May the hearts of others / Hear again the music / In the lost echoes / Of their neglected wonder.
If my destiny is sheltered, / May the grace of this privilege / Reach and bless the other infants / Who are destined for torn places.
If my destiny is bleak, / May I find in myself / A secret stillness / And tranquility / Beneath the turmoil.
May my eyes never lose sight / Of why I have come here, / That I never be claimed / By the falsity of fear / Or eat the bread of bitterness.
In everything I do, think / Feel, and say, / May I allow the light / Of the world I am leaving / To shine through and carry me home.
May the light present since the dawn of time, out of which you were born and that even now lies wrapped up beneath your skin, shine through you this day and carry you home.
Merry Christmas, and Amen.