Lessons for the Day: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-23, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
Many years ago, on my first Christmas as a parish priest, I had a wonderful experience of utter grace and transformation. Scheduled for the early morning Christmas day mass at 7:30 am, I was actually looking forward to the smaller crowds and quiet service after the the excitement of Christmas Eve and Midnight Mass. Most families would still be home, asleep or sitting around in pajamas opening presents. Moreover, Deacon Steve had invited me to join him at 6:30 that morning so I was intrigued. The deacon seems to have had the custom of arriving to Church several hours before the first Sunday mass. I had assumed it was out of pious devotion to the Blessed Sacrament or maybe to prepare with the Sacred Scripture.
I was wrong and surprised! Deacon Steve didn’t come for any pious devotions. Rather, he came for a much more important purpose, a purpose driven by his Christian calling as deacon. He came every Sunday with breakfast to feed a certain population of men who made their “homes” behind an abandoned bank drive-thru teller building not even two blocks from the Church. From a variety of backgrounds and for a variety reasons, they had found themselves homeless living on the streets.
I remember it was a particularly cold Christmas morning. We walked together with a breakfast of egg sandwiches, bananas, and some hot coffee. As we approached the building where he knew the men would be, something quite odd gained my attention. There, in the midst of blown trash, an odd blanket, and some empty bottles of liquid warmth, was a bright, shiny, purple-pink-red Christmas tree. It was a glittering piece of joy in the midst of what seemed like hopelessness. It made me smile and it tore at my heart. As we handed out the sandwiches, i recognized each and every one of the men. They had all come by the parish office at some point of the past six months. I had given them something to eat or a blanket but never even considered where they might be living. With little doubt, I knew that Christmas tree had been rescued from some dumpster or trash pile and placed there as a bit of celebration of Christmas joy.
And I was reminded of the passage from John’s gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Today is the first Sunday after Christmas Day, one of the twelve days of Christmas. I heard a radio on Christmas Eve or the day before announce, “Now that the Christmas Season is coming to a close….” I thought, actually, the Christmas season hasn’t even begun yet! It starts with Christmas day and continues for twelve days. Some, though, have already cleaned up, put trees at the curb, and stores are already advertising for Valentines day and selling spring decorations.
We, however, continue our Christmas celebration today. This part of Christmas tends to be a quieter time as we have probably moved past the frantic rush of shopping, parties, and all the rest. Nonetheless, we are given another opportunity today to be reminded what is at the heart of our celebration.
Today’s Gospel lesson is the prologue to the fourth Gospel (John 1:1-18). It starts, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is where John’s gospel begins – “in the beginning” – what a wonderful place to start. This is John’s nativity story though will find no shepherds or angels. There is no babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. John’s nativity takes us even further back, all the way back to the beginning. John echoes the book of Genesis, “In the beginning God created; God moved over the chaos and darkness and said, “Let there be light.” Listen to this because this is astounding: The God who moved over the face of the deep, over the darkness, who spoke and said “let there be light,” – this same God who was from the beginning and spoke into existence – this same God became flesh and dwelt among us. “And 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.”
The God who takes on our flesh does not ignore the darkness but shines in the very midst of it.
On a visit to a local hospital before Christmas, I stopped at the front desk to find the room number of a patient I was to visit. The women sitting behind the desk stopped their very animated conversation to give me the room number. When they noticed that I was a priest, one of spoke in a disquieted tone that was a question but not really a question, “Can you believe it?” “Ummm,” was all I could say. She pointed to the end of the desk, “Can you believe it?” Confused, I eloquently responded, “Uh, well…” She pointed vigorously at the nativity at the end of the desk, “Somebody stole Jesus! Can you believe it?” And, in fact, Jesus was missing. There was Mary and Joseph. There was a shepherd, a donkey, and a sheep. But, there was no Jesus. I chuckled to myself, reminded of the nativity set bought while in Italy that had forty+ pieces but was missing one piece – the baby Jesus. There was a manger but no Jesus. “Somebody stole Jesus right off this counter! Can you believe it?” The women brought me back to the conversation. I didn’t really know how to respond, so I retorted, “Maybe somebody needed Jesus at home.” They just stared. “Maybe he is out in the hospital making rounds and he’ll be back when he’s done.” I don’t think they really appreciated my humor, so I said, “Well, let’s hope they bring him back.” I went for my visits.
During the twelve days of Christmas, we are pulled back to our center, to the place where our hearts belong, to celebrate the mystery of God becoming flesh, and to joyously receiving the coming of Christ among us. Christmas is about the transcendent God who comes near, the almighty and powerful who becomes flesh. We speak often about the transcendent God, ineffable and mysterious. But here in this celebration, we come to know God the Creator who takes on flesh and becomes one of us, living among us. In the midst of our darkness, in the midst of the chaos of our lives, God comes announcing life and not death. Later in John’s gospel, Jesus will proclaim, “I come that you may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The way of Jesus is the way of the Creator – lifegiving and light-giving. He is that Word spoken over the chaos, “Let there be light,” and in the midst of our chaos and darkness, creating life where all may seem impossible.
Now, on this first Sunday after Christmas Day, as we recognize and celebrate the light come into the world, we are issued the gracious invitation to ourselves be light for others. We are invited to let the light of the incarnate word shine forth in our lives. Matthew Fox, in Original Blessing, writes: “We enter a broken, torn and sinful world – that is for sure. But we do not enter as blotches on existence; we burst onto the scene as ‘original blessings.'” How we need to hear that – so full of wonderment! We are original blessings.
The incarnation of God demonstrates an alternative way of seeing life and living in the world. Creation is good! The world we live in is good! Our bodies are good! We are “original blessings.” And as original blessings, we are invited to live with love and justice with the rest of the created order. We are invited to be fully human, fully alive – not just marginally human and somewhat alive. As Matthew Fox reminds us, “Being alive is not the same as going shopping or making a nest in which to escape the suffering of others. Living has something to do with love of life, and the love of other’s lives and the other’s rights to life and dignity.”
At baptism in our Church, candidates are asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” I think that this is part of what it means for us to be fully alive in Christ. The real struggle with this Christmas is not if there are to be Christmas trees in airports or nativity scenes in front of City Hall or if Jesus is missing from the hospital desk.
The real struggle of Christmas is allowing Jesus, the “Word made flesh,” to be enfleshed in us and in our relationships. The real struggle is in our care for the refugee at our border, the jobless seeking help, the homeless, the hungry, and the sick with no insurance. The struggle is enfleshed in our search for justice and peace among all people.
The God who created everything and saw that it was good continues to create. Creation continues and the creator remains active, Today we continue to celebrate that creative living Word that takes on human form. To, we continue to remember the gift of the Word made flesh sent to save us, to heal us, to bring us joy, to bring us back to God’s own self.