A homily for the First Sunday after Christmas, Year B
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
December 31, 2017
At around 11 a.m. on December 25th, I glanced at my phone and saw a few friends posting their Christmas morning pictures of bleary-eyed toddlers surrounded by mounds of wrapping paper, children in pajamas with toys and books strewn in a million directions and tired teens scrolling through their smartphones while lounging on the sofa. These candid holiday photos were captioned with things like, “It’s not even noon and it’s all over already!” and “Christmas was done and gone before dawn at our house.” It occurred to me that these social media morsels are evidence of a larger, profound truth that I see in play this time of year: our way of being Church together is much more countercultural than we realize.
While cultural Christmas may have ended in department stores, radio stations, and whimsical coffee cups it has not ended here, in this community of the gathered faithful which we have come to call church. Today, we gather in the midst of Christmastide, celebrating the miraculous wonder and glory of the incarnation during these twelve days of Christmas. It’s also natural to reflect on the year which is wrapping up as we prepare to welcome 2018.
Something that surprised me during the past year…a miraculous wonder of sorts…was that my seminary studies taught me to love New Testament Greek. It probably helps that I love the beauty and meaning of words and how they help us express our humanity and our culture. I always thought of myself as someone who struggled with languages, but having a really good teacher accompanied by many supportive prayers and notes of encouragement opened me up to the possibility that this wasn’t just a class to get through, but one that might also truly enrich my formation for ministry.
I also love music…and I am greatly looking forward to the elective in church music and liturgical singing that awaits me this January. So this morning, like the Old English folk tune, I have some gifts to share this Christmastide. Not twelve…that sermon would be much too long…but instead five golden words…in Greek…from today’s Gospel which radiate light, and life and meaning in this holy season for me.
We know that this Gospel attributed to John was likely the last among the four accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry to be written, and was likely written for a mixed community of people that included Samaritans and gentiles, as well as Jewish people. The members of that early Johannine church community were also surrounded by hellenistic culture and thus, it is not only the history of the Hebrew scriptures, but also the language and metaphor of Greek philosophers that may have coalesced to help express their experience as followers of Christ. Not only now, but even then, Christianity and culture stood in this dynamic tension with each other.
Our reading today is from the prologue of John’s Gospel which begins at the beginning, sourcing the incarnation of Christ in the eternal nature of a loving, creating God from whom all that we know was spoken into being: In the beginning was the Word.
And so, the first golden word of Christmastide is: Λόγος (logos): In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God; the Word was God; the Word came to be with us. Words give us meaning, nuance, poetry, expression, communication, relationship. In Greek philosophy, Λόγος is the ideal, perfect, pre-existent Word speaking reasoned order into chaos and bringing into being all that we know and experience as light and life. Λόγος is both Word and Wisdom, spoken through the ages and continuing to enlighten, inform, and inspire us as the fullness of creation unfolds.
The Word, Λόγος, took on the form of human life and Ἐγένετο (egeneto), became (stem γίνομαι [ginomai] “to become”). The gift of this word involves a bit of a grammar lesson; in the Gospel reading, the verb tense in Greek [aorist] is different from anything we use in modern English. Rather than “past tense” which implies something is over and done, this “becoming” is situated in history but without a fixed duration; in other words, the Word became and from that action of becoming everything changed, from that moment onward and without end.
…and the Word became…
Σὰρξ (sarx): the fleshy, gritty, realness of being human. The Greek doesn’t suggest that God become some ideal, abstract perfection of humanity. Σὰρξ is literally the flesh which holds our bones together, the very base nature of physical existence. Eternal, almighty God became fleshy, fragile human. God did not become super-human. God came into being as that which God had created, born in all the realities of a human existence…as we know from other Gospel accounts…in a stable when denied lodging; born into the family of a young but bold woman and her trusting, betrothed partner; honored by smelly shepherds and noisy animals with a feeding trough as a cradle. Σὰρξ: the fleshy, gritty realness of being human. Latin American priest and theologian Gustavo Gutierrez translates it best in my view: “The Word become poor and dwelled among us.” Which brings us to the next word:
Ἐσκήνωσεν (eskēnōsen): The gift of this word is in its origin. We may be familiar with the traditional “dwelled among us” or today in the lectionary translation, we heard “lived among us.” But, in the Greek form this verb for dwelling has the same root as the noun “Tabernacle.” The tabernacle was the holy space in which God was to be found and worshipped. God became flesh and tabernacled with us: God makes God’s home in the holy space of our human lives. Our lives, individually and collectively, are now the tabernacle in which God resides.
Δόξα (doxa): The last word gift for this morning is Δόξα: Glory. This is the glory which we have seen and the glory which we, in turn, give to God. We give glory (think “doxology”) in our common worship, in our lives of prayer, in our gathered community. The glory of the incarnation is given birth each time we give that glory together. I was instructed as an adult entering the liturgical tradition of The Episcopal Church to think of each Sunday’s Holy Eucharist as a “mini-Easter”, the reliving of the Paschal Mystery through which Christ has died,, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. But maybe we should also think of every doxology: every “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” and every “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” as a mini-Christmas, a reliving of the feast of the incarnation in which glory surrounds the birth of God-made-human.
Five golden words to remind us to celebrate Christmas in our hearts, and our lives, and our common worship during these twelve days and beyond. Despite all the cultural evidence to the contrary, Christmas is not over. The incarnation, set in motion by the divine word spoken at the beginning of time, still dwells in the holy places of our lives. This will be true even when the tree needs to come down, when the post-holiday clearance sales have removed the last strings of lights from the shelves, when the magi complete their journey and go home by another road, when the holy family makes their way from a stable in Bethlehem to live into the lives they are called to live. The miracle that is Christmas has happened, and continues to happen in our lives and in this community where we gather as Church to give glory together.
Merry Christmas…and Glory be to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“The Nativity”, Lorenzo Monaco; 1409