Homily for the First Sunday after Christmas (with Holy Baptism), Year C
Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
December 30, 2018
If you know me, it probably won’t surprise you that my music collection contains a lot of musical theatre soundtracks. I’m someone who really likes listening to the full score album, not just the “greatest hits” whether that is Rodgers and Hammerstein, Sondheim, Gershwin, Andrew Lloyd Webber or Lin-Manuel Miranda. One of the things that I love about musicals is the opening overture, which is like a sneak peak into the most powerful themes about to unfold. We might miss the significance of a phrase or two the first time we hear it; but once we are familiar, just a few notes can transport us back into the narrative. Case in point: when I went to see Mary Poppins Returns recently, I heard a faint melodic strain of “Feed the Birds” as the panoramic view whisked us past St. Paul’s Cathedral through a flutter of feathered wings. In a second, I was right there in storybook London waiting for the story to unfold.
Our Gospel reading today is also an overture to the Good News. The words from John’s Gospel are as familiar and mysterious as Christmas. In the lyrical cadence of these opening verses we are reminded that this Christmas story isn’t just about angels and innkeepers and shepherds watching their flocks: it is also about the mystery of the incarnation, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” In this version of the Christmas story, God is made known and enfleshed for the benefit of all creation. Through this opening overture we can already hear the echoing theme of “God-with-us-ness” which continues to unfold throughout John’s Gospel account.
This story of Jesus’ birth is as rich and complicated as it is beautiful and simple. On Christmas Eve we heard the who, what, when, where and how of Luke. In today’s Gospel there is mystery wrapped in poetry. Maybe, in this overture, we need to hear both of those themes. We need the simplicity of imagining the tiny child wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger in the care of loving, trusting human parents. And, we need to wrestle with the mystery and the magnitude of God’s own being contained in that frail, tiny child. It is summed up well, I think, in a theological assertion offered by Martin Luther King, Jr: “the doctrines of transcendence and immanence are both half-truths in need of the tension of each other to give the more inclusive truth.”
Immanence and Transcendence: God is both made known to us, and yet at the same time wondrously and transcendently unknowable. We read, “No one has ever seen God” but if we listen to the full Greek score recounting this language of the incarnation offered by the Gospel writer, we hear that no one has πώποτε “at any time” or “ever yet” seen God. The linguistic stage directions suggest this is perfect tense, indicative mood, active voice: it is an assertion of a truth, having its roots in the past and continuing to the future. The Word, Jesus, dwells within the transcendence of God and yet has been made known to us right here, both in history and in continuity. A transcendent God, immanently known. Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his Biblical paraphrase The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” What might it mean for us to be neighbors with God?
Today’s Gospel lesson isn’t just a story about Christmas. It’s also a story about our Christian lives. It is a story that invites us to pay attention to the neighborhood where God has chosen to dwell, with us. That includes this neighborhood: our parish, this community, the wider Church. Think about the way in which we are initiated into our lives in Christ. Baptism is, by nature, being joined with Christ, a sacramental acknowledgement that we, too, live our lives into the fullness of God-with-us. In our BCP, this is clearly laid out for us in the small print directions that we sometimes gloss over (p. 298): “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”
Indissoluble is also an interesting word, another theme in this story we are invited into today. Imagine something which we know can be dissolved: a spoonful of sugar into a glass of water. That water at room temperature will only allow so much sugar to dissolve. But, acting on the water…in this case,heating up the water to boiling, allows it to take on more and more sugar because it changes the way the molecules interact with each other. If you were to keep doing this until the boiling water took on all the sugar that it possibly could and then it was brought back to room temperature, you would have what is called a “supersaturated solution” where the water you see would contain more sugar than would be possible under normal conditions. That supersaturated solution can exist on its own, and it looks just like water. But when that solution comes into contact with even a small amount of sugar, its essence becomes known and it begins to form crystals which reveal the true nature of what that solution contains.
Parents, if the winter break is growing long and you have some sugar to spare, you’ve got yourself a science experiment there!
But, there’s a lesson in this illustration for us, too. Jesus, the fullness of God-with-us, this only-begotten of God is the immanent, enfleshed human incarnation, filled beyond what we can see or imagine with the transcendent divinity of God. John’s Gospel points us to the transcendent mystery of the incarnation where there is more than we can possibly see, more than we can possibly know until that moment where our own humanity comes into contact with that incarnate divine love. The Word made flesh became known to us not only at Christmas but also through the waters of baptism, where we are joined in the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. In those waters we are transformed and become of new substance, indissoluble. Today, when we baptize and welcome two beautiful little children into the family of God, they will be sacramentally transformed, as we have been, through the immanent and transcendent God-with-us.
As our Epistle lesson reminds us, we are adopted as children of God through the same belovedness made known in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. No longer are we bound by disciplinary laws or the blind obedience of servitude; all that we are in Christ can be traced back to the substance of God with us. Through the waters of baptism, we are no longer solitary fragments of potential, but part of the family of God, beloved and crystallized, as it were, indissoluble members of the neighborhood where God dwells. We are not only transformed, but bound together. We are family, and what affects one of us affects all of us. We are, returning to the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
So, it’s Christmas. We have been singing songs of peace, love, and goodwill. We have been giving from what we have been given, sharing the gifts of this life with others with incredible generosity, serving those in this neighborhood that we know, as well as those we don’t know. The season of the incarnation didn’t end on December 25: it has only just begun! Christmas renews our reminder of God-with-us and this Christmastide gives us an opportunity to live into the gift of that grace-upon-grace through the Word made flesh, the only-begotten of God. We have become members indissoluble of the Body of Christ. Neighbors, together, in this world where God has come to dwell.
So now, we know the story. We can go back and hear the familiar refrains in this Gospel overture with a new attunement, inviting us to step into the story more deeply. Go ahead…listen to the overture again and again…recognizing the themes of transforming and incarnate love which will continue to form the melodious soundtrack of our lives, lived out together with our neighbors in this community filled to overflowing with the miracle of God-with-us.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us…