Today’s scripture readings:
Preaching on Christmas Day always feels like a tall order.
I can sort of wrap my head around Christmas Eve. Angels and shepherds and a baby in a manger with weary parents looking on—that’s the story of Christmas Eve. The story we heard from Luke’s Gospel last night puts us right there in the barn with the beaming mother, the stinky shepherds and cattle, and the manger. It’s a story that’s so earthy and concrete that you can almost experience it with your own senses.
But Christmas Day is another matter. Today it’s the Christmas story from the Gospel of John—this mystical, cosmic proclamation of the incarnation, the eternal Word of God made flesh. John’s Christmas story provides material for endless reflection and contemplation; but it’s more esoteric, abstract, and otherworldly than the one we heard last night. I sometimes feel like the scriptures assigned for Christmas Day are passages not for concrete-sequential thinkers like me but for artists and poets who find ways to transport us to the limits of our language to explore ideas that lie beyond our comprehension.
In his poem, “Messiah (Christmas Portions),” National Book Award-winner Mark Doty writes about a performance of Handel’s Messiah produced by the local choral society in the small town where he lives, an occasion that he says was a cause for both celebration and some caution. (He emphasizes that it was a very small town and they had very little experience.) He describes the performers this way, as “familiar angels: / that neighbor who / fights operatically / with her girlfriend, for one, / and the friendly bearded clerk / from the post office / —tenor trapped / in the body of a baritone? Altos / from the A&P, soprano / from the T-shirt shop: / today they’re all poise, / costume and purpose / conveying the right note / of distance and formality. / Silence in the hall, / anticipatory, as if we’re all / about to open a gift we’re not sure / we’ll like… Thoughts which vanish, / when the violins begin. / Who’d have thought / they’d be so good? Every valley, / proclaims the solo tenor, / (a sleek blonde / I’ve seen somewhere before / —the liquor store?) shall be exalted, / and in his handsome mouth the word / is lifted and opened / into more syllables / than we could count.” He concludes the poem: “Inside these wrappings / burns another, brighter life, / quickened, now, / by song: hear how / it cascades, in overlapping, / lapidary waves of praise? Still time. / Still time to change.”
John writes that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Sometimes I don’t know what’s more amazing: that the Word became flesh, or that the Word chose to live among us. We’re not actually so different from the “familiar angels” of Mark Doty’s poem. Most of us are ordinary people whose everyday lives don’t seem worthy of lengthy biographies, or whose life stories contain chapters we’d rather not have written down. The more we get to know one another, the better we understand that nobody’s lives are as picture-perfect as their Facebook or Instagram accounts suggest. One of my favorite Christmas cards we received this year was from a family here at Gloria Dei. It showed several beautiful photos of the entire family, including one with all three children beaming at the camera. And there in the middle of the card in large font it said, “Our real life looks nothing like this.” The truth is, if we dig a little deeper, we discover that’s how it is with most of the people we know. We’re really good at projecting exactly the right image, but it turns out most of our friends and neighbors are ordinary people with bumps and bruises and warts like everyone else; people with wounds still needing to be healed and scars that tell the stories of hurts in the past.
In fact, some of us will be very glad next week to turn the page on 2019. Some have lost loved ones and this Christmas are enduring, for the first time, the holidays without ones we’ve held dear. Others of us have lost jobs, or watched our children struggle, or just feel stuck or uncertain about our future. And that’s to say nothing of the turmoil engulfing our civic life that has left so many of us feeling cynical and hopeless and exhausted. It is precisely in times like these that the incarnation is such good news. The Rev. Rebecca Black, an Episcopal priest in Massachusetts, writes that when the Word became flesh and lived among us as a man named Jesus, “he placed his bed among our beds. He ate, and slept, got thirsty and tired. He made friends and lost them. He was admired, he was reviled, he was betrayed. Those who were there, those who saw him, touched him and were in turn touched by him and restored to life. Whatever we are or will be, we have always been the people whom God loved.”
Which is good news when we consider how quick we humans are to beat each other up and tear each other down. You don’t have to spend much time on cable news or social media to see how vicious people are to one another these days, and I worry that the prevalence of those angry voices has awakened in many of us bitterness and hatred that might otherwise be kept at bay, causing all of us sound a little more like the angriest voices in our Twitter feeds or on the cable news we consume, rather than the decent people we aspire to be.
Despite all that—because of all that—the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Here’s another poem, one by Denise Levertov called, “On the Mystery of the Incarnation.” She writes:
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
That is the mystery of incarnation. Who’d have thought God would choose us? Who are we that we should be caught up in anything so extraordinary and transcendent, when there are so many others with greater gifts, and stronger faith, and superior morals, and more patience with their families when they gather for the holidays, who are kinder to those on the other end of the political spectrum. Who are we, when we know so well our failures and shortcomings and limitations? God insists that none of that tells the whole story about us. Our brokenness and imperfection are not the end of the story. Somehow we are chosen by God to be part of something greater; we are born into a life that surpasses our ordinary existence. “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” This is a God who chooses to be with us; despite everything, us.
Rebecca Black, “A Word from Rev. Rebecca,” published December 28, 2017, accessed December 23, 2019, https://www.christchurchwaltham.org/a-word-from-rev-rebecca/.
Dodge Poetry, “Mark Doty reading a poem at the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival,” published April 3, 2009, accessed December 23, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30GnZxuUpnY.
Mark Doty, “Messiah (Christmas Portions),” in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).
Denise Levertov, “On the Mystery of the Incarnation,” in The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes (New York: New Directions, 1997).