Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

First Sunday after Christmas

nativity

The Nativity. Giotto, c. 1320. Church of San Francesco, Assisi.

The following sermon was preached on Sunday, December 27, 2015, the first Sunday after Christmas, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George. This Sunday we reverted to the “summer” schedule of services, holding two at 8am and 10am rather than the slate of three at 8, 9:15, and 11:15. The 5:30pm service remains as usual.

Collect: Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word: Grant that the same light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 61:10-61:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Our Gospel passage from John today is one of those several passages we get this time of year which seem to thunder out with a special resonance all their own.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a more famous passage or a more influential text than the prologue to John’s Gospel.  Beloved by philosophers and theologians, preachers and praying Christians throughout the ages, it has shaped the Church in profound ways.

For centuries, this was the so-called “Last Gospel,” read after the dismissal at the end of every mass.  It also serves as one of the chief sources for the doctrine of the Trinity, and the nature of Christ.  One of my favorite possessions is a series of commentaries on the four Gospels compiled by Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century and translated into English by John Henry Newman in the 19th: it consists of meditations on the Gospel texts by several dozen of the chief saints and doctors of the early church.  These 18 verses of the prologue to John make up slightly less than 2% of the Gospel, but so important a place did it hold in the praying lives of these ancient writers that more than 12% of their commentary is devoted to it.  This passage continues today as one of the most often-quoted summaries of Christian belief, and as one of the most inspiring of religious sentiments.  Queen Elizabeth herself quoted it in her own Christmas message this year: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

For all its popularity and profundity though, this morning I only want to make two observations on this text.  First, that we’re getting it at Christmastime, and second, that we’ve gotten it twice now: once on Christmas Day, and again this morning, on the first Sunday after Christmas.  Why Christmas?  And why twice?

First of all, as I’ve often said before, here and in other contexts, Christmas can be an intensely theological, intellectual exercise, full of overlapping symbolism and densely interwoven metaphors.  The same can be said of John’s Gospel.

The Baby in the manger might very well be the answer to all our questions, the end of all our striving, the Mind of God and his eternal Word.  But there is no question he himself can answer: He cannot even speak yet!  And there is no rest he himself can offer: He cannot even sleep through the night yet.  To hear such a rarefied Gospel at Christmas is a way of reminding us that we do not come to his cradle in order to “figure him out,” or even to consider his message.  We come to Jesus’ cradle as we would come to any other cradle: to allow our affections to be warmed by the sight of a baby, and for our hearts to grow, creating a place for him in our love.  This is John’s point too: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”  The cradle is the point where our striving, our figuring, stops, and our loving begins; where we ourselves are born afresh, children of this newborn baby by whom the stars were set in their courses.

But twice?  Why should we hear the same thing twice in such quick succession?  If you’ve spent any time in church at all, you will have noticed that redundancy is a fairly common occurrence.  They say preachers have only one sermon (and I’m afraid you’re getting mine yet again!).  We have two or three crosses in most processions, legion vestigial references to long-past fashions and liturgical patterns.  We bless everything multiple times in the course of a service, and we kneel, stand, sit, and cross ourselves often with seemingly inscrutable logic.

Redundancy is everywhere in the church.  But remember John’s point: Jesus’ cradle is where our striving stops and where our loving begins.  And Love is full of redundancies.

In love, how many times is too many to express affection?  How many times is too many to be patient, to be kind?  How many times is too many to forgive?  How many times is too many to act with tenderness?  Make no mistake, love is a fundamentally redundant exercise; there is nothing efficient or precise about it, there is no end product, there is no final goal, only its own fulfillment.  It is its own reward, its own product, its own end.

It sounds like a lovely thing when I put it that way, but in practice it is actually deeply unsettling.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard couples either dating or already married say to me, that they don’t know how to recognize themselves anymore, they’re saying and doing things they never imagined themselves saying and doing.  Lots of things for good, but also lots of things that hurt each other.  The truth is that love unsettles us.

This child in the manger demanding nothing but love is a conundrum.  We may prefer the delightful poetry of love to the brass tacks of the way the world works, but at the end of the day we have to admit, it’s a relief to have metrics of efficiency and precision to fall back on, to know that we have done our duty.  Love of any sort defies those sorts of metrics.  A child does not count the number of good night kisses he receives from his parents and present them with a quarterly report.  A bride does not keep a quota of the flowers or notes she receives from her groom, to alert him when more becomes wasteful or unnecessary to her.  A widow does not track her dreams of her departed husband, or wish for them to stop, even though they cause her pain on waking.  Our favorite metrics of accomplishment and productivity do not make much sense when it comes to love.

At the cradle in Bethlehem, they fail entirely.  And that’s as it should be.  The Baby in the manger does not come to make the world a more efficient machine, more capable of producing results; at least not the kind we can analyze or sell.  He does not come to gratify our desires or to fill our appetites.  The Baby in the manger comes not to make our lives better, but to make them right; and that means that we are going to have to give up wome of our most highly cherished ways and means.  Jesus demands love, first and last, and that means that our favorite metrics will need to take a backseat to his, the chief of which is the Cross.

How willing are we to make sacrifices for the love of God?  How willing are we to make sacrifices for the people in our life?  Reputation, honor, influence, regard, possessions, even hopes and ideals; all of them are subject to the cross.  If we are tender with the Christ child at his cradle, we must be prepared to follow him to the cross.  If we are tender with each other in his name, we must be prepared to lose everything in the course of our loving, and still keep on loving all the same.

So what am I saying?  The point here is that the child who is born has come to make children of us all.  The wood of his manger leads us to the tree of his Cross; his swaddling bands lead us to his shroud in the tomb.  His life ends the death in which the world had languished long; his death brings us all eternal life.  Let us then hasten to his cradle to adore him, and, loving him in all things and above all things, find our souls refreshed and delivered, true children of God and citizens of Paradise; wounded by the same love which is our life, but in its scars beholding his glory: Glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Amen.

Advent IV

The following sermon was preached on December 20, 2015, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, at the Church of St. Michael & St. George. Lessons & Carols for Christmas took place that evening in addition to the regular 5:30 Eucharist, and the Church began preparing for Christmas.

Collect: We beseech thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Readings: Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Over then last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about preparation: preparation for Christmas.  Last week John the Baptist preached the good news of repentance to prepare for Jesus coming.  The week before, the prophets united in their witness to history itself preparing the way for Jesus.  And the first week of Advent, meditating on the Four Last Things, our own mortality, we prepared the way for considering just what kind of life the baby in the manger comes to gives us.

This week, we have a very different kind of preparation going on in our Gospel text.  Mary, pregnant with Jesus, goes to spend some time with her Aunt, who is pregnant with John the Baptist.  Together, the two of them will spend time preparing to give birth, no easy task for either of them: Elizabeth by reason of her advanced age, and Mary by reason of her youth.  It will be a challenging time for them both.  And yet from the first moment that they greet one another, their interaction is marked not by fear or uncertainty, but by overriding joy.  Listen to Elizabeth: “When Elizabeth heard the greeting, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”  She blesses Mary, and Mary replies by blessing God, in one of the most famous, well-loved songs of all the Scriptures: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my Spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”  Pregnancy for Mary and Elizabeth will be a long road, full of its own unique challenges.  And yet their preparation is marked by unbridled, unalloyed joy.

What about you and me?  If we’re frank with ourselves, we’ll have to admit that sometimes our own preparations for Christmas are distinctly lacking in joy.  Why is this?  I don’t think it’s anything we need to feel guilty about, only to name and consider.  If we’re like Elizabeth, perhaps it’s because, with time’s relentless advance, it’s hard to get excited about something we’ve done or been around so frequently in the past.  Repetition can certainly lead to dryness, and the long drawing down of years can remind us of all we’ve lost: people no longer in our lives, plans foiled, hopes withered.  And not just age either, but our own personal disappointments and failures can reveal themselves in particularly stark relief at this time of year, while the sting of our own besetting sins can bite especially sharply.  All of these can stifle Christmas’ freshness, all of these can put joy far from our minds.  Add them to a noisy, frenetic holiday culture, and it’s easy to see why Elizabeth’s and Mary’s joy might seem to come just a little bit out of left field at this time of year.

Even so, Joy is absolutely the essential fourth component  of our Advent preparation.  Consider: the Four Last Things, mortality, death, and the end: merely step one in a process that leads to eternal joy.  This is a world that is passing away.  It cannot last.  While we mourn the deaths of family and friends, while we mourn our own declining skill and ability, we know that our God is eternal, he lives forever, and that his whole purpose is to join all creation to himself in unending life: as the psalmist puts it, “the singers and the dancers shall say, ‘All my fresh springs are in you.’”  Even so in God shall our own lives spring up forever in the glory of his heavenly city.  Joy is the purpose and end of our contemplating the Four Last Things.

Likewise as we consider the messages of the prophets, preparing the way for the Messiah: without exception they lived in trying times.  They proclaimed their messages in various and differing ways, but one of their common treads was that the current state of affairs was not as God intended it, and that He would correct it in a way no one anticipated.  No one anticipated the Exodus from Egypt, and yet God led his people across the Red Sea and into the Promised Land.  No one anticipated a king like David, who would unite the tribes and lead Israel into a Golden Age of peace and prosperity.  No one anticipated the exile into Babylon and the destruction of the temple as the way God would show he was serious about righteousness.  And yet in every case, the prophets had been there saying this would take place.  In every case, God used those moments to draw nearer to his people than he had ever been before, to increase their joy and show them a better way to love him.

Even so in our own day.  It’s easy to look around and wonder how we’ve gotten into this scenario, it’s easy to despair of the future.  And yet time and time again, the prophets show us that just when things look bleakest, there God is doing a new thing, drawing us closer to himself, granting us deeper joy, showing us a better way to love him.  Isaiah writes, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”  Even so for us today.  Though we dwell in a land of deep darkness and every lamp go out, the promise remains true, and joy is its seal.

Likewise a third time, with the sermons of John the Baptist still ringing in our ears from last week.  “Repent, prepare the way of the Lord.”  Our sin keeps us from approaching Christmas as we ought, our failings keep us from properly being able to greet the child in the manger.  Yet joy is the purpose of repentance too: the better we know our sin, the more freely we can ask forgiveness, the more ably we can live a virtuous life.  And yet the purpose of it all is not mere fidelity to the law; the purpose is to enter without reservation into joy.  The purpose of repentance is to hear our Lord saying when we come to die, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”

Today Mary and Elizabeth show us that, more than anything else, our Advent preparation is about joy.  Joy in the eternal life of God, which Christ shares with his Father from before the foundation of the world, and into which he is preparing to admit us too.  Joy in the loving purposes of God throughout all the changes and chances of life, designed to bring us closer to him by every means necessary.  Joy in the fruit of repentance, which draws us away from our sin and into the divine fellowship for which we were created.  Far from impeding our joy, the circumstances of our lives work together with one voice to direct our way to rejoice in the coming of Christ.  Far from cutting across the grain, joy in the Christ child draws us beyond the mire of our individual pains and failings, towards the fulfillment of God’s purposes for our selves and the world.

Today Mary and Elizabeth greet each other with joy.  They bless each other and they bless God for the wondrous miracles which they carry in their wombs.  This Fourth Sunday of Advent, as Christmas approaches, let us be joyful too.  Whether it be easy or difficult, let us rejoice in the freshness of the life to which God calls us.  Let us rejoice in the beauty of his loving purposes.  Let us rejoice in the surety of his forgiveness.  So the Child in the manger will come to each of us and find in our joy a mansion prepared for himself.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.