First Sunday after Christmas

by Fr. Blake


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.